Revolution By Inches: Everything You Know About The EIHL Coaching Hierarchy Is Wrong.

Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?”

C.S Lewis: “Prince Caspian”

The UK Elite League is a league where opinions don’t change very quickly. Import hockey is the best way to develop Brits, “teams know best” even when they don’t, and as for the style of hockey…it’s North American crash and bang or be damned.

But there is perhaps no area more intractable in EIHL fans minds than when it comes to the debate of EIHL coaches. Here the logic is simple. If you’ve won the league in the EIHL, you’re a good coach.

Whilst this is undoubtedly true, the EIHL coaching landscape has changed over the past few years, in attitudes, preparation and approach. Budget and recruiting are more important than they’ve ever been before, and so is getting the most from it.

Attitudes towards styles of play have changed, too.

Perhaps the example of Chuck Weber and his universal praise as a coach is the best example of this. Weber’s style of coaching is very regimented. It’s systems-based, with a lot of thought put into it, every player having their specific role and the whole team needing to know and do their jobs working hard and well in order for it to work.

Apparently, this is a “new approach” to hockey that the EIHL hasn’t seen before, and thus it was hailed as a revolution when Weber came in and did what he did with Coventry last season.

The trouble is, it isn’t really a revolution. It’s exactly the same style of coaching as that used by another successful EIHL coach previously – one that was often criticised by EIHL fans, even those of his own team, for being “boring”, “negative” and “overcomplicated”.

But then, that coach was Doug Christiansen, who some in the EIHL seemed to have it out for from the moment he arrived. It was the same system, in fact, that won Belfast a championship and allowed Edinburgh to perform above their station at the time Christiansen was coaching there.

The only difference between Weber and Christiansen, in fact, is that Weber came in after such an atrocious coaching job from Marc Lefebvre that this system suddenly seemed like Nirvana compared to the chaotic, headless-chicken approach the Blaze had had before. Oh yeah, and Weber didn’t have an insidious drip-drip-drip of character assassination being fed to a friendly media/willing audience by “insiders” with their own agenda.

Chuck Weber is essentially Doug Christiansen with a better PR team. He is an excellent coach, but everything he’s being praised for is the same approach that Christiansen was villified for, mocked or we were told by those purporting to be in the know was “disliked by players”.

Either that or the EIHL has finally caught up with modern times and realised that all the best leagues in the world play systems-based, intelligently-thought out hockey rather than the blood-and-thunder but utterly chaotic style previously accepted as the norm and even encouraged because apparently the EIHL is the last place in the world (outside some outposts in the NHL) that still thinks that hockey can purely be won by WORKING HARDER, no matter what that work is in aid of or if it’s the right people doing it.

So, one sacred cow slain. Let’s move on to the next one, that of Ryan Finnerty. Conventional EIHL fan wisdom would have you believe that Finnerty is a bad coach. A “bottler” whose teams often win despite him, not because of his efforts. This is a myth that has been gleefully shared by those in Sheffield after he was unceremoniously stabbed in the back there by Tony Smith, and also by opponents of Braehead, too.

But when you look at Finnerty’s record, the opposite is true. In three years coaching in Braehead, he’s seen attendances nearly double, the Clan themselves rise from an 8th place team (in his first season) to a Champions Hockey League squad and title challengers.

Yes, the Clan have come very close to several competition wins before ultimately falling short the past two years, but you know who else did that but never had his coaching called into question?

Paul Thompson, with Coventry in the early 2000s.

Yes, the same Paul Thompson held up by some as a paragon of all that is good in British hockey coaching. Here comes that third “sacred cow” opinion.

Thompson is also praised as a “winning coach” & “best in the EIHL”. Which is a bit strange when you consider he hasn’t even won the most competitions in the EIHL era & left Coventry arguably after their peak as new, younger coaches like Corey Neilson (who incidentally IS the most successful coach in the EIHL era but never seems to enter the conversation because he “hasn’t won the league as often”) figured his style & lack of ability to adapt out.

Now, Thompson is back in Sheffield having recruited a serviceable but uninspiring CHL roster with the pressure of having to emulate a league-winning coach who was fired to bring him in, hyped to the skies by Sheffield PR based on several uninspiring seasons in European hockey.

And yet those two seasons, backed up by winning in an era when he also happened to have a recruitment advantage other teams didn’t (university places) and one of the bigger budgets in the league, apparently mean that he’s worthy of canonisation as a coach.

This despite regularly signing players to play out of position, a recruitment policy that missed as often as it hit (particularly in later years in Coventry) and a loud and open willingness to champion the promotion of British players and a drop in EIHL import limits that strangely became most vociferous when that league wasn’t paying his wages.

(Note – before you break out the pitchforks, I am not, for one minute, saying that he is a bad coach. Quite the contrary. Nor am I saying that Chuck Weber is a bad coach. I am, however, saying that in Weber’s case he’s only doing what others have done in the past and in Thompson’s case that the hagiographic treatment of him (look that word up) is possibly overdone.

Paul Thompson was probably the best coach in the EIHL in 2010 (although even then, that was debatable, with Corey Neilson, Gerad Adams and Doug Christiansen all having legitimate claims at that spot – claims which have only strengthened with the passage of time while Thompson’s has stood still. It’s a lot harder to argue for him now in that company).

But this isn’t 2010 any more, and all those wanting to put him on some sort of pedestal need to remember that. You can talk about trophies all you like, but even then Corey Neilson has won more. Saying a coach is the best in your league without the most trophies won is almost as silly to accept as “conventional wisdom” as a fan as saying that winning three out of the four trophies available counts as a Grand Slam in your lea…actually, let’s just leave that analogy there and move on, shall we?

The best coach currently in the EIHL, in fact, is one that nobody is really putting out there as the best coach in the EIHL. It’s a coach who managed, with the help of his ownership, to take a team from the basement to the verge of a league title in one season while at the same time rejeuvenating the love of a crowd for his team and being one of the best two way forwards in the league.

It’s the coach who was the only one who consistently managed to out-coach Chuck Weber AND Corey Neilson – as a rookie.

His recruitment of his team this season has built upon the foundations laid last season, retaining key pieces and improving the team where needed while keeping what made them so effective in the first place. Many similar coaches would panic and look to hit a home run…this coach hasn’t.

Yup – the best coach out there is Cardiff’s Andrew Lord (with a big side nod to his sometimes-unheralded but massively important assistant Neil Francis, who has truly come into his own in the past few years).

But the key thing about Lord (& Francis)  is that they’re not just great coaches. They are the standard-bearing partnership for the way the EIHL coaching game is changing-of the fresh young pack of challengers making waves and making names for themselves.

Ask yourself this…if you’re looking to build a new team in the league-who do you take on? Do you take on a coach like Paul Thompson – an experienced old head, and a great motivator but one coming back to his comfort zone after trying to build a career abroad and not setting the world alight? 

Do you take Chuck Weber-an excellent coach who could and should be coaching in a higher league in North America but lasted less than two months in a “top” European league & seems comfortable tempted back to a mid-size team in a backwater to play a style designed to win but suffocate the life out of those watching as well as the opposition while doing it?

Or do you look at the likes of Corey Neilson, Ryan Finnerty, Andrew Lord, and Omar Pacha – young, hungry coaches who are either still playing or recently retired – players who seem to be incredibly popular with their teams, show passion and pride in their work but also know that the game is changing and are looking to incorporate new ideas, new thinking and a new approach to the league while also playing exciting hockey?

Do you look for those who think the game as it is used to be & do things because “well, it’s always worked before”?

Or do you look for the coach with something to prove who think the game as it is now & will be, not as it might have been? An innovator willing to drive themselves & their team forward?

The game is changing faster than EIHL fans and the received wisdom about coaching would like to admit. With the EIHL becoming more competitive and more attractive to a higher standard of player thanks to world economics, simply recruiting a good team or “getting players to play for you” isn’t enough. What might have worked or been true in 2012 isn’t true any more.

The EIHL coaching game is evolving. And at the same time, the old order is being destroyed right before our eyes by a new, young, vibrant group.

And they’re shattering a lot of illusions and slaughtering a whole lot of EIHL sacred cows along the way.

Long may it continue.

Gathering Storm: Manchester Join The New “Gang Of Four” Rocking The Boat in The EIHL

“Sometimes there’s no other way. Sometimes, Desmond, people have to die for things to change.”

Rebecca Crane, “Assassin’s Creed: II”

vita mutatur, non tolliatur (Life is changed, not taken away)”

First words of the Catholic Mass For The Dead.

This has been a summer of change in British hockey.

Those ten words could lead pretty much any article over the past ten years – British hockey and the EIHL is not known for being a stable, solid base at the best of times. However, this season more than any other has seen change on an epic scale, with one team dying and two returning from the dead.

Firstly, let’s deal with the death. Hull Stingrays’ exit from the EIHL was quick and sudden, with an announcement coming from the blue one morning that the Hull club, which had begun to build for the 2015/16 season under Omar Pacha, were to fold.

It was an announcement that happened so quickly that Stingrays players who had already signed up, including returning local hero Davey Phillips, only found out the news the same way as everyone else…via Twitter.

