Wade Belak, 1976-2011

Note: this was written one year ago today for one of my old hockey blogs, on hearing of the death of Toronto Maple Leafs (and former Coventry Blaze) enforcer Wade Belak. One year after his death, he is still hugely missed in Coventry. I was going to put a piece up marking the day, then revisited this and realised that I couldn’t possibly come up with anything better than I already had. This piece still remains one of the most painful pieces I’ve ever written. Posting it today as a tribute. Hopefully you’ve found peace, Mr. Belak. And thank you.

“They keep dying, Paul. They just keep dying”.

These were the words of my girlfriend, a fellow hockey fan, when she rang me to tell me of another death among the ranks of NHL enforcers on Wednesday night.

Today, the hockey world is mourning another fallen team-mate, with former Avalanche, Flames, Maple Leafs, Panthers and Predators enforcer Wade Belak being found dead in Toronto on Wednesday night at the age of 35.

He’s the third NHL enforcer to pass away this off-season, following Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien. And once again we see the tributes from players and fans on Twitter, the tribute articles like this one. We’ve been seeing them too often recently.

Wade Belak was a player known and respected throughout the world of hockey, and wherever he played he became a fan favourite for his sense of humour, willingness to stand up for his team-mates and honest, hardworking style. But he was never considered amongst the stars in the NHL.

After all, enforcers rarely get to be considered franchise players at any point in their professional careers. We can safely assume from the tributes of those that knew and played with him that he never really expected to be, either. Belak took immense pride in his role protecting his team-mates and often said he felt lucky to be able to earn his money playing a sport he loved.

But maybe, occasionally, he wondered what it would be like. All hockey players do. After all, they’re human.

When the NHL lockout took place and he left North America to play abroad during the long days of the 2004/05 season, Belak got to find out what it was like to be not the best player on not only a team, but maybe in a whole league.

He found himself in a city in central England, a country which views its hockey a little differently to North America. A country where hockey is a minority sport.

A country where, if they don’t go to the rink, fans can only see games televised through the team’s Internet sites, or through one hour-long highlights show a week and one live game a month on satellite TV (and when Belak was here, they didn’t even get that little luxury).

A country where soccer, rugby and cricket rule supreme.

But in the industrial city of Coventry, a slightly rundown but proud place famous for being one of the British centres of motor vehicle production (whose closest equivalent in the US both population and history-wise is probably Detroit, & is the home of the Coventry Blaze, one of the most successful teams in British ice-hockey) the name of Wade Belak is as legendary, if not more so, then it is in the hockey metropolis of Toronto. And right now, hockey fans in this town are grieving just as much as anyone in Maple Leaf, Avalanche, Panther, Flame or Predator country.

After all, Wade played for us, too.

The British Elite Ice Hockey League is a league where relative fringe AHL players can become superstars. Most of the overseas players come from either the ECHL or CHL. The top scorer last season was Jon Pelle, who scored 110 points last season after scoring 40 points the season before at the CHL’s Rapid City Rush.

In a league where CHL players can be superstars and the visit of a far-past-his-prime Theo Fleury is seen as the highest point of modern British hockey, in a country which has only ever had a handful of players even drafted to the NHL in the modern era, and only one even come close to making it (Northern Irish fans try to claim Owen Nolan, but most see him as North American along with Steve Thomas), fringe NHL players are a golden commodity.

When Belak came to the small, 2,500-seater rink in Coventry to make his debut there was barely a seat spare for his first game, and the excitement amongst hockey fans in my home town was palpable.

We’ve got an NHLer! Our small team has got a bona-fide NHL player!

Belak skated onto the ice to a warm reception. Even those who didn’t know hockey that well (and in Coventry there were a fair few at that time, as the team had only been in the city for four years in a city where soccer is king) knew that this guy was something out of the ordinary.

For a start, this was a player who, despite being questioned for his skill at an NHL level, projected a level of calm assurance which few Coventry fans had ever seen. His reputation may have come before him for those who knew, but even if you’d never seen a hockey game before that November night, you could tell that this was a big Canadian that you simply didn’t mess with.

He scored that night, a few hours after getting off a flight from Canada. If my memory serves me correctly, he also landed a hit that made the boards shake right round the rink on his first shift. The sharp collective intake of breath around the rink was clearly audible.

Jesus. So THAT’S what an NHL check looks like!

Throughout the rest of the season, Wade Belak worked himself deep into the hearts of Coventry hockey fans. His approachability off the ice (in Britain fans and players routinely mix in the rink bar after the game) meant that he was a fans’ favourite, and his sheer presence on it meant that the Blaze quickly became the most feared team in the league by opposition forwards. The defensive line of Belak and former ECHLer and DEL player Neal Martin was accepted by almost everybody as the best pairing in British hockey.

The team only lost once in regulation time between Belak’s signing and the end of the season, securing the league title with three games to go as the Blaze won every trophy it was possible to win in British hockey, including the playoffs.

And, just like in Toronto, any time a Blaze player needed someone to step in and back them up, Belak was there.

Blaze fans still talk of a late-season night in Cardiff, in the second leg of British hockey’s cup competition, the Challenge Cup Final. Blaze had won the first game in the two game series vs the Cardiff Devils (who had then-SJ Shark Rob Davison on their squad) 6-1, and with the match decided on aggregate goals and a five-goal lead, some thought the second leg was a mere formality.

It wasn’t. In one of the greatest games in Blaze history, the Devils went 4-1 up in their own rink in front of 2000 screaming Welsh fans and nearly a thousand travelling Blaze supporters, and came within a whisker of snatching the cup before Coventry stormed back to win the game 5-4 and the tie 11-5.

Up to this point (and beyond it, too), the NHL enforcer had mainly kept his gloves on, revelling in the increased icetime and offensive chances he’d been given. Coventry fans had seen Belak’s power once or twice, but he’d not fought for fun.

It was in this game, however, that the big blond boy from Saskatoon burned his name into the hearts of Blaze fans forever.

Late in a game that had already had several fights, Devils forward Russ Romaniuk checked Martin, the Blaze’s premier offensive blueliner, hard into the plexi from behind, injuring his collarbone.

With Blaze fans screaming for Romaniuk’s blood, Belak crossed the ice from his defensive side, grabbed the Devil, span him round, calmly dropped the gloves…and quietly and efficiently destroyed him.

The message was clear: You hurt my team-mate, whoever they are, and I will hand out justice in the most painful and immediate way possible.

It was a truly fine example of what an enforcer’s role is meant to be, executed by one of the best in the game.

After he returned to the NHL with Florida and Nashville, the BELAK #3 Maple Leaf shirts were still worn proudly at the Skydome, and still are today. Many Blaze fans consider themselves Leafs fans because of Wade’s time here.

And every off-season, when two or more Coventry hockey fans would meet and the talk would turn to off-season transfers and signings, someone would invariably say “wouldn’t it be great if we could get Wade back?”

Last Wednesday night, the Blaze had a pre-season game against those same Devils, and won 7-3. After the game, around 10pm British time, the fans were celebrating in the rink bar as always when news came through of Wade Belak’s death.

The noise level dropped, and the joy at a fine win which promised much for the coming season ebbed away as the news spread through the bar like a black cloud. Within minutes, people were on their phones, looking for confirmation.

Sadly, they got it.

In tribute to Wade, the Blaze are planning to hold a minute’s applause before this Saturday’s home game against Dutch side Geleen Eaters.

I can state with certainty that, while he may have only been part of Coventry hockey for a season, that round of applause will be loud and long.

In fact, it will be so loud that the hockey gods themselves will need earplugs. A man like Wade Belak deserves nothing less.

Farewell, Wade. Toronto and the rest of North America have offered their thanks, now fans of your British team offer ours.

From everyone involved in hockey in Coventry, thank you, sir. May you rest in peace.

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Game 1: Handbags, Hits and Hoopla (or, Devin 1, World, 0)

(note-for those of you waiting for the Gardiner Conference preview, that’ll come tomorrow now)

So, the EIHL season is officially underway thanks to the Cardiff Devils sneaking a two-one win against the Blaze at the Big Blue Tent last night.

Gerome Giudice gets the honour of being the first Blaze (and Elite League) goalscorer of the season, tapping home a Russ Cowley centering pass. The Devils responded with goals from Max Birbraer and Tyson Marsh to take first blood in a “friendly” that pushed the definition of the word to breaking point and beyond.

Like many, I couldn’t travel to Cardiff so was relying on the updates from Imagineer UK, who cover the Devils games and do great work getting highlights of key events up onto youtube mere moments after they happen.

Which means I, like everyone else, saw the youtube footage of everyone’s favourite mouth Devin Didiomete finally having to back up his ceaseless poking fun at Blaze players and fans on Twitter with his fists.

Unfortunately for the Cardiff man, his opponent was Benn Olson, who had roughly six inches and 40lbs worth of weight and height advantage, and used it to great effect. However, Didiomete stood up well to what in these parts is called “a shoeing” from the big Blaze defenceman, although his celebration at the end of the scrap was probably more to do with staying on his feet than actually winning the fight.

But, credit where credit is due, the player many are calling “gutless” and “a coward” didn’t run when he had the chance, stood up and was counted (although he got a kicking for his trouble) and later assisted on the equalising goal. If you’re scoring at home, I’d call that, at the very least:

Devin Didiomete 1, Haters 0.

Sorry, Blaze fans. But on a purely objective level, and disregarding how you feel about the Devils’ player’s actions off the ice (some of which on social media have made me wince this offseason) everyone who was against DiDiomete called for him to stand up and answer any challenge provoked by his abrasive Tweeting style-and he did. Whether or not he lost the scrap is irrelevant. He showed up.

The major talking point of the game, however, was a questionable hit from Cardiff’s Birbraer on Jerramie Domish, which has reportedly left the Blaze player with a concussion ahead of the weekend. My initial reaction on seeing the hit was “head-hunt”-it appears to be very high and very hard, and knocked Domish out of the game. Birbraer was roundly condemned by Blaze fans afterward, with many claiming it was a deliberate hard, high smash to the chin and that the Devil left his feet before the hit.. 

However, Domish himself has tweeted today that Birbraer has personally apologised for causing the injury, and that action alone should go a long way to lifting any calls for the Cardiff Devil to follow the so-called “code” or “answer the call” next week.

Sure, the hit looks nasty, and Birbraer should probably expect a fair bit of stick from Blaze fans when the two teams meet at the Skydome next Wednesday, But calls for “revenge” or anything like that seem far overblown. Birbraer landed the hit-and he’s shown the class and respect for his opponent that many cite as one of a hockey player’s great qualities by dealing with the consequences directly. Now, it’s up to the Blaze to decide if they want the EIHL’s discipline committee to be involved in any further action, and the players themselves to decide whether or not Max’s apology is the end of the matter on-ice. Let’s let them do so and move on.

Blaze are next in action on Saturday in Sheffield, before I finally get to take my place behind the microphone for the first time this season at the Skydome on Sunday. Those two will be games well worth watching…although if I’m honest, I expect them to be split between the teams at best. 

Results mean little in preseason. It’s all about tuning lines, building chemistry and forming a team. Judging by the reports of Wednesday’s game, it seems both the Blaze and the Devils are moving on nicely with that process.

Gardiner Conference Preview to come tomorrow…

EIHL Preview 2012/13: The Erhardt Conference

The British hockey season officially starts tonight, with Coventry Blaze taking on the Cardiff Devils in South Wales, and naturally, that means it’s time for the Chasing Dragons Elite League Season Preview!

(quick note-if you’re not familiar with British hockey, have a quick click on the “British Hockey Primer” tab above-it’ll give you the briefest of introductions to teams, basic league rules and competitions. Added this after I noticed I was getting a fair few hits from North America)

With the EIHL split into two conferences this season, the Northern (except Belfast) Gardiner Conference and the Southern (except Hull) Erhardt Conference, we’ll be considering them both team-by-team, starting with the Erhardt today and continuing with the Gardiner tomorrow. Each team will get a summary, a “Player To Watch” who I think will be more than worthy of your focused attention this season, an unsung hero and an “X-Factor” to their season. They’ll also, because it’s me, get an appropriate song lyric to introduce them.

Shall we begin, then?

BELFAST GIANTS (coach: Doug Christiansen)

“Though it seems the past and the future look the same…suffice to say that you’re still here”

VNV Nation: “Carry You”

The Giants are a team that look very similar to last season. And that should be a big worry for the rest of the league, since they were champions last time out. The names may have changed a fair amount from the roster of last season, but the ethos hasn’t. Stephen Murphy is a solid netminder to build upon, allowing for an extra import outskater, but it’s moving forward from him where Doug Christiansen’s building really starts to show. This is a team that has a solid, non-genuinely flashy defence with two major offensive point producers (last season it was Jeff Mason and Jeremy Rebek, this season it looks like being Sam Roberts and the returning Robby Sandrock who will be relied upon for the forward charge), However, this is a unit in which every player is comfortable at both ends of the ice, and any pairing can contribute points. David Phillips will want to rebound from a poor EIHL outing with Coventry last year, and in Graeme Walton and new arrival and Brock Matheson the Giants have a 5/6 d pairing most teams would kill for.

Forward-wise, Noah Clarke and Greg Stewart are the big signings most will be focusing on, along with the returning human beltsanders that are Darryl Lloyd and Adam Keefe to add the grit. However, while Clarke can score, as can Stewart, they’ll both be replied upon to make space for the likes of Daymen Rycroft and Scott Champagne to get creative in front of the net-Champagne and Rycroft, however, appear to edge more towards the “setup” role. The Giants’ third line will be the envy of many in the league-Matt Towe, Mark Garside and particularly Craig Peacock can all pull high-line/PP/PK duty-expect Peacock in particular to be placed on a scoring line with either Rycroft or Champagne. In fact, the Giants have such an embarassment of riches at forwards that my player to watch may have slipped a few people by…

PLAYER TO WATCH: #9 ANDREW FOURNIER (LW): I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the native of Amherstview, ON is a dark horse for EIHL top points scorer already. His signing wasn’t greeted with the excitement of Clarke or Stewart, but 71 points in his last ECHL season (including 38 goals) and 50 points last season. He’s well-built at 5’11 and 190lbs, too, and will have Stewart and Clarke making space. Fear the Fournier.

UNSUNG HERO: #47 ADAM KEEFE (RW): Sure, Keefe may get a lot of stick for his brash agitator/enforcer persona. But watch him play and you’ll see one of the hardest working players in the EIHL-an excellent penalty-killer and checking forward who knows his role and does it incredibly well.

X-FACTOR: CAN SMURF DO IT AGAIN?

Dave Simms’ expert view that “you can’t win the league with a British goalie” was proven wrong last season…but can Stephen Murphy keep his form going when he’ll be facing the cream of the EIHL’s forwards more often than not due to the new conference system? In this league, he simply can’t afford to take a night off.

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CARDIFF DEVILS (coach: Gerard Adams)

black coat, black shoes, black hat, Cadillac, yeah…the boy’s a time bomb”

Rancid: “Time Bomb”

The boys from South Wales have built another roster worthy of serious consideration in the honours race this season. Gerard Adams knows what type of team he likes to build-a tough, hard-hitting squad tailormade for the narrow confines of Cardiff’s Big Blue Tent rink. He’s done it again this season, retaining the power of Max Birbraer and agitation of Phil Hill up front and convincing one of the league’s top goalies to return to the Devils in Phil Osaer. Moving forward, though, you can see that his defence is built with strength in mind. Tyson Marsh, Adams, Josh Batch and Mark Smith will take care of affairs in their own end well, as will Jamie Milam, although his main reason for signing is a little further up the ice. Kenton Smith provides the attacking guile from the blue line while Milam has an absolute cannon of a shot that will strike fear into the hearts of goalies and screening team-mates alike when he unleashes it from the blueline.

Forward wise, it’s a similar story-hard working and in-your face. Stuart Macrae returns to cement his place in Devils’ fans hearts, joined by Mac Faulkner after the latter has spent several seasons scoring impressively in Italy. Birbraer has support from Chris Blight (a team-mate of Faulkner at Ritten-Renon last season so expect those two to pair up again) and Bari McKenzie, Ben Davies, Luke Piggott and Adam Harding are the Brit pack up front. But there’s one other Devils forward who has pretty much earned his spot in the next paragraph by right this offseason.

PLAYER TO WATCH: #24 DEVIN DIDIOMETE (LW): The player in whose honour the lyric at the start of this preview was chosen. DiDiomete is 5’11 and 201lbs of pure, refined hate which coaches pack into a hockey jersey and point in the direction of the opposition team. He’s already made a name for himself on Twitter this offseason with his replies to British hockey fans. On the ice, however (dare I say it) he is EXACTLY the kind of player that’s perfect for the Devils. Players will have nowhere to hide to avoid him in the Big Blue Tent, and having watched a few videos of him he appears to only have one setting: ATTACK. The guy is utterly relentless in his pursuit of opposition players, and can put the puck in the net too, as evidenced by his 12 ECHL goals last season. He will become the player the EIHL loves to hate-angry and utterly unpredictable-and for that reason alone, he earns the Player To Watch spot.

UNSUNG HERO: #18 STUART MACRAE (C): Now entering his third season with the Devils, the native of Coxheath, NS is the heartbeat of the team and the one most likely to assume Brad Voth’s “franchise player” mantle. Committed, skilled and with quietly effective leadership, Macrae will once again be a big part of the Devils this season.

X-FACTOR: DEVIN OR HELL?: If the Devils can use Devin DiDiomete effectively, he may become one of those players who can earn a 3rd assist on goals just by being a distraction or his agitation gaining the team a powerplay. If not, it could be the Devils’ PK units who are tested the most this season. Either way, it’s going to be fun watching the Red Army come to town, wherever you are.

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COVENTRY BLAZE (coach: Paul Thompson)

I’m picking my head up off the floor. I’ve never seen so perfectly clear.
Things are getting a little better, Forget about the last few years

Rust Belt Lights: “Chutes And Ladders”

This is a Blaze squad with a point to prove. After two seasons of club/fan infighting, arguments, disillusionment within the club and without, and nearly going bust last season the Blaze appear to have come back stronger than ever. They’ve done so by coach Paul Thompson starting almost from scratch, with only three imports and seven players remaining from last season’s team. Shea Guthrie has been handed the captaincy after he appeared to drag the team along on his back at times last season, and continuing the redemption theme, Mike Danton has been signed to play for the Blaze as the latest stop on his road to personal redemption (visa permitting), and the team is crammed with leadership thanks to the likes of the Leeb brothers, Michael Schutte, and even former OHL captain Gerome Giudice. Peter Hirsch returns in net, but in front of him the defence is almost unrecognisable from last season, with Jerramie Domish the lone returnee among the imports. Mike Egener and Benn Olson add size while Schutte will quarterback the powerplay. Forward wise, Shea Guthrie, Dustin Cameron and the Leeb brothers Brad and Greg will be relied upon for scoring, as will Danton if he arrives, but Brits Sam Smith and Russ Cowley can provide goals where needed, as can Giudice. It all depends on the line combinations Thompson chooses to use as to who slips into which role. This is a team that can definitely compete with the likes of Belfast, Nottingham and Sheffield given the resources…but it remains to be seen if they can, especially starting the season light.

PLAYER TO WATCH: #20 DUSTIN CAMERON (LW): Danton was the easy pick here, but given that there’s still a question hanging over his arrival, I’ve gone for the 23-year-old native of Saskatoon. He scored 22 goals for Trenton in the ECHL last season, and could be a force paired with either Guthrie or the Leeb brothers on a line. Like Andrew Fournier for Belfast, other signings may have got more of the limelight but that’ll probably be just fine to Cameron, as he quietly prepares for another hopefully productive seaosn.

UNSUNG HERO: #13 GEROME GIUDICE (LW):  It’s generally thought that Giudice will be more of an agitator/shutdown forward by many EIHL fans, but where this guy is concerned it’s probably best to expect the unexpected. Giudice led his OHL team in Sudbury for two years, captaining current NHL players like Marcus Foligno, so it’s fair to say he can lead. He’s also scored decently in Italy, where many of the EIHLs better forwards come from this season, so may well have far more to his game than just stopping the opposition.

X-FACTOR: DANTON OR NO DANTON?

This was bound to be the pick here. The Blaze have based a lot of their offseason plans on Mike Danton, and are now leaving a space on the roster for him for at least the preseason while his visa issues are sorted out. This means they’re short on forwards, with only 8 to start the season. This is a serious worry for Blaze fans given the strength of the rest of the Erhardt Conference…will they have a backup plan in place or will a visa refusal for Danton derail their season before it’s begun?

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NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS (coach Corey Neilson)

“Are we growing up or just going down?
It’s just a matter of time until we’re all found out”

Fall Out Boy: “Sophomore Slump or Comeback Of The Year”

Once again, it’s been an offseason where the Nottingham Panthers have thrown money around, gone for splashy signings and had everyone saying “This is DEFINITELY the team to beat. No question”. Retaining Craig Kowalski in net, tempting Jonathan Weaver away from Coventry on defence and signing one of the best players to come to this country in the EIHL era in David Ling, as well as the all time EIHL leading scorer in David Clarke-surely this is finally the year the Panthers break their 56-year league drought, right?

Don’t be so sure. While the Panthers roster looks impressive-look a little closer and a few cracks appear. For example, Weaver. Sure, many think he’s one of the best offensive British d-men ever, but take this from someone who’s watched him week in week out for the past five years-he’s not a patch on the player he was. If the Panthers can use Weaver sparingly and make him their key PP guy, he’ll be a great signing. Any more than that and the legs could start to go again-that 35-year-old body has taken a lot of punishment over the past few seasons.

There is no denying the Panthers have talent, from Stevie Lee and Jason Beckett at the back end to Ling, Jordan Fox (arguably the best two-way C in the league) Patrick Galivan and the massive Bruce Graham up front. But the Dmen they’re relying upon to drive offence are 35 and 36, and their star forward is 37. Their average age is the highest in the league at nearly 29, with many above that. And defensively, behind Corey Neilson and Weaver there is…almost no offensive drive whatsoever. It’s experienced, but it’s not quick.

Up front, as well…there is a lack of genuine in-your-face physicality. Bruce Graham is big but doesn’t like physical contact-Fox and Brandon Benedict will mix it up where needed, but aren’t genuinely intimidating-where is the player to stand up to a DiDiomete or respond to physical play with a wallop of their own? Last year the Panthers had Guillaume Lepine, and his departure is  massive loss. Ling will need to be protected to do his best work, as will Galivan…and frankly, the protection compared to some of the other teams isn’t there. This is a team built for the big ice of the NIC, which is a fine strategy but could harm the Panthers against the likes of Cardiff, Coventry and the Northern Conference teams. We’ll see how things turn out as the season grinds on.

PLAYER TO WATCH: #19 DAVID LING (RW): The 37-year-old has done it all. He’s played in the AHL, the KHL, many European leagues and most importantly the NHL. If he’s motivated, Ling will rip the league up. The question is-at 37 is this one final pay packet before retirement or not? Will that advancing age mean he’s as happy to go charging into the corner at the NIC with a raging DiDiomete behind him as he might have been five years ago? We will see. On skill level alone, though, Ling will be a MASSIVE asset.

UNSUNG HERO: #8 MATT MYERS The Centre is vital to the Panthers-he holds their third line together, wins faceoffs and ensures that any line he’s on is a scoring threat. A wind-up merchant par excellence, too, he’ll go after anyone he thinks needs a tap or a slash to put them off their game, and his vision will create opportunities all night long.

X-FACTOR: ONE SEASON TOO FAR FOR COREY, WEAVER?

The Panthers need Jon Weaver to perform. Corey Neilson, too, has that 1956 league title hanging over him like a millstone despite two Challenge Cup and playoff doubles. Neilson has to win the league soon, or the natives will get restless. In Britain the playoffs and cups are nice, but it’s the league title that counts most for many fans. East Midlands Expects, Corey. You can’t let them down again.

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SHEFFIELD STEELERS (coach, Ryan