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.

EIHL 14/15 Review Part II: The Erhardt Conference

We’ve already looked back at the Gardiner Conference season. Now it’s time to look at the other five EIHL teams, in a conference that had angels passing, redemption songs and incredible turnarounds. It’s the Erhardt Conference.

NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS – TRAVEL SICKNESS 

“And after midnight we’re all the same
No glass shoe to bring us fame
Nobody to take the blame
We’re falling apart”

The Birthday Massacre: “Kill The Lights”

The Panthers this season were an endlessly frustrating team. When they were good, they were very good. When they were bad, they were awful. A season that saw the highs of Champions’ Hockey League competition and a memorable win against the DEL’s Hamburg Freezers coupled with the lows of failing to seriously be in the hunt for any trophies (not even making the playoff weekend at their own rink) means the Erhardt Conference trophy once scorned by the Panthers fans when they didn’t take it in more successful “Grand Slam winning” times is now being held up as consolation.

This offseason will be about reloading. It’ll also be about finding someone to take the blame for 14/15, and that responsibility will likely fall squarely on the shoulders of coach Corey Neilson. The Panthers have already begun signing players for the new season but have made no announcement on who will be behind the bench…admittedly it’s early, but the fact that they have already said that they’ll be “considering all the options” sounds ominous for the Panthers coach.

On the ice, the team simply never really settled. Craig Kowalski getting injured didn’t help the cause, but the roster turnover for the CHL competition, increased travelling and big-ticket players like David Clarke getting injured were killers early in the season. Later on, the team just wasn’t consistent enough, and suffered loss after loss to the supposedly “weaker” Gardiner Conference as early-season caustic comments about the Scottish teams came back to haunt them again and again. Bright spots were the play of Sam Oakford, Stevie Lee and young Brits Ollie Betteridge, Lewis Hook and Jordan Cownie, stepping up from the EPL…Cownie has already signed in Braehead and the Panthers will no doubt be after the other two. As far as imports went, Brandon Benedict was his usual dependable self, Chris Lawrence answered criticisms aplenty throughout the year, and Evan Mosey, unheralded at the beginning of the season, became a star and one of the Panthers most important players.

However, this will be an important offseason for the Panthers, as they decide whether or not to take the team in a different direction to the one it’s been for the past few years. A lot could hinge on the decision.

BELFAST GIANTS –  THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT

I’m feeling stuck here, break it up, break it up.
A little low here, take it up, take it up.
I’m getting bored here,shake it up with me, now.”

Tonight Alive: “Thank You And Goodnight”

This was the same Giants team in large part as last season’s dominant run…but the result under Steve Thornton was very different. A team that saw much-heralded signing Kevin Westgarth simply fail to perform for large stretches of the year, Thornton hockey at times suck the life out of the joyful, enterprising squad who played last year under Paul Adey, and a team that fans never knew was going to turn up on any given night.

Some things in Belfast remained constant. Adam Keefe continued to be one of the best leaders if not THE best in the EIHL, causing havoc along with partner-in-crime Daryl Lloyd. Rob Sandrock’s swansong year saw him play as well as he ever has in the EIHL going forward and continue to terrorise goalies with his slapshot, and Carsen Chubak earned fan-favourite status with his performances in relief of Stephen Murphy when the latter was injured.

Ironically, we only saw the best of this Giants team in their penultimate game…a trip to Cardiff for the playoff quarter-final 2nd leg in which the Giants were imperious, unstoppable and looked more like the team that the Giants were last season. The loss on penalties in the playoff semi-final was a sad end to a season that held so much promise in August.

Players still performed well…Ray Sawada was a standout…but the Giants simply looked like this was an “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” season for this roster. This summer, like Nottingham, will see the Giants have to retool and rebuild…Giants fans will not accept another season like this one.

SHEFFIELD STEELERS – ANGELS PASSING

Mine is yours and yours is mine
There is no divide
In your honour”

Foo Fighters: “In Your Honour”

The Sheffield Steelers are once again EIHL league champions, streaking to the title thanks to riding a workhorse of a first line. In Colton Fretter, Michael Forney and EIHL Player of the Year Mathieu Roy they put together a terrifying first unit that could often win games by itself, backed up by an excellent season from Frank Doyle and his unheralded injury replacement Josh Unice and solid play in both zones from a blue-line led by Ben O’Connor and Darrell Hay throughout the season.

The Steelers also raliied behind the cause of Amy Usher, a fan and cancer sufferer, adopting her as a mascot and “guardian angel” throughout the season…the league title win against Cardiff barely days after she sadly succumbed to her illness was one of the most emotional title wins seen in many years. The Steelers worked their way throughout the season and were terrifyingly efficient at their best. Tyler Mosienko had his own quiet redemption story on the second line, and Jeff Legue’s return to EIHL action mid-season after moving to the EPL’s Sheffield Steeldogs ended in triumphant fashion with the league-winning goal.

However, it didn’t all run smoothly for Sheffield. A great comeback against Nottingham in the semi finals of the Challenge Cup was followed by a loss to Cardiff in their own arena in the Challenge Cup Final, followed by a loss to Coventry in the playoff finals to break any hope of a dominant season. However, they’ve already started to build for next season in the hope of carrying on the momentum – Mathieu Roy is already back in Sheffield for two more years, possibly the most important single player in the EIHL, and Gerad Adams is ready to build for further success.

The Steelers seem settled for a while yet, but there may be just a little thought of “it was a great season, but it could’ve been so much better” as they head into this summer.

CARDIFF DEVILS – REDEMPTION SONGS

Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods?
Are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear yet, in the clear, yes, good”

Taylor Swift: “Out Of The Woods”

There has been no better story this season than that of the Cardiff Devils, though those in Coventry will no doubt argue strongly for their case. Last season things in South Wales were as dark as they’d been in a while – then Todd Kelman and his ownership group turned things around in a way not even the most optimistic Devils fan could ever have foreseen.

Andrew Lord’s first coaching year was one for the ages-the Vancouverite player-coach put together a team that was not only ideal for the tight confines of the Big Blue Tent but equally capable of competing on the bigger ice surfaces elsewhere in the league. Backed by an off-ice team that made Devils fans fall in love with their team again and created a culture in which representing Wales and the Red Army was paramount and what the team valued above all else, and boy did it work.

Standout players were Joey Martin up front, EIHL Defenseman of the Year Andrew Hotham and Tyson Marsh on the blueline, and Ben Bowns finishing his ascension to true elite status among EIHL netminders. But it’s hard to pick out just a few players from a team that quickly became the most connected with its fanbase in the EIHL, with the possible exception of Fife and Braehead. Doug Clarkson proved any doubters at the beginning of the season wrong as he became a cult hero, Trevor Hendrikx made a season of smashing opposition players through the boards must-watch hockey and Chris Culligan was the personification of quiet competence.

The Devils were rewarded for their efforts with the Challenge Cup, and fought for the league title until passed by Sheffield, but the key thing about this season was that it brought the fun factor and belief back to Cardiff. Todd Kelman, Andrew Lord and his off-ice team have laid the foundations for a juggernaut to be built in South Wales to rival those of the Devils history over the next few years, and with a new ice arena to be opened at the end of this year if all goes to plan, things can only get better still.

The Devils aren’t just out of the woods – this season has put them back on the road to the mountain top.

COVENTRY BLAZE – THE WEBER REVOLUTION

these are my words that i’ve never said before
i think i’m doing okay
i’m so afraid of waking
please don’t shake me”

Staind: So Far Away

The Coventry Blaze’s season was turned around by one man this year. Chuck Weber, hired in December to replace Marc Lefebvre, who had assembled a talented roster on paper that looked disspirited, disconnected and clueless on the ice and divided into cliques and unhappy off it, performed a turn-around that nobody could reasonably have expected, not even those in the Blaze organisation who hired him to clear up the mess their “safe” appointment of Lefebvre had initially made in a desperate and last-ditch attempt to save a club coming apart at the seams.

Weber did what Lefebvre failed to – saw the roster’s biggest strength in Netminder Of The Year Brian Stewart and built upon his broad shoulders, instituting a system that was suffocating, lacked flair and creativity for the most part and was about as pretty to watch as an autopsy but by golly, was it effective. The Blaze became playoff champions despite having the lowest “goals for” average in the league by some margin, riding mainly on the stellar play of Stewart and the attacking efforts of Ryan O’Marra in a system built almost solely on hard work and simple defensive play.

Was Weber the “genius” Blaze fans like to portray him as? His system would suggest not – the entire ethos of it was based on playing “not to lose” rather than to win.

The genius was not in the system…any team can try to shut down a game and ride a hot goalie given a little luck…Montreal have gone to the top end of the NHL doing it this season, although they have the offensive flair to profit when the goalie has an off-night, which could have been Coventry’s Achilles heel.

The genius came in Weber realising that this was what his team was most capable of doing so quickly. With the exception of Ryan O’Marra, offensive flair was lacking…the team lost so many one-goal games it was untrue, and night after night, despite Blaze fans claiming otherwise, it was Brian Stewart who stood out as the star and probably the main reason for the team having a chance to win every night.

But what this Blaze team did have was the effort and workrate to shut down games if the coach used them right – and Weber got them to show it in a way they were either unable or unwilling to do for Lefebvre. By emphasising a system that focused on limiting the “harder” saves Stewart had to make over all else, the Blaze made his job easier, Weber played to the biggest strength his team had and negated the lack of offensive flair. Slowly, the results began to come.

There can be no better demonstration of Weber’s system working than the playoff semi-final v Belfast – a dull, dour game that Coventry squeezed the life out of, only attacking when they had to. It’s, ironically, the same system Blaze fans used to be so critical of used by Rick Strachan in Hull, or close to the dreaded “trap”. But it was the perfect system for this Blaze team, and they implemented it beautifully.

Against Sheffield in the playoff final, Weber finally let the leash off his players, and they used their freedome to blow the Steelers away as Sheffield simply didn’t turn up for large parts of the biggest game of the year.

Now, with Brian Stewart already signed up for two more years, the biggest question in Coventry is…can they keep their Messiah? Weber has a contract offer on the table, but bigger teams are sure to come calling. If they do, all the good work could be undone, which could make for a nervous summer in Coventry once the euphoria dies down.

However, if Weber returns, then the Blaze are well and truly capable of heating up once again. However ugly it may be to watch them do so. But the simple truth is…Coventry need him far more than he needs them.

That’s the end of the Erhardt Conference review, and the end of the 2014/15 EIHL season. On to the World Championships we go.

EIHL Season Review Part I: The Gardiner Conference

After eight months, several hundred games, controversy and arguments galore and some superbly exciting hockey, the EIHL season came to a close on Sunday with the presentation of the EIHL playoff trophy (in case you missed it, by the way, Coventry won it).

Focus now moves to the Great Britain team and their efforts in the World Championships in Eindhoven…and of course Chasing Dragons will be following that chase before it too, goes off on a summer break.

First of all, though, it’s time to bring the curtain down on the EIHL season with the season review. Today, the Gardiner Conference…tomorrow, the Erhardt Conference. Let’s take the teams one by one.

BRAEHEAD CLAN – WINNING WHILE LOSING

“.t’s not your fault,.
Oh, it’s not that you should care.
I just wanted you to know”

AWOLNATION: “Not Your Fault”

The Clan had everything in place this season for it to be a truly famous one. An excellent team, a passionate fanbase, and an organisation ready to take the step to title winners. And for most of the season, it looked like this could be a true dream season for the Clan, as they bulldozed through all comers and took a commanding lead at the top of the EIHL table. Then, slowly, they began to lose it, as losses against their title rivals, discipline problems to key players and the odd slightly-less-than-optimal performance in the second half of the season saw Sheffield overtake them in the league standings, a quarter-final exit in the Challenge Cup and a heartbreaking shock loss to Hull in the playoff quarter-finals. However, the Clan can’t be too disappointed. In five years they’ve gone from expansion franchise to 3,000+ attendances on a regular basis, sellouts aplenty and representing the Elite League in the Champions Hockey League, as well as unquestionably being the powerhouses of the Gardiner Conference. The Clan are here to stay, and there could well be more success ahead in the coming seasons, particularly with Coach Of the Year Ryan Finnerty signed up for another two years.

FIFE FLYERS – ONE STEP CLOSER

“I wanna walk up the side of the mountain
I wanna walk down the other side of the mountain…”

Granddaddy: “Nature Anthem”

Fife Flyers could be on the verge of something akin to what’s been achieved in Braehead. This season, once again under the careful stewardship of Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart, they’ve had a season that flirted with doing potentially great things but fell just short of ever really giving the “big boys” of the EIHL trouble. That’s not the fault of the team or the coaches, both of whom probably performed about to the expectations most in Kirkcaldy would expect from them. The question is, as UK hockey people like Dave Simms have already mentioned on Twitter to widespread agreement from Flyers fans, is that they could do more if the purse strings were loosened a little.

Certainly the foundations are there, with the fans regularly packing the FIA despite their team not really being in serious trophy contention this season. The question this offseason will be…is perennially finishing in the lower reaches of the playoffs and 2nd/3rd in the Conference enough, or do the Fife owners, having seen the rise of Braehead, want to commit to pushing their team over the mountain and into line with the big-budget EIHL teams?

HULL STINGRAYS – THE PLUCKY UNDERDOGS

And when you decked me
You left me knocked out on the floor
I came to bloodied up, but you weren’t around
I picked my teeth off the ground like they’d been there before”

Alkaline Trio: “Bloodied Up”

It’s been another season where the Stingrays have teased their fans, and gone from sublime to ridiculous and back again. Not expect to have much of a impact on the season as a whole as they adjusted under rookie coach Omar Pacha, the Jellyfish have instead come together as a group of young players full of speed and energy, proving that the fearlessness of youth can take you a long way.

They were, however, helped in this regard immeasurably by the silky skills of Carl Lauzon, who is fast becoming a Stingrays legend…the Montrealer led the team in scoring ahead of lightning bolt Jordan Mayer and Cory Tanaka, brother of Coventry’s Cale. The Stingrays went on a playoff run full of shocks, beating Braehead in overtime of the second leg of the quarter finals before playing a pulsating game against Sheffield in the semis that they lost in heartbreaking fashion with 3.8 seconds to go thanks to a disputed Mathieu Roy goal.

However, with Pacha and Lauzon already signed up for next season, there is more optimism in Hull than we’ve seen in a few seasons – the Stingrays will always be one of the “smaller” teams in the EIHL but are slowly and steadily carving themselves a solid position in the Gardiner Conference reckoning. It’s up to Pacha and Lauzon now to build on a pleasing first season’s effort in 2015/16.

EDINBURGH CAPITALS – ALL CHANGE

Josey, don’t you worry
It’s just a phase you’re going through
Some day you’ll know just what to do”

Hey Monday: “Josey”

The Richard Hartmann Euro Experiment has come to an end in Edinburgh this season, as the Caps took up their usual position in the “unlucky 9th” spot once again. The Caps are a team who could be so much more than they are given a little success – with the smallest crowds in the EIHL and a team that’s assembled on a relative shoestring despite the recruiting pull of the Scottish capital as a place to play, though, they’ll need one hell of a coach to get them towards it. In Richard Hartmann they had an accomplished player/coach and in Rene Jarolin they also had one of the most skilful and unfairly under-rated players in the league, but this year was the same song Caps fans had been used to for far too long…a team that showed flashes of competing and on its good nights was a joy to watch, but in the end simply didn’t have the depth or arguably the sustained quality to compete with the big boys.

This offseason, Hartmann has already paid with his job (although reading from the press release it seems maybe the man himself had decided it was time for someone else to take the problem of the sleeping giant in Murrayfield on to try and awaken it, and so next year will look very different in Edinburgh, at least in terms of the makeup of the roster and the men running it. But this year there’s a real need for the Caps to do something, anything to shake things up. The Edinburgh crowd don’t expect miracles, but they would like a little more competitiveness in their team – with the rest of the EIHL improving, the Caps could be in danger of undoing all the good work beginning to be done off-ice if this trend continues.

DUNDEE STARS – BEAUTIFUL DISASTER

“And this judgement day is growing near
And this confession is killing me again
This beautiful tragedy is crashing into me”

In This Moment: “Beautiful Tragedy”

Oh, Dundee. This is a season that Jeff Hutchins and everyone associated with the Stars will want to forget. A team that looked promising and capable of building on the success of last year simply didn’t, as Jeff Hutchins’ squad lurched from defeat to crisis to losing run in a 2014/15 campaign that never really got going in any shape or form. 14 points out of a playoff spot and 13 behind Edinburgh in 9th, with only 14 games won all season, the Stars fell from the sky pretty quickly and were further hampered by the loss of their top scorer John Mitchell and the fact that their top scorer, Chris Blight, only scored 42 points all season, while goalie Marc Cheverie had the worst save percentage in the league, and was only .01 behind Tomas Hiadlovsky for GAA.

In short, the Stars were awful. This was a season to forget, and probably the less said about it, the better for Dundee fans. Never was the phrase “there’s always next year” more apt than for this team.

And with that, we conclude the Gardiner Conference. 2014/15 was a year which saw steady improvement from four of the five teams, but also showed how far some of them still have to go.

Dance Of (Sudden) Death: Why Your Team Will Win The EIHL Playoffs…And Why It Won’t

So, after a long, long season, the UK Elite League comes to its all-singing, all-dancing conclusion this weekend with the traditional weekend knees-up in Nottingham known as the Playoff Finals. Two semis on Saturday, and a final on Sunday (there’s also the consolation “bronze medal game” for the semi-final losers, but we’ll treat that game like the irrelevance it is for the vast majority of EIHL fans and not even discuss it).

Nottingham’s National Ice Centre will once again be a truly neutral venue this year thanks to the Chuck Weber Revolution in Coventry knocking out the hometown Panthers. With unfancied Hull knocking out Braehead and Belfast knocking out Cardiff, only one of the top-four from the regular season makes it, but that one is league champions Sheffield, who are already positioned as favourites and have the high expectations of their fanbase riding on their shoulders as they look to complete a double season.

However, as we know in the playoffs, when you’re two games from success, anyone can win, and anyone can lose. On Saturday all four teams have 60 minutes to extend their season one more meaningful day and finish the year with playoff glory. Anything can happen.

So, let’s look at how all four teams in Nottingham can become playoff champions this weekend. And also how they can lose it.

SHEFFIELD STEELERS – THE UNCROWNED KINGS

Why they’ll win the title: That top line, for a start. The trio of Mike Forney, Colton Fretter and consensus Elite League Player Of The Year Mathieu Roy is one of, if not the most lethal unit in the league, bar none. Those three players should see Gerad Adams thanking the hockey gods for their chemistry, scoring ability and more to the point ability to produce in the (vast majority) of big games. Behind them, Josh Unice has been a revelation in net after being brought in as an unheralded “temporary” replacement for the injured Frank Doyle, and defensively the Steelers have been far stronger and more composed than this season with the likes of Ben O’Connor and Darrell Hay being valuable contributors at both ends of the ice.

But the main terror is up front. When they’re on their game, the Steelers can roll four strong lines that attack in waves and in Mathieu Roy they’ve got one of the most dangerous forwards the EIHL has ever seen. When on their game, Sheffield will just keep knocking on the door until they batter it down-and that’s what they’ll need to do against the opposition this weekend.

Why they’ll lose the title: Sometimes, Sheffield simply don’t turn up. Or if they do, they’re neutralised by a team that’s worked out the way they play and counters it perfectly. If they’re not given space and time and allowed to play their high-tempo, high-intensity game, then the Steelers can run riot, particularly if their special teams are firing (look at their 11-0 victory over title rivals Cardiff). However, if the other team is shutting that game down…there’s not much of a plan B (again, look at Sheffield v Cardiff-this time the Challenge Cup Final). The Steelers have all the talent, and sometimes all the workrate…but when one or the other decides not to be at full contribution, they have looked a very ordinary team – as shown by the fact that against their own conference they actually have a slightly lower win percentage than Nottingham, and relied on a near-100% record v Gardiner teams to carry them over the league line (funny, all that moaning about Braehead riding a weaker conference to a title seems to have stopped now).

They’re also the favourites, so are going out there with a massive target on their backs. It only takes one team to hit it over the weekend, or a hot goalie on the other team, and they might see their dream turn to a nightmare.

HULL STINGRAYS – THE MIRACLE-IN-WAITING

Why they’ll win: The Stingrays, simply put, have nothing to lose. They are the team who’ve already slain one titan in order to be here, coming from behind against Braehead to win in OT of the 2nd leg. They’re already above their season expectations, arguably, just by making it to the weekend.
But they’re not a team to discount. If you were designing a team to win an individual hockey game against more skilled and talented opponents, then Hull’s disruptive-yet-fearless style is one that you’d seriously consider emulating. They’ve got young players who’ve become stars this season in Jordan Mayer, Zach Hervato and the (unfortunately injured) Cory Tanaka, and have proven many times this season that, over 60 minutes, they are more than capable of beating more illustrious opponents. Add in a bit of local spice with the Yorkshire Derby in the semi final and anything can happen.

Why they won’t win: All of the benefits for Hull – that they’re coming in with an underdog spirit, can beat any team on any night, etc…are also, ironically, reasons why they may not. In David Brown the Stingrays have a useful netminder, but can he stand up to the onslaught of Sheffield in the semi final – a team that has won 15 games more than them?
A young squad with an average age of 25 is a factor here, too…all the other teams in the finals are far more experienced and come with far greater pedigree, so there is absolutely no margin for error whatsoever. Coach Omar Pacha knows his team will have to play smart and simple, restricting the scoring chances…can they do that consistently enough to stop not just the powerhouse Steelers, but whoever they face in the final?

COVENTRY BLAZE – THE SPOILERS

Why they’ll win: The Blaze have seen an incredible turnaround from a collection of individuals who barely seemed to know where many were on the ice under Marc Lefebvre to a cohesive, hard-working if uninspiring unit under Chuck Weber. But one thing has remained common under both coaches – their unstinting reliance on Brian Stewart in net. It’s amazing the Canadian hasn’t already needed extensive back surgery, since he’s been carrying 18 players in blue on it for practically all of the past 8 months, and Chuck Weber’s defence-first system has only exacerbated the strain. However, Stewart has responded admirably, and is arguably the biggest reason the Blaze are here at all, never mind why they’ll win the title.

However, the Blaze aren’t just a one-man team…they also rely equally heavily on offensive talisman Ryan O’Marra. Practically anything good this team does going forward involves the big centre…he’s their leader in goals, assists and points for a reason. If he doesn’t fire, the Blaze don’t. If he does, and the team commit to Weber’s defence first strategy, then they’re tough to break down and will always be in games. That could be crucial this weekend.

Why they won’t win: You can’t build a castle on foundations of sand, and you can’t build a consistently successful team that relies so heavily on so small a number of players. Brian Stewart HAS to be on his game for the Blaze. If he is even slightly less than excellent, then the low-scoring Blaze offence simply cannot be relied upon to bail him out, both due to the lack of true scorers and Weber’s defence-first, rigid system. If there’s the slightest chink in the armour, then the likes of Belfast and Sheffield will exploit it ruthlessly.

The Blaze are like Sheffield in the respect that they, too, can often simply decide not to turn up. Mentally, the team are capable of imploding at the worst possible moment into penalty trouble, too…something that could be disastrous in a “lose-and-go-home” situation against a team just hitting form like Belfast – we’ve seen what the Giants did to Cardiff when they had an off day. They have history of disappearing in several elimination games this season-see the Challenge Cup QF first leg and both games of the semi, for example. Can they handle the pressure now the Blaze fanbase actually think they can win?

The Blaze fanbase are currently positioning themselves as the desperate hard-working underdogs…which is ironic when they have one of the most expensive rosters in the EIHL. This weekend is when we see for sure whether Chuck Weber can make the team, and his defence-first system, worth the investment put into it all year.

BELFAST GIANTS – THE RISING TIDE

Why they’ll win The Giants are the momentum team. They come into the weekend having pulled off a superb victory against the fancied Cardiff Devils in the quarter-finals, demolishing the Red Army in their own rink last Sunday with a superb, balanced display of attacking hockey that finally saw the team reach the potential that Giants fans think it should have hit all year and not just in patches. In Keefe-Lloyd-Garside they have the best shutdown line in the league, one that’s an absolute nightmare to play against and built for tight, hard-checking playoff games against stubborn opponents. They also have the added emotional motivation of Giants hero and talisman Rob Sandrock retiring after this weekend, which could carry them through to greater feats when the chips are down, and an offensive unit that finally displayed its full power against Cardiff.
In facing Coventry they’re also being given an opponent that doesn’t really focus on exploiting their weaknesses…the Giants are more than capable of picking apart a defence-first system if necessary.
Then, of course, there’s the motivation of being losing playoff finalists last year…to Sheffield.That will have stung all year, and along with the loss of their league title, this is the perfect time for this Giants squad to show that it’s still hungry, still up for the fight, and to answer the criticisms it’s faced all year. That’s a powerful driving force.

Why they won’t win: For all the talk of the Giants dominance last year, this team is not that team. Others have improved and the league season showed that up in glaring fashion. Under a new coach, the Giants this year have not had the aura of invincibility they carried around last year.
Like Coventry and Sheffield, they’re also prone to off-nights…have one of those against the Blaze and their weekend could almost be over before it’s begun if Brian Stewart, as expected, is on form. The Giants also nearly sabotaged themselves against Cardiff last week thanks to penalty trouble…get into discipline problems this PO weekend and they’ll once again be asking for trouble.

So there we are. Four teams with an eye on the playoff trophy. All with a chance of winning it, and coverage live on Premier Sports.

It’s shaping up to be a hell of a weekend of hockey, whoever wins.

Good luck, gentlemen. May the best team win.

Judgement Weekend Update: The Final Picture

So, Sheffield beat Nottingham in overtime thanks to the vital-goal scoring machine and surely Steelers (and likely EIHL) Player of the Year Mathieu Roy. Here’s how the table looks now:

SHEFFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM (OT) GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 51 72 29 34
Cardiff 50 70 28 33
Braehead 50 69 31 33

So…how does that affect the title race?

First, bear in mind that any scenario that sees Braehead level on points with another team means the Clan finish higher. But, the Clan need to take at least three points from the weekend to get in amongst the title race, so we’re looking at them either winning or losing in OT. Anything else on either night will see them out of the title race.

SCENARIO 1: Sheffield Win (in regulation or OT)

Any Sheffield win will give them the title tomorrow night. It’s that simple.

So…we know that Cardiff have to win tomorrow to prevent the Steelers winning it, and Braehead also have to take at least a point on Saturday to even have a chance. Let’s take a look at the possible scenarios .

SCENARIO 2a: Cardiff win in Regulation, Braehead win:

Team GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Cardiff 51 72 29 34
Sheffield 52 72 29 34
Braehead 51 71 32 34

Cardiff go above Sheffield on the tiebreaker here (it’ll go past wins, regulation wins, AND record between the two teams all the way down to better away record) which means that they only need to match Braehead’s result on the Sunday to win the title. Braehead need to get a better result against Fife than Cardiff do v Nottingham on Sunday night.

SCENARIO 2b: Cardiff win in regulation, Braehead lose in OT

Team GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Cardiff 51 72 29 34
Sheffield 52 72 29 34
Braehead 51 70 31 33

In this situation, anything other than a Cardiff loss in regulation against Nottingham AND a Braehead win will give the Devils the title.

SCENARIO 2c: Cardiff win in OT, Braehead win

SHEFFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM (OT) GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 51 72 29 34
Cardiff 52 72 28 34
Braehead 51 71 31/32 34

This time round the scenario actually benefits Braehead the most. An OT for Cardiff and Braehead will mean that Sheffield stay above both on the tiebreaker. Assuming that doesn’t happen, the Devils have to get an equal or better result than that of the Clan on Sunday-the Clan, logically, then need a better result than the Devils on Sunday to win the title.

Another wrinkle here-in this situation the Clan only need an OT loss to leap into 2nd whatever the result of the title race-even if Cardiff take the title, to take the “other” CHL spot-which means that the Clan COULD potentially be in the position of winning the title on an OT loss in Fife.

That’s a little clearer than it was earlier this evening as far as the title goes, isn’t it? :)

Bring on the weekend.