However, even as the EIHL was processing the news that one of their members had died, another came to life…and it was one coming back from an unjustified grave.

The Manchester Storm are back.

They’re not messing about, either. Backed by Planet Ice and playing out of the Silver Blades rink in Altrincham, the amount of work already done by Mark Johnson, Peter Russell and the ownership group in Manchester already is frankly phenomenal. From nothing in June the team now have several players signed (including two top Brits in ex-Hull star Matty Davies & GB international Davey Phillips) – and although this has been helped a little by cherry-picking the top stars from the dead Stingrays roster there’s been some exciting import signings made, particularly Zane Kalemba in net, who has the potential to be among the best in the EIHL.

What’s really showing about the Storm, though, is that they’re not intending to be a distant rumble of thunder on the horizon slowly building over the next few seasons. Quite the opposite. With engaging and active social media presence, league-first moves like offering the growing UK hockey blogging and fan-media community press credentials (the first in the UK to do so to fans outside their “approved” or “team specific” media, and the very astute hiring of one of those media personalities as GM in Premier Sports commentator and possibly most famous Belfast and UK fan-media’s Neil Russell as team GM, the team are looking to get the right people in place early.

Of course, all of this is not cheap. British hockey has traditionally been run on something of a shoestring, with everyone knowing who the financial powerhouses are – the arena teams. The Storm have signalled their intention to compete with them from the outset, with a reported £16,000/week wage budget and, more revolutionary still in a league where marketing strategy even at the big teams relies a lot on “just get a few people to yell about the games to friends and the rest will take care of itself” a concerted and focused marketing campaign that’s already seen a team podcast put in place.

The fact that the team are reportedly looking at spending six figures just on marketing throughout the year is a big refreshing stance, too – apart from anything else, it gives an idea that they’re here for the long haul and looking to have a similar impact to the likes of Braehead and Belfast in their respective big-city media markets.

Unsurprisingly, any mention of these figures have been scoffed at by the “old guard” in the EIHL. Teams just don’t spend that much. It’s not even half that. It’s all empty boasts.

It’s very interesting that the teams currently making a splash in the EIHL and genuinely growing (as opposed to treading water) are those who aren’t running around telling everyone about a “new culture” or “wanting to connect with fans” or even how they’re “the biggest club out there”. They’re just doing it. Cardiff, Belfast, Braehead, Manchester…what’s notable about their PR efforts and their approach in general is that it’s about getting the fans engaged and feeling part of a family rather than talking up their achievements, living on past glories or constantly promising change. Storm are saying little about what they’d like to do – just what they ARE doing.

The Storm have come into the league following the template that has given Cardiff, Belfast and Braehead much success, only they, too, are backing it with financial resources possibly not seen in the EIHL era before. 16k a week on team wages and a six-figure marketing budget are, in the EIHL context, big money for big ambitions. It’s also a warning shot that will probably shake up the complacent fat-cats at the top of the tree even further, just as Cardiff and Braehead are doing. Only Belfast are responding with any concerted effort so far-and we’re not beginning to see the effects.

In short, the death of Hull and arrival of Manchester and their efforts this summer have already forced the teams already being proactive to raise their game even further. There is at least one EIHL team looking to form links with You Can Play to promote the inclusion of LGBT people in the UK sport, which has not always been the most welcoming of places – and it’s noticeable that teams coupled with the continuing strides being made by Cardiff, Belfast & Braehead in looking to evolve, try new things (like Braehead’s “Socckey” merchandise, for example) are also the ones growing fastest.

The Storm have seen what’s been done in Belfast, Cardiff in Braehead already and learned from it. Early indications show that they’re riding on the crest of the “new wave” of EIHL thinking seen in the other cities and looking to take it further. The “second wave” of growth is going to be brought in by the teams like them that are willing to commit resources and speculate to accumulate, just like Braehead, Cardiff and Belfast are doing.

And it’s exciting to watch. The Gang Of Four, one in each country in the British aisles, driving the EIHL forward.

There will be those who knock it in the EIHL, and there will still be challenges and questions for the Storm to answer this season – lots of them.

But by following in the footsteps of the innovators rather than looking at the “tried and tested” (read “safe and boring”) path being followed by other teams, the Storm have already made a good start.

Embarassment of Riches: A (Very Subjective) Guide To The Next Wave Of Great British Prospects

A short while ago, I wrote a post on the EIHA Junior Finals and the wealth of English (note, not British) hockey talent present there. It’s been well received by the UK hockey community, but reading it back, all I can think is not who’s included, but how many players I’ve missed out. Names like Guildford u16’s Richard Krogh, invited to play for a Swiss team next year and the leading scorer of the weekend, or Bradford u16’s Adam Barnes, already an international star with Team England. Of the 30 or so players I mentioned, there were a good few who weren’t, or only mentioned in passing due to the fact they play internationally, already play at a senior level, or simply weren’t there. Being Scottish or Northern Irish, too, meant you had no chance of being picked because the Scottish junior system runs only north of the border. It wasn’t a definitive list of British talent. It wasn’t even close.

In fact, it barely scratched the surface.

So, here’s an attempt to make more of a start. Following is a (very subjective) list of some of the best young players in British hockey’s immediate future. However, unlike the last post, there are a few more rules here.

AGE/EXPERIENCE – In this post we’re trying to limit to looking at players between the ages of 16 and u20…those considered of “junior hockey age” in North America. That’s why some very, VERY good 15-year-olds will JUST miss the cut for this list, though one or two exceptional 15-year-olds will make it.  We’re also focusing more closely (though not exclusively) on those already playing senior hockey (EIHL, EPL, NIHL) in addition to their age group, or those who’ve played World Championships for GB at u18 or u20 level. This means that many will already be familiar to those fans who follow UK hockey closely.

GEOGRAPHICAL SPREAD – We’re looking all over Britain and indeed the world now. Some areas and teams may be slightly more represented than others. That is not intentional bias…it’s simply that I’m more aware of some players than others-although I’ve tried to represent British players abroad, too. It may be light on Scottish players…again, this isn’t an intentional snub.

POSITIONS – Players will be listed by position, and in a random order, not in a traditional “ranking” order. That’s simply because I’m in no way qualified to rank one prospect over another in any way. Where you appear in the list, outside of your position grouping, is not a comment on relative ability/position in the pecking order.

GENDER – This list, unlike the last post, will all be boys/men. Again, that’s only because of the info on them being slightly easier to find/me having seen them play more often….

Those rules set…away we go.

NETMINDERS

Jordan Hedley (Swindon Wildcats)

Jordan Hedley will be the next great GB goalie. With him and Ben Bowns alone, GB netminding is set well for the next few years at least…he’s risen through the ranks at Milton Keynes to become something very special indeed. Last season, at the age of 18, he played 23 EPL games after making his debut at the age of 16. He’s big and positionally very good indeed – and will likely be an EIHL goalie before much longer.

Sam Gospel (Telford, EPL)

We all already know about the Nottingham-born Gospel, who announced himself in spectacular fashion to the EIHL crowds with a Challenge Cup semi-final win for Sheffield…in Nottingham. He’s back at Telford this year to share EPL starting duties with Tom Murdy – like Hedley, he could be a future EIHL starter. Until then, another season of development will do him no harm whatsoever.

Denis Bell (Telford, NIHL)

Denis Bell is a name to watch. Small, fast and agile, he’s already GB’s under-18 starter and played one of the games of the season in the NIHL playoff final against Solihull…a truly incredible netminding performance for a 17-year-old. He’s the GB u18 starter, and unique in that he’s going against the trend of goalies growing larger, preferring to rely on incredible agility. A name that could go far.

Renny Marr (Coventry Blaze, EIHL)

Bell’s rival for the GB u18 starting job, Marr is a more “traditionally” modern goalie. He’s already seen some bench time for Fife Flyers in the EIHL, but has been poached by Coventry to be their training-goalie/backup next season. It’s also been said that he’ll train with MK Lightning and play in the Coventry NIHL development team. Apparently there’s a development strategy all mapped out for him…it’ll be interesting to see how he’s used this season and what game time he’ll get compared to his 30 starts in Scotland last season.

DEFENDERS

David Clements (Coventry Blaze/MK Lightning)

Coming back to Britain after four years with the WSHL’s Ogden Mustangs (a team he captained the past two seasons), this big, smooth-skating defenceman is one of the most exciting “unknown” talents to come back to the British leagues in a while. He started his hockey in the Coventry junior system before heading to North American prep-school and junior hockey, and returns to the UK ready to make an impact. He has the potential to be the next Mark Richardson-a strong, composed player with excellent puck skills who is equally at home on his own blue-line or the opposition’s

Callum Wells (Chelmsford u18s)

One of the unheralded heroes of Chelmsford Mohawks’ U18 EIHA win, Wells is another strong, fast defenceman who is raw but talented – loves to play physically and is excellent positionally.

Ben Nethersell (Okanagan u18s)

The standout offensive defenceman at the EIHA Junior final, Nethersell’s passing and composure caught the eye, as did his strong shot from the point. More a playmaker than a goalscoring defenceman, he’s very effective at driving his team forward from the back.

Josh Grieveson (Middlesex Black Bears, USHL)

Another Brit in the US highschool system, Grieveson is relatively small at 5’9, but strong, and looked solid indeed for the GB u18s this year. A player who still has to develop a little, like many of these prospects, but the raw talent is clearly there.

Oliver Stone (Okanagan u18s)

Small and fast, the Okanagan u18 captain was the rock that allowed Nethersell to go ranging forward. Rarely makes a bad play in his own zone and a very good skater indeed. Plus, with a name like that, he’s going to be difficult to forget about for sure.

Ed Knaggs (MK Thunder)

He saw some time with the EPL’s MK Lightning last season, and the 17-year-old will likely have more time over the coming season. A strong prospect who is developing steadily in Milton Keynes

Scott Robson (Peterborough Phantoms)

Robson has been around the Stingrays for several seasons now, mainly riding the bench but taking the odd EIHL shift. Last year was his first full EIHL season with Peterborough, where he acquitted himself very well on the blueline. He’s back with the Phantoms this season to continue working his way toward becoming a top British defender.

FORWARDS

Sam Duggan (Orebro, Sweden)

The jewel in the British young forward crown, the youngest Duggan is playing at a level most British players (even seniors) can only dream of by playing in the top Swedish league for his age-group. Fast, skilled and creative, Duggan is a heck of a talent with a ceiling far above the UK – there’s even been the odd whisper that he could come to the notice of the NHL in his draft year (next season). Scoring at a point per game in Swedish J18 and already with several appearances in one of the best junior leagues in the world (Swedish U20) aged 16, the Bracknell product is something very special indeed. Possibly the next great hope of British hockey.

Phillip Mulcahy (Coventry NIHL Blaze)

This little forward plays with a chippiness that belies his small size (5’7) and with his speed and shot he’s already a top goalscorer/agitator in the making. At the age of 16 last year he was very impressive for the Coventry NIHL team, scoring 24 points on a young, inexperienced squad. A player the Blaze management should definitely have their eye on.

Kieran Black (Edinburgh Capitals SNL)

One of the best prospects north of the border not currently playing with an EIHL team in any fashion, Black is a goalscorer, with 20 goals in 11 games in the Scottish u20 league. He’s coming to the point where he needs an EIHL team to take a chance on him if he wants to go any further, though – or even an EPL team…at the age of 20 he’s at the upper end of our limit.

Tom Watson (Solway Sharks)

Another skilled goalscoring forward who got ten goals in 17 for the Solway Sharks last season in the SNL, Watson is a player who the Scottish Elite League teams will likely be aware of soon, if they’re not aware of him already – the 17-year-old has an eye for the net that’s obvious and the potential to develop into a very useful sniping forward indeed.

Jordan Cownie (Braehead Clan)

Perhaps the star of the forward crop, Cownie is one of Scotland (and GB’s) most exciting prospects in a while. A fast, chippy player who loves to make plays, he got 32 points (including 10 goals) in the EPL last year, and after two seasons learning his trade in the second tier, makes the step up to the EIHL full time.

Ollie Betteridge (Nottingham Panthers)

Another player stepping up to the EIHL full-time this season after impressing for Nottingham given limited ice time in the CHL last season as well as spending time with the EPL’s Swindon Wildcats, Betteridge is a speedy young sniper whose small stature belies a willingness to get stuck in along the boards. Relies on a quick shot and astute positional sense to create scoring chances/score goals.

Liam Kirk (Sheffield Steelhawks)

One of the most skilled players in this group, the Sheffield product is a great skater and has hands to die for – his puck-handling in tight spaces is amazing for a 15-year-old. Already playing against players 3 years older at u18, he’s just sneaking into this group by virtue of being an exceptional talent. Definitely a name for EIHL teams to watch – if the Steelers aren’t watching him already, they should be.

Kyle Watson (Sheffield Steelhawks)

Liam Kirk’s linemate and one of his partners-in-crime, Watson is a bit more of a physical player than Kirk-more of a two-way counterpart to Kirk’s pure offence. He’s got a good hockey mind and positionally is very strong-not as flashy as Kirk is, but equally effective.

Michael Stratford (Okanagan u18s/Swindon)

Big, strong and with a lethal wrister, Stratford is arguably the best pure sniper in this group. He seizes on loose pucks in the offensive zone like a cat pouncing on a mouse, and very shortly afterwards the puck’s usually to be found in the opposition net. He’s being given a chance at EPL level this season, so it’ll be interesting to see how far his shot can take him.

Luc Johnson (Okanagan u18s)

The GB u18 captain and MK product is small, creative and thinks the game at lightning speed. He’ll need to grow a little to really step up to the next level but on skill alone this kid has a very bright future indeed. He’s also a very good leader.

Glen Billing (Okanagan u18s/Swindon Wildcats)

Like Michael Stratford, Billing has a potentially great future. Scored an average of 4 points a game at u18 level this season as well as playing at NIHL and EPL level with Swindon, and will likely play for three teams again this season – something that’ll bring his development on in leaps and bounds.

Ivan Antonov (Sheffield Steeldogs)

One of the most skilled forwards in this group. the young Brit of Russian parents scored 19+22 aged 17 for Bracknell in the EPL last season…he’s incredibly fast and has great vision, along with a huge amount of patience. Watching him play, it’s very easy indeed to forget he’s only 18…this year is a big one for him and will likely see EIHL teams (particularly the one just across the road from his new home rink) watching him with covetous eyes if his play continues as it has.

Lewis Hook (MK Lightning/Coventry Blaze)

One of the top British forward prospects out there, as his 21 goals in the EPL last year (aged 18) and big jump in play level for Milton Keynes after his move from Peterborough prove. Hook is an exciting playmaker, who loves to be involved offensively. His shooting and passing are excellent, as is his hockey sense – this year is key for him as he takes on a two-way contract between the EPL and the Elite League.

Toms Rutkis (Okanagan/Swindon)

One of the most exciting young British forward prospects, the British/Latvian forward looked a standout player for the GB u18s this season, and scored an average of 2 goals a game for the elite Okanagan junior side as well as scoring 4 goals in the EPL at age 16. Rutkis is a fast, agile forward with great hands and an accurate shot. Along with Billing and Stratford he’s making the step up to the EPL with Swindon next season, so has a golden chance to really cement his place among Britain’s top prospects.

Danny Ingoldsby (Wightlink Raiders)

At 6’1 and 201lbs at 18 Ingoldsby is a power-forward in the making – something that the GB game lacks a little in its native players. He’s already played 3 seasons at EPL level with some success, and while some might see his move down to the NIHL this season as a step back, he’ll be relied upon as a top contributor on the Island and this season could be the making of him as an offensive player.

Cameron Winn (Basingstoke Bison)

The Basingstoke product has spent his whole career with his hometown team, and has developed into an excellent two-way forward. Not the most prolific, but among the hardest-working players out there.

Bobby Chamberlain (MK Lightning/Coventry Blaze)

A feisty forward with a good lump of EIHL experience already, Chamberlain has been playing senior hockey since he was 16 at EIHL and EPL level, so there’s no question he can cut it. Now his game needs to jump to that next level as he looks to become a part of the top rank of British forwards, and possibly the younger heir/counterpart to Rob Farmer – though their physical sizes differ their style of play is very similar.

This is just a narrow sample of the talent out there…in the ladies’ ranks names like Molly Brooks, Kaitlyn Butterfield, Kimberley Lane, Katharine Gale, Beth Scoon and Shannon Douglas mean that the GB women’s team is in just as strong a spot for the near future as the men are – if that talent is used/nutured effectively by the British system.

What the list above shows is that there is exciting young talent just bursting to come through all over the UK and at all league levels…the question now is how many of these players can fulfil their potential in the British system over the next few years.

Remember these names – they could be the stars of British hockey tomorrow.

The Science Of Selling Yourself Short: How The EIHL And Its Own Fans Are Contributing To It Standing Still

“Just sing along, I’m the king of catastrophies,
I’m so far gone,
That deep down inside I think it’s fine by me,
I’m my own worst enemy”

Less Than Jake: “The Science Of Selling Yourself Short”

This offseason has been an interesting one already in the EIHL & British hockey as a whole. It’s supposed to be an offseason of change. Of positivity. To listen to the “all is well” side of EIHL fandom, the crowds are going up, the players are getting better, the league is getting more competitive…everything is going brilliantly for British hockey right now, and anyone who tells you different is wrong.

This is a good time to be a hockey fan in the UK – in fact, we should stop complaining and enjoy it!

That attitude is one that is seeing the EIHL slit its own throat.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot to be positive about the EIHL at the moment. Coventry appear to be making steps towards a genuinely integrated development path under James Pease’s stewardship, signing several British players on two-way contracts (let’s leave aside the fact that in James Griffin and Bobby Chamberlain two of them are players with over 400 EIHL/EPL games between them and Griffin is being lauded as a “development” player after already spending 5 seasons at the top level getting a regular shift, shall we?), including Renny Marr, one of GB u18’s top netminding prospects. The Kelman/Lord Revolution in Cardiff continues apace with the Devils leadership and fans already massively confident of continuing last year’s momentum into a new season. Braehead continue to build strongly and there is much talk of a “new era” in Sheffield this year with more focus on local talent and “integrated thinking”.

Recently it’s been announced that the EIHL will bring in video review to all ten rinks next season after it was (successfully) trialled at the EIHL Playoff Finals this past April. This will apparently be paid for by revenues that would otherwise have been committed to a fourth official on the ice – something which in true EIHL fashion was trialled last year but only optionally, allowing teams to choose whether or not they paid for the extra official (unsurprisingly, some didn’t). This is a much-needed move that will allow the EIHL to avoid some of the contentious goal/no goal decisions that have decided games in seasons past, such as Fife’s “penalty shot that never was” a few years ago.

There’s also the introduction of the much vaunted “u20 league”..plans for which have been floating around as far back as last match. After lots of talk and hot air about how there were consultations, plans and “real impetus” in moving the sport forward-here’s the result…four teams. Four u20 teams – Scotland East, Scotland West, Okanagan/Swindon and Sheffield.

You’ll notice there the conspicuous lack of any EIHL clubs (with the notable exception, it has to be said, of Sheffield) or indeed any EPL ones. A curious move – but then again, with leagues already running at lower levels that carry the label of “development”, and several teams (again, James Pease in Coventry in the foreground) pointing more towards using their NIHL teams as “youth development” portals rather than very-high-level recreational leagues containing old warhorses and those who can’t quite commit to a full-time pro career.

This, again, is positive.

The trouble is, though, that all of this is rhetoric and talk we’ve heard before. We’ve seen the “rising attendances and great new era for British hockey” chat on the horizon before. The talk of “genuine development strategy”, “integrated development paths” and “a new professional approach.”

The trouble is, it’s a glossy sheen that has often rubbed off pretty easily whenever anyone’s actually taken anything of a look at it. Which is perhaps why the EIHL fanbase is now to the point where any critical examination or questions are deemed “negativity”, any attempt to push the league beyond very narrow club-defined media boundaries is seen as “interfering” or actively resisted.

And as for allowing anyone beyond a very few to actually get involved in the reporting and running of the sport, or any outsiders being allowed to bring in new approaches or new ideas? That doesn’t work well at all.

An EIHL team’s Operations Manager, in response to someone outside the team  (me) posting that they had signed a player this week, argued that anyone (including media) finding out news about an EIHL team should “have the decency” to not report it before the club does. It was part of a debate which saw a large number of EIHL fans basically say that anyone other than an official club source reporting on news “spoilt it” for the fans and ruined the game of hockey.

Essentially, what that debate saw fans and team officials arguing saying is “if anyone, including media, got hold of news about us, they should have the decency not to report it”.

God only knows how such a view would fly in the NHL, in a world where fans salivate at every tidbit written about their team, where opinions are shared, debated and dissected and where news stories are rarely, if ever, “left to the teams themselves”

In short, the NHL media (at least that of the big, independent companies – the one where the big bucks are paid and made and the big stories are broken) follows a criteria of “publish and be damned”. And the hockey world loves it.

Also in the NHL – the embracing of new media, interaction, fan journalism, and anything else that will get their teams out to a wider audience continues apace. I write for one of the bigger Boston Bruins blogs, Stanley Cup Of Chowder. They’re given press credentials by teams to NHL games on a par with the regional and national media – press passes to the NHL Draft. They are given the vast majority of the access “paid” reporters are, bloggers are regularly hired by media outlets, and indeed sometimes these (fan-run) blogs provide some of the best coverage out there. They’re actively courted sometimes by AHL teams, invited to practices, and given any other journalistic privilege despite starting out as little more than fans with a passion for their team.

Ah, but it’s a bigger league” you say. So let’s look at another that’s used blogging and media openness to gain a foothold-Australia’s AIHL. One of the success stories of “minor” leagues, the AIHL has embraced social media and encouraging fans to write about the league and encourage change, up to and including their official websites. And the sport is growing at a meteoric rate from much smaller beginnings-to the point where NHL and AHL stars regularly travel over for a massive “Canada v USA” series…including NHLers like Brent Burns. Indeed, the EIHL has seen a lot of players make their way over there in recent years for the summer, including GB star Jonathan Boxill this season. They have over 6,000 followers on Twitter, free webstreaming of the playoff finals and indeed every game, and TV coverage on one of the biggest TV sports networks in Australia. Not bad in a country truly dominated by rugby.

The EIHL, though…well, this is another team official’s view of the blog writing community in the UK:

Very “NHL media in 2009″, isn’t it? By today’s standards, it’s not just backward-it’s prehistoric. But it appears to be a popular view among many in the EIHL.

That team official, incidentally, also has a history of throwing homophobic abuse at people on the Internet when they disagree, and being publicly defended for it by his employers. Something else that’s prehistoric.

Then of course there’s the EIHL’s attitude to TV – an attitude that saw their broadcasting partner Premier Sports have to fight tooth and nail to get the playoff semi-finals on live television – a state of affairs unthinkable in most leagues yet seemingly actively agreed with in the EIHL, where Nottingham GM Gary Moran can say that he doesn’t think TV is important to the growth of a sport and have fans agree with him – where success is apparently seen as taking ten years to reach a point where a team isn’t in danger of going bust in the off-season. It’s also an attitude that sees TV reporters prevented from interviewing players and coaches during live games, not through their choice but through team officials – and TV crew having to ask several times to be given access to their own filming positions in some EIHL rinks.

And the saddest thing about this? EIHL fans don’t give a shit about the fact that their game is growing DESPITE all of this, not because of any coherent and well-run strategy.

When you have team officials reacting to any criticism with defensiveness, actively arguing that their news shouldn’t be reported by those outside the organisation, one of the most prominent voices in the UK game regularly launching homophobic and misogynistic attacks and being actively DEFENDED by his fanbase and people simply don’t give a crap, then you see why UK hockey has remained a small-time, smalltown sport for so long.

Any progressive influence in the sport, any positive change, any push to grow or include more than the small community of UK hockey fans (and sorry, EIHL – you can kid yourself you’re big time all you like, but you’re medium if that right now) has to fight against an ingrained culture of apathy, NIMBYism, small-town thinkers who not only don’t think outside of the box but are scared witless of even looking beyond the lid for fear that they might see the sun, and downright pigheadedness that means driving change in the EIHL beyond a local level is like trying to swim across the Channel with anchors tied to both legs.

It’s a Sisyphean quest.

But more worryingly, it’s a task that some seem to be actively scared of seeing succeed beyond very narrow, clearly-defined levels. It’s a parochial attitude of isolationism and protectionism disgused as “slow steady change” that, had it been applied by all of humankind might just about have seen us discovering fire by now.

Stop moaning about the cold…it takes effort to go and find that wood and then light it and anyway we don’t have the material in the cave to make matches!

Some officials throw the charge that it’s easy for fans and bloggers to talk in their “darkened bedrooms” about change but much harder to find the means to do it.

It is. But it’s harder still when you’ll refuse to let anyone look for fear they might actually find it.

The very fact that there ARE small oases of active progression and radical change in the British game (Cardiff and Braehead in the EIHL, Telford in the EPL, the Okanagan Junior Hockey Academy and many others at the lower levels of the game) doing it, some functioning on very little resource indeed in comparison to others, mean it is being done.

The fact that there’s a thriving British fan media community despite the efforts of some teams to actively dismiss it is proof it’s being done.

The fact that Premier Sports still want to cover hockey games even after being thrown around from pillar to post by team owners with an inflated sense of their own importance trying to dictate what can and can’t be shown means it’s being done.

The fact there are still people asking questions, looking for ways to improve the game, coming up with suggestions and some team staff performing miracles of turning a team around in a season despite running on budgets around half that of the teams saying “there’s no money” is proof it’s being done.

The fact that the EIHL is still making progress and there are people still hoping to improve it further, pushing for change, and asking “why can’t we be better” despite being mocked, ridiculed, obstructed and having obstacles put in their way at every turn by those they’re trying to help or by the “in-crowd” desperately trying to protect their inner fiefdoms-even the fact it’s survived as long as it has, never mind is still growing even at a slow rate?

That’s a pucking miracle. One that many EIHL fans & team owners/personnel don’t seem to realise is happening DESPITE their lack of ambition, not because of it.

You can talk about “being happy where you are” all you like if you want, EIHL. But being happy to stand still never got anyone anywhere fast.

The sooner you work that out and start embracing change, new thinking and questioning the status quo instead of protecting it for fear the alternative might be better still, the better.

The race is fast. If you don’t keep up, eventually you’ll be left behind.

Right now, you wonder whether the majority of the EIHL is perfectly happy as a back marker in the British sports world – because for all the talk of growth and change, it sure looks like many are.

Future (Im)Perfect: On The EIHA Junior Finals. The Wealth Of British Junior Talent, And The EIHL’s Refusal To Recognise It

This weekend I had an opportunity to do something a little different in the UK hockey world. Something that more people should.  I watched 12 games of British junior hockey across four age-groups from u12 to u18 over two days, including some of the best club teams in Britain, at the EIHA junior finals.

And in those two days, I had a truth driven home to me over and over again…that the accepted narrative in the EIHL and indeed all of British hockey that “elite young British talent is hard to find”…a myth that has been used persistently by some in the British game over the past season or two to justify (yet another) increase in the numbers of imports per team and defend the lack of chances given to British-born youngsters by some teams at the top level…simply isn’t true.

The argument, it goes, is that there simply aren’t enough good British players out there, or enough truly superb British talent coming through in either the men’s or women’s game. The pipeline, it is claimed, isn’t gushing, but trickling…or British kids simply aren’t developing to any sort of level.

To hear some talk, there’s just not that much skill and talent out there in Britain…for whatever reason, UK kids simply can’t take to hockey at anywhere near the level they might take to football.

This weekend, and the EIHA Conference showpiece weekend at the beginning of May, which bring together the best junior players from all over Britain to compete, are mute testimony that if you’re willing to look, potential future stars are everywhere.

Look at Lee Valley’s 11-year-old netminder Emma Nichols, who this week became a viral video star across the hockey world thanks to an astonishing performance for the South East at the Conference weekend…the video of her shutout has now been viewed over 125,000 times since Friday, and promoted by the vast majority of the biggest hockey sites on the planet…

And…oh yes, this 11-year-old also has already been endorsed as a future talent by the first professional women’s hockey league in the world:

And, just as an aside, she’s also been endorsed by the best (and probably most famous) female hockey player on Earth, too- the USA’s superstar, Hilary Knight:

Emma Nichols may be the current standard-bearer for British youth hockey, but she is merely the tip of a very talented iceberg of both male and female players. Watching the Junior Finals, this was IMMEDIATELY obvious. From u12 to u18, there was a constant parade of talented junior hockey players at iceSheffield this weekend…it almost seems unfair to pick a few out to watch. But here’s the names who were exceptional and particularly caught my eye throughout the weekend, position by position. This is not an exhaustive list of British talent (for a start, there’s no Scottish or Welsh players and there were only 16 teams to choose from – the Conference weekend is far better for a “true” definitive list of the hottest British prospects) but the sheer number of talented players even in this small sample should show just what a wealth of potential there is out there…

GOALIES

Ella Howard (Bracknell u12s) – Coming in early into a game as relief against a Bradford team that had the prodigous talent of Alex Graham (more on him later), she may have been forgiven for losing heart as Graham took over the game. But she denied him more that once on the breakaway, and moved with a sense of positioning that belied her young age, just like Emma Nichols. Despite finally losing the game 12-5, she stood out on a Bracknell squad that was simply overmatched against a generationally-talented opponent, and kept the score even close to respectable single-handedly at times.

Courtney Smith (Bradford u12s). This was the little 11-year-old’s first full season in net. You wouldn’t have known it. Like Ella Howard, she was calm, agile and confident, refusing to let an early goal in the final get her down. She’s agile, fearless and stood up incredibly well, particularly to a lot of pressure in the final. At u12 level, the girls ruled the weekend. She also has a heck of a glove hand.

Josh Winstanley (Guildford u12s) – This kid had a much tougher weekend than the scores show…particularly in the final against Bradford. Again, he was beaten mainly by the sheer class of Alex Graham for Bradford in the final, but was still strong and positionally aware throughout the weekend.

Ethan James (Okanagan u16s/18s): The standout goalie of the weekend by a distance…not least because he played four games in two days. Although James had a good team in front of him and lost both finals (to Guildford and Chelmsford) I can’t remember a single goal that was his fault…they all came from ricochets, superb shots or plain bad luck. Positioning, moving laterally and agility-wise he was a class above, and incredibly composed in a way that made him look much older than his 15 years. This kid has a MASSIVE future…if given the chance, he could well be a senior GB goalie down the line. He’s also already tipped for big things by none other than Ben Bowns…that’s one hell of a recommendation in itself.

Sonny Phillips (Chelmsford u18s): We didn’t really see the best of him in the semi-although it took 59 minutes for Nottingham to finally beat him. In the final, though, against a powerhouse Okanagan squad, he was immense…the battle between him and Ethan James was one of the highlights of the weekend. Big and agile, vocal to his defenders and brave and strong in melées around his net, he was one of his team’s stars.

Molly Brooks (Nottingham u18s); Girls in goal was something of a theme of the weekend…but Molly Brooks in particular kept her Nottingham team respectably close to a superb (and eventual championship-winning) Chelmsford team in the semi-final. Facing a heavy load of shots, she too was strong and stopped shots that many seniors would have been beaten by throughout the game. GB women have a heck of a goalie pipeline coming through.

DEFENCE

Liam Steele (Guildford u12s) – One of several exceptionally talented offensive defencemen we saw throughout the weekend, Steele looked like a player far beyond his tender years. Smooth-skating, positionally perfect and constantly aware with an accurate shot, he looked like a truly gifted player. Along with Stanley Johnston, another superb little skater, he drove the team forward and looked a constant threat attacking, while barely putting a foot wrong defensively.

Alexis Smith (Guildford u12s) – The main thing noticeable about this young lady was her stickwork-her pokecheck and solid defensive play was the perfect counterpart to Steele. She just did things very, very well all weekend, while never being flashy or trying to do too much. One of several girls with a bright, bright future.

Max Gibson (Bradford u12s) – The Bradford u12 captain, and like Steele a super skater who simply did what he had to do all game – Gibson was quietly superb and had stickhandling older players would envy for days.

Tom McFadden (Bradford u14s) Along with Jordan Griffin, McFadden quietly did his work, like Max Gibson, and also controlled a very good point shot. He wasn’t afraid to get involved physically where required, either, which was particularly noticeable on the Sunday.

Edward Bradley (Guildford u14/16) – Probably the standout defenceman of the weekend. Bradley was unbelievably good in both zones in all four games he played, running his team’s offence from the point, skating beautifully and barely putting a foot wrong all game and joining the rush perfectly every time. He’s also got no mean finish in front of net. George Hoang was also superb for Guildford, too, but Bradley wasn’t just good to watch, he was an absolute joy. Expect to see him (hopefully) work his way through the ranks to EPL level sooner rather than later. This kid is one of England’s top offensive defencemen at junior level…not just for his age group but at all. One of the stars of the weekend.

Ben Jones (Sheffield u18s) – Held his team together almost single-handedly at times, and led like a true general from the blueline against Okanagan.

Ben Nethersell (Okanagan) – Offensive defencemen seemed to be something of a theme this weekend, and Nethersell was another of these who marshalled his team’s blueline at u18. With a solid shot, patience and calmness, he was probably only bettered by Edward Bradley in terms of being a sheer standout player on the blue.

Ollie Baldock (Chelmsford u18s) – Again, by picking just one Chelmsford player on D I’m doing a massive disservice  to the rest of them…but Baldock was the standout…just. Running his team’s powerplay like a veteran and with great speed and hands as well as strength to hold off anyone, he was one of his team’s many stars.

FORWARDS

Alex Graham (Bradford u12/u14) – 155 goals in 16 games. 15 goals in two games over the weekend, and singlehandedly a game winner. Has the stickhandling and shot of someone much older, stockily built and developing at a rate of knots, he’s one of two Bradford prodigies up front and probably the best u12 player in England by a way. The second Bradford prodigy, we’ll come to shortly.

Zac Descarries-Gravel (Guildford u12/14) This kid grew early. He’s already stocky and fast, with a tireless workrate. Strong in the corners and with a very good shot-not quite Alex Graham’s level, but then nobody at u12 is, frankly.

Theo Sire (Guildford u12) – Diminutive but fast, Theo and his sister Margot were two of a kind…quick and shifty with stick skills many older kids would kill for.

Luke Smital (Bracknell u12) – Son of Bracknell Bees legend Lukas Smital, Luke is like his dad…strong, quick and with a very good shot.

Mason Biddulph (Guildford u14/16) The stick skills this boy has are unreal. Look out for the video of two of his goals in the semi-final, both of which would dominate highlight reels for week had they been scored in the NHL. Biddulph is fast, skilled and with passing that could put the puck through the eye of a needle already.

Kieran Brown (Bradford u14/16) – This kid has been hyped to the skies as the British Connor McDavid. He could be it. Really. Watching him play is an experience because he has a killer instinct in front of the net, loves to land big hits and skates like the wind. He scored 114 goals at u14 and led the country at u16, too. He and Alex Graham are a truly terrifying pair. They will play Elite League at least if they continue being allowed to develop. The sky’s the limit for this kid.

Jose Da Silva (Guildford u16): Fast and with hand-eye co-ordination on a different level, his two-goals in the semi were crucial to beat Sheffield.

Liam Kirk/Aaron Lyon (Sheffield u16/18): The Steelers need to be watching Liam Kirk already. He’s a magician with the puck, fastest on the ice and with the vision of players far more experienced than him. At u16 level he was a standout above the rest of a very good team – I’d be surprised if the NIHL squad aren’t already looking to get him on their roster, as with the Steeldogs. If Sheffield Steelers set up their u20 team, expect him and Lyon to both be offered a place on it. Lyon is more of a scorer, but one massive hit is what he’ll be remembered for this weekend…a beautiful open-ice hit that destroyed a Guildford player.

Mac Howlett (Okanagan u16/18) Again, to be honest we could pick out several more of the Okanagan squad, not least Corey Neilson’s son Cade, but Howlett was incredibly impressive, not least because he’s incredibly small and fast even for an u16, never mind an u18. Used on the point on the PP too, his shot is hard and accurate but it’s his playmaking that’ll make him a career.

Seb Downing/Brandon Ayliffe (Chelmsford u18) – These two were awesome on the Sunday. Ayliffe’s hat-trick in the semi on Sunday showcased his speed and shot, while Downing is a tremendously-skilled winger with a tireless forecheck and skating style…he’s a little small but he simply never stops working. Ever.

 Adam Finlinson (Okanagan u18) – Standout qualities are his speed and a super shot-his work along the boards and movement is what made him stand out, though.

Bear in mind that the above list mentions around 30 players, and frankly I could’ve probably included another 15 or so given space, and you start to realise the depth of talent out there. Also bear in mind that I (purposely) left out the likes of Glenn Billing, Toms Rutkis Luc Johnson, Michael Stratford, (all Okanagan) and Charlie Phillips (Chelmsford) at u18 level, as they’re all already playing senior hockey in the NIHL and EPL as well as being  key in the GB teams…and also bear in mind that this only scratches the surface of the talent out there (it’s not even all the best players in Britain due to the restricted purview of club as opposed to conference teams, and doesn’t include any from Scotland or Wales at all, nor does it include any youngsters (below 18) already playing at senior level or in juniors abroad, such as 2016 NHL draft prospect Sam Duggan, and you realise just what a depth of talent the British game has if it’s managed right.

So, next time someone tells you that there’s no talent coming through in the British game, point them to this post. Point them to the Conference weekend. And laugh at their ignorance.

Because, as this weekend alone proves, there is a very rich and growing seam of both male and female homegrown talent out there in Britain, just waiting to be discovered.

It needs a system to take advantage of it desperately, and senior teams and fans at EIHL level to stop saying that there’s “no place” for young kids at the top…no place for every team in the EIHL to roll four lines including a “kid line”.

The talent is there. The diamonds are lying in the British hockey desert waiting to be picked up.

All it needs is for more senior teams to commit to going out and finding them. They’re definitely out there in abundance.

Promises & Long Knives: Sheffield’s Game Of Thrones & The Betrayal Of Gerad Adams

(note. This is a long article. 3000 words long, in fact. You may want to settle in for a while. It’ll be worth it, I hope)

The Sheffield Steelers sacked Gerad Adams recently. A club sacking a coach is not a strange occurrence in sports…after all, as we’re constantly told, “it’s a tough business”.

A coach being the third coach in two years to be sacked by the same organisation is…well, a little stranger, but again, it’s a tough business, and results are results.

A coach being the third coach in two years to be sacked by the same organisation due to the team wanting a “culture change” twelve months after he’d been lauded as the epitome of that organisation’s culture…well, then you get a little questionable, but still, it’s a tough business.

A coach being the third coach in two years to be sacked by the same organisation due to the team wanting a “culture change” twelve months after he’d been lauded as the epitome of that organisation’s culture and won a playoff and league title while at the helm of the team…that’s when the excuses start to run out and something starts to smell.

Being a hockey writer, sometimes, is very much like building a jigsaw. In a league like the EIHL, there is always rumour and talk flying around the league. Who is signing who, what owner said what to which coach or referee. On their own, they often don’t mean much. Part of the art of survival in hockey is learning to filter out the big talk and the misdirection practiced as a matter of course in what sports teams tell the media. Another part is storing information, saving it – because you sometimes find that one piece of information joins another, then another, then another, and provides a picture. Often, that picture is very different from the one painted by “official” sources. For every Picture Of Dorian Gray presented as shining and beautiful “truth” by clubs, there is a hidden, ugly, picture in the attic that fans can’t, or in some cases, refuse to see.

The Sheffield Steelers, in their treatment of Gerad Adams, are British hockey’s latest Dorian Gray. In this piece, we’ll look at both the public face of the Steelers and the facts, and the small, insignificant tidbits that we can use, put together in the right way, to build the true face. The repulsive, amoral face they hide in their own “picture in the attic”-the one that has taken some of British hockey’s most respected coaches and men and treated them abominably, hiding in plain sight.

Firstly, let’s look at the public face. Officially, Adams’ sacking was a decision made very quickly by Sheffield owner Tony Smith, in response to seeing the success of coaches like Chuck Weber in Coventry. It was a decision made that has been praised as “forward thinking”, considered in response to the increased challenge of the CHL. Promises of “culture change” and “wanting to make the Steelers a European power”. Talk of “unifying Sheffield hockey”, a development system that will be the envy of the league, and a “vision” that will turn Sheffield into a European powerhouse.

Let’s look at the fact that last year Smith said of Adams when he replaced Doug Christiansen “I think the Steelers have a Steelers-style coach in place – one who knows what the club is about and understands the Steelers way.

“I’m excited by the appointment and hope the fans are too.

“I’m desperate to bring Steelers hockey back to Sheffield. A game played with emotion and excitement and Gerad is a coach who both knows and understands that.”

Let us consider that he now speaks of wanting the Steelers to have a coach with “experience in team and club management as well as coaching at a high level.”…one that apparently Adams (a coach with ten years EIHL experience) had given them only 14 months ago, but now does not.

Let us consider that his vision of forming links with a thriving junior system and a GM/coach structure is so strong that he claims he had no idea someone capable of running that existed nor that it was a workable idea, seemingly, until Chuck Weber signed in December in Coventry, despite it being the norm in European leagues.

Let us consider that Steelers officials have done what few sports teams would ever do and publicly compared Adams unfavourably to at least one other EIHL coach since his sacking.The same ones, in fact, who were calling him the perfect fit for Steelers this time last year.

Let us not forget that the quiet, professional Adams himself has been moved to respond with public criticism to his former employers to loud and repeated justifications of his sacking by Sheffield officials in the press-something that even the well documented horrendous treatment by (Tony Smith’s former business partner) Paul Ragan in Cardiff did not provoke him to do.

Finally, let us consider that a “culture change” in Sheffield is exactly what was presented as the reason for Doug Christiansen’s sacking last February…and Ryan Finnerty’s sacking the April before that, and that both men were ALSO presented in the press as the “perfect fit” for what Steelers wanted to do by Smith. And let us consider that Adams did exactly what he was asked to do – he brought the Steelers trophies.

That is the public face…the Dorian Gray Steelers people see. It is questionable, but the vision of Tony Smith, superficially, is a good one. The argument that the Steelers need a man other than Gerad Adams to do it is one that some will agree with, some won’t. Many will say that the announcement could have been handled better, but that it should be “let go” and that indeed the Sheffield Star have “fuelled” what is an amicable, honourable parting. The decision is not a nice one for Gerad Adams, but it is one made honourably now – the club, as they say, wish good luck to Adams. The best, in fact.

However, let’s climb the dark, dank stairs past the upper levels of Steelers management and their smiling faces. The handshakes, the words of thanks for Adams – the claims that this is a decision taken after the league win.

Here we are in the Steelers attic. In British hockey’s attic. The place where the little pieces of information blow on the winds of rumour, where whispers float eternally on the wind from all over UK hockey.

The place where, if one stays long enough, the fragments eventually come together to form a portrait. A portrait of deceit. One of cronyism and ego and of an honourable man knifed in the back by an organisation he has served better than they could have hoped, all in the name of success. Here are the fragments of chat, fact and whisper from those within the EIHL that may, together make up the true portrait of Gerad Adams’ story in Sheffield. It is a portrait that British hockey deserves to see. Let’s assemble them.

The First Fragment we have is from before Adams’ reign even began. It comes from January 2014. Doug Christiansen is Sheffield coach, but he is already under pressure. There are whispers around the league that Tony Smith and the Steelers are looking to make a change. They are approaching other EIHL coaches. Whispers abound that Adams, with his former links with Sheffield as a player and success coaching the Devils is a target, having recently been released in Cardiff. However, the change doesn’t happen. It is said that Adams, an honourable man, refuses to discuss the possibility of taking another man’s job from underneath him. This action by Sheffield, as we shall see, will be important later.

The Second Fragment – February 2014. Doug Christiansen is relieved of his job as Sheffield coach. Adams is immediately appointed, with a speed that is surprising. Unless you consider the fact the Steelers already had this succession planned in advance. Perhaps, even, going far enough to sound out the replacement a few months earlier?

The Third Fragment – April 2014 – Gerad Adams’ Sheffield Steelers win the playoffs, with Christiansen’s team. Adams is hailed for the job he’s done and given a two year contract extension. He is also hailed as the perfect fit for Sheffield Steelers. His personnel decisions are given full support by the ownership (again, this will be important later). It is speculated that Tony Smith will demand a trophy once again, ideally the league. The Sheffield owner also speaks to all and sundry of his desire to win, and of the Sheffield Arena to see more people coming through the doors – a job he tells people he is “confident” his coach will achieve

The Fourth Fragment – It is Christmas 2014, and the Coventry Blaze have just fired Marc Lefebvre and appointed Chuck Weber – a move that is slowly beginning to change things for the better after the Blaze’s horrendous start to the season. Meanwhile, all is not rosy in Sheffield. The team, carefully recruited by Adams and full of strong players, are possibly not quite performing ideally- they have lost four games on the bounce over Christmas. Adams himself is aware that, in order to keep his job, the Sheffield ownership will demand trophies and success. However, the talk around the league and the collective wisdom of insiders argues that, with the Steelers still in the hunt for three trophies, one will suffice and be more than enough for the ownership to be happy with Adams’ work. all is well in the Steelers dressing room, with no talk of bust-up or friction. The Steelers ownership are still happy.

The Fifth Fragment – It is February 2015. Paul Thompson, the former Coventry Blaze coach, is back in the UK. He spends time watching British hockey games and catching up with friends, Dave Simms in Sheffield among them. Meanwhile, in Sheffield, some talk of a new outlook being formed among Sheffield ownership. Mention is made to Smith by those who have seen or heard about it in action of the benefits of a more “European” style of management. Conversations are had between Smith and Dave Simms as they begin planning for next season. There are the first whispers of a “new direction” for Sheffield-which some say are motivated by the Steelers looking with envious eyes at the stories Paul Thompson tells of his European adventure, of which he talks in glowing terms.

From this point on, the picture darkens. A portrait is forming from these fragments, and as it grows, it is not one that looks good for Adams. There is talk now that his fate was sealed in those talks between Simms and Smith in the February nights and days, as he toiled unaware. Perhaps, as well, a successor was decided upon…not necessarily solely by Tony Smith.

The Sixth Fragment – March 2015. Adams’ revitalized Steelers team is engaged in a fight for the title with resurgent Cardiff and faltering Braehead. The man himself is settled in Sheffield, as is his family…fervent Steelers fans who love their adopted city. They are popular and sought out by Dave Simms at games and on Twitter…Gerad’s wife Nina is a fervent Sheffield cheerleader on social media and as popular a figure in Sheffield as her husband. Weekly meetings between Adams and Smith have continued all year (again, this is a point that will be important later). The Steelers lose the Challenge Cup Final to Cardiff, but roar back to take an emotional league title win a few weeks later. Adams is hailed as a hero. And yet, curiously, Smith does not congratulate Adams publicly for his leading the team to a league win.

The Seventh Fragment – Sheffield lose the playoff finals. However, Tony Smith remains upbeat. Sheffield are already planning for next season – Adams is being asked to sign players-there are meetings around the table and boasts of plans being made for next season, along with contract negotiations and signings being completed, such as that with Mathieu Roy, much to Steeler fans delight. However, there is tension here too.

The Eighth Fragment – Rumours emerge that with several EIHL coaching jobs in the offing, Paul Thompson is open to a return to Britain. Speculation has him going to Nottingham – but this is quashed by the Panthers electing to stick with Corey Neilson. However, hints are coming out of the Sheffield office of “big news” from those in the know. The Steelers are already talking of “changes” to prepare for Europe. Are friendships at least partly driving those  changes?

The Ninth Fragment – Adams is sacked in a brief meeting, to the shock and surprise of both Steeler fans and the man himself. Even those usually in the know, outside of a few in Sheffield are surprised…there had been suggestions from some within the Sheffield organisation that changes would come with “a new broom” at the helm, but this would be an announcement of a coach who would replace Adams when all formalities were completed “if they could find the right man”.

The same Sheffield source also claims that this course was agreed upon “in February, whatever the outcome” and that Sheffield were one Edinburgh loss from winning nothing. The Sheffield players, though they remain quiet publicly, are staggered – they knew nothing…not even captain Jonathan Phillips. However, there are vague suggestions that more than one person is doing the recruiting at Sheffield now.

Adams’ assistant and faithful Steeler servant Neil Abel is also announced to be leaving the club by the Steelers.

The Tenth Fragment – After the sacking, Sheffield organisation members seem far less surprised than one would expect at the sacking of a league-winning coach. Some usually vocal are strangely brief in paying public tributes to AdamsTony Smith himself claims that the vast majority of Steelers fans support this move – a curious reaction to the outpouring of shock on most social media. He also claims that they already have a replacement in mind for Adams…a replacement that is rumoured strongly to be none other than….Paul Thompson. The template claimed as “a vision” also uncannily matches that already expounded many times by Thompson in regard to the best way for clubs to develop GB players.

Adams’ assistant Neil Abel says that he is still a Steelers employee, and has not been told of his future by the club.

The Eleventh Fragment – As signings begin, it emerges from Sheffield player chatter that Mathieu Roy’s new contract was negotiated with Adams for around £750 a week…then Tony Smith stepped in and “took control” of negotiations, undermining his coach and readjusting the terms. The adjusted contract is described as “gigantic” for the EIHL-with a wage figure north of £1200 a week. This is widely seen as very similar to Paul Ragan’s tactic in Cardiff of offering huge wages to star players to “keep them happy” under a new coach. Mike Forney in particular is said to have told other teams that he, too, had negotiated with Adams and was ready to sign a deal far below this level. Understandably, the hike in Roy’s wages by Smith leads to a little unrest, with players increasingly seeing the ownership as “a joke”.

The Twelfth Fragment – Sheffield call a press conference for Thursday 30th April. Barely two weeks after the sacking, they are rumoured to have found their man…another very fast turnaround. Rumours abound once again, fed by all the other fragments, that Adams’ actual sacking was planned by Tony Smith for early May,  brought forward as negotiations with the “replacement” proceeded faster than expected.

The Thirteenth Fragment – The stories in the Sheffield Star continue – with a suggestion that “observers say Adams and Smith didn’t communicate enough”…a strange thing for those observers to say if they knew about the weekly meetings between owner and coach and indeed those post-season. There’s also, as mentioned, veiled hints by Steelers insiders that Adams was not the man for the job in the Star and defensive quotes from Tony Smith saying “the majority support my decision” when the opposition on Sheffield’s forum is there for all to see.

The Portrait – Put these facts together, and a stark portrait emerges…a picture of Gerad Adams, a proud man who has done everything possibly asked of him, lifting the EIHL league trophy while shadows already lurk in the background with knives raised, ready to bury in his back. One must wonder what Tony Smith considers success, if two trophies in a 14 month tenure are not successful enough.

It is known around the league and often speculated upon that Tony Smith sets great store by the opinions of fans he sees on Steeltalk, Sheffield’s forum, and the club monitors it strongly to use it as a “barometer”…the relentless criticism of Doug Christiansen by fans on the forum has been implicated strongly by league insiders as a major influence for Christiansen’s early sacking and the quote of a Steeltalk moderator’s signature is Smith himself praising the content.

However, it is also speculated that Tony Smith is a man easily influenced. By those close to him, by fan opinion, by recommendations of others. This has never been a question – at times there have even been private boasts from some in UK hockey of the influence they may or may not wield at the Motorpoint.

The fragments floating round this attic have been different each time these past three years in Sheffield, but they have always formed similar portraits. Portraits of coaches with proud ambitions, hard work, and pedigree…all with shadows lurking, just waiting for an opportunity to bury the knife. Finnerty, Christiansen, and now Adams…all have fallen victim to the coaching meat-grinder that is the Sheffield Steelers under the capricious rule of Tony Smith and his circle of Steelers stalwarts. All now have the portraits of the ugly end to their tenures on the wall.

One already wonders how long it will be before the new coach is added, and what story the fragments will tell this time.

It seems that Tony Smith runs his kingdom like that of Westeros in Game Of Thrones – he rules it, aided by a trusted Hand Of The King-like figure who speaks for him and the Steelers when he’s not around, and who can often wield power simply by whispering into Smith’s ear. Whoever that might be.

One thing is certain…just like a hockey Game Of Thrones, when you sit on the Steel Throne…you play the game of intrigue well, or you die.

As Smith washes his hands of the blood of another coach, and the portraits in the attic stare it seems that in Sheffield, sometimes even playing the game perfectly, by the rules they set, isn’t enough to save you if the wrong people don’t want you to win it.

The betrayal of Gerad Adams tells us that, if nothing else.

Lions V The World: GB’s World Championship Preview

This Monday, Great Britain take on the rest of the world in their annual trip to the Ice Hockey World Championships, held this year in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Under new coach Pete Russell (their fourth in as many World Champs) the new young Lions will be taking on S.Korea, Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia and the host country the Netherlands in a bid to return to division 1A, the “second tier” of the World Championships. With a roster containing several new faces and a pair of warm-up wins against Poland giving the team heart, they’ll travel hopeful of returning back up to the second tier of world hockey. But there are five teams standing in their way. Here’s all you need to know about each team ahead of the tournament.

GREAT BRITAIN (ranked 22)

The Lions travel with one of their strongest squads in a while, and also one of their most fresh-faced. Pete Russell hasn’t been shy in ringing the changes in his first World Championships, cutting much of the stalwart older generation of the past few years in favour of youth and speed. Notable GB fixtures to miss out include Jason Hewitt and Ashley Tait as new names Joey Lewis and Jack Prince make the step up, along with Jonathan Boxill, who has been very impressive for Nottingham Panthers since returning from North American juniors two years ago. Josh Batch finally gets a much-deserved chance on defence, too.

This is still a team that will rely heavily on stars like Ben O’Connor on the blue-line and Colin Shields, Rob Dowd and Craig Peacock up front though. In net Ben Bowns goes into his first tournament as unquestioned starter after being one of the goalies of the tournament last year and following it up with a superb season for Cardiff this time round.

The new squad is travelling hopefully after two wins against Poland in the warm-up phase, but its opening game against Croatia is crucial and could set the tone for the tournament-it’ll show just how far they’ve come compared to a comparable hockey power who’ve gone all out to improve their international standing rather than following the “evolution” path favoured by the Brits.

The GB squad will be expecting at least a bronze from this tournament, but are aiming higher still..with a group of new young players beginning to be given their chances and the squad in a transitional phase, it’ll be interesting to see just how good they are.

KEY PLAYER: Ben O’Connor – The defenceman is a leader both in his own zone and going forward, and is the brightest star of this GB team having spent several years in Kazakhstan. Anything good offensively will likely go through him, particularly on the powerplay…he’ll provide most of the blueline impetus going forward and will be expected to be a major contributor on both ends of the ice in this World Championships.

ESTONIA (ranked 29)

The little nation from the Baltic Sea is very much the underdog in this tournament-the Estonians come to this group having been promoted and relegated twice each in the last five years, and are the expected basement team in this group…with only seven rinks in the country and a five-team domestic league, they’re not exactly one of the toughest powers GB will face.

They’re also one of the youngest countries in the entire World Championships, with many of their players under 25 – over half of them, in fact. There is experience, too, in 36-year-old defenceman Lauri Lahesalu and 35-year-old forward Andrei Makrov, but the player to watch is 21-year-old Robert Rooba, who already plays in Finland’s Liiga with Espoo Blues and was key in their promotion effort last year…he’s Estonia’s brightest prospect.

The Estonians won’t be seriously expecting promotion or even to run the big teams close (last time they played GB they were beaten 7-0), but they will hope to play spoiler and will not be underestimated by any opponent.)

KEY PLAYER – Robert Rooba – The young forward is Estonia’s crown jewel of hockey players at the moment, and his speed, energy and experience already at a level much higher than most GB players means he’ll provide a test for GB when they meet.

LITHUANIA (ranked 26)

Last year’s hosts will not, according to reports, have their country’s proudest hockey export Dainius Zubrus on their roster, as the NHLer’s season in New Jersey finishes only two days before this championship starts – but the Lithuanians, like Great Britain, are looking to transition from the old into the new this World Championships. The Lithuanian roster will have a whole bunch of names familiar to British fans – Mindaugas Kieras on defence and Darius Pliskauskas and Donatas Kumeliauskas up front have all spent time in the UK’s EPL, as has Egidijus Bauba, brother of UK cult figure and Lithuanian legend Dino Bauba.

Under a German coach, and with half their team also clubmates at Energija Elektrenai, the Lithuanians know each other well and are sure to be a well-drilled unit-they took bronze last year in their home arena in Vilnius and will have an eye on repeating that showing in Eindhoven. They’re not one of the best teams at the tournament but will likely be well in the mix for a potential medal with GB, and should be watched carefully. However, with the Brits losing 2-1 to them last time out, there’s little to choose between the countries on paper.

KEY PLAYER – Mantas Armalis: The young netminder plays his club hockey in Sweden for Djurgardens Stockholm – and coming from the SEL, you can bet he’ll be well used to facing the quality of shots he’ll face in this tournament. If the Lithuanians can frustrate the stronger attacking teams in this group, they have more than a chance, and Armalis will be key in their strategy.

SOUTH KOREA (ranked 23)

South Korea are an example of what can happen when a team commits fully to improving its domestic programme and puts all available resources into it-few teams have risen as far or as fast in the world rankings (with the possible exception of their opponents in this group, Croatia) and they travel to Eindhoven in clear hope of a gold medal. As well as strong domestic players, the South Koreans have also taken full advantage of the dual-nationality system, with Brock Radunske and Mike Swift being joined at this tournament by former AHLer Mike Testwuide – the 6’5 forward will carry a lot of the weight of expectation this time round after scoring 90 points in 120 games in the Asia league.

Also familiar to British eyes will be centre Woo-Sang Park – the former Coventry Blaze forward is a key contributor for his country. But perhaps the name that will most resonate with British fans is coach Jimmy Paek – a former Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh and a Nottingham Panthers legend who is a hockey god in his home country.

Like the Lithuanians, the majority of the Korea squad play for one club team – Anyang Halla, which will ensure that they know each other well. Radunske and Testwuide will likely lead the offensive charge, and the Koreans are a fast, skilled team that will put up a formidable obstacle as they challenge for gold and promotion. They’re also younger and hungrier than the team relegated from Div 1A last season, and with nine players 25 or under, they’re showing the junior investment begun five years ago is also bearing fruit. They, along with Croatia, are the main threats to GB.

KEY PLAYER – Mike Testwuide: Barely granted Korean citizenship in time for the tournament, the big former Adirondack Phantom has been prolific in Asia, scoring over 25 goals in all his seasons there. He has the pace and power to play the North American-style game the British players are used to and will be a force in front of the net, making space for those around him to weave their skills. He’s one of the most dangerous forwards in the tournament.

NETHERLANDS (ranked 25)

The Dutch are in a tricky position this tournament. With a domestic league full of struggles and having recently had support withdrawn from them by the Dutch Olympic committee, the Ijs-Oranje are in something of a downswing as they host this tournament. They’ve competed at Div 1B level since 2000, and have never really threatened either promotion or relegation until last year, where they only avoided it thanks to a 9-1 win over Romania on the final day.

This Dutch team warmed up with two friendlies against ice-hockey powerhouse…er…Belgium. They were unable to travel any further due to the aforementioned budget constraints. However, they hope that hosting the tournament will bring attention to the sport in the Netherlands that’s much needed after a tricky season.

As far as players go, the entire squad is domestic-based, with the exception of forward Nardo Nagtzaam. The majority come from two teams-Tilburg and Heereenveen – unsurprising since these are the teams that dominated the Dutch league by some way this season. In forwards Peter van Biezen and captain Diederick Hagemeijer, along with the aforementioned Nagtzaam, who plays his hockey in the US NCAA, they have a capable first line, but goalie Ian Meierdries is sometimes suspect and the defence is…well, anonymous. Kevin Bruijsten has had an excellent season in France’s Ligue Magnus and will be hoping to make some noise at this tournament, too.

The Dutch are hoping to put on a good show on home ice in Eindhoven, but will likely finish outside the medal places, unless the home crowd can lift them to unforeseen heights. They are more than capable of acting as spoilers to another team’s medal ambitions if caught on a good night, though.

Key Player: Diederick Hagemeijer (F) – The big Dutch captain is something of a talisman for his country in recent years, and along with Nagtzaam provides a dangerous combination of skill, speed and size. He’s the player the Dutch look to to set the tone and lead them going forward, and he’ll have to use all his leadership skills to carry his country beyond mediocrity in this tournament

CROATIA (ranked 28)

Ignore the world ranking – this could be the year that Croatian hockey really starts to make itself noticed. With the rise of Medvescak Zagreb in the KHL has come the rise of a Croatian team previously too good for Div II but not good enough for Div I. GBs first opponents this time round present an intimidating prospect thanks to the array of dual-national talent they can boast from the net out.

Mark Dekanich has been a top AHL goalie and was phenomenal for Zagreb in the KHL in his first season before struggling a little more this time out-he will share duties with team-mate Mate Tomljenovic between the pipes. In front of him a very North American-looking defence boasts quality from top to bottom in the likes of veteran Alan Letang, Andy Sertich and Kenny MacAulay.

However, it’s up front where the star power really hits – Ryan Kinasewich, Andrew Murray and Mike Glumac are all dangerous, with Murray having a resume few forwards at this level can boast – 221 NHL games. Kinasewich in particular is an offensive force when he gets going, having been prolific both in North America (103 points in his last ECHL season) and in Austria.

They’re a big team, too, and under coach Donald MacLean they joyfully play a gritty American style mixed with a little Eastern European skill. Their roster is built of players with impressive CVs, most of whom currently play at the top levels in Europe. They’re a very strong team indeed.

One ray of hope for the opposition – they’ll be missing Croatia’s first NHLer Borna Rendulic, who is nursing a broken foot, but GB’s first opponents are one of the favourites for gold along with South Korea. They’re the toughest possible test for the Lions in their opening game.

Key Player – Andrew Murray: This guy might be the best individual player in the tournament. Certainly he comes with arguably the most impressive CV – the big Manitoban has played 221 NHL games for the Columbus Blue Jackets and while he’s not a big scorer at all, he’s the player who’ll make the space and time for his linemates to do their thing. Hitting like a train and a demon forechecker at this level, he’ll relish hunting down opposition defencemen and making life hard for them.

So – that’s all you need to know about GB’s World Championships campaign. Don’t forget that if you’re in Britain, you can watch the GB games live on Premier Sports…I will be throughout the week.

Good luck, GB. Do your country proud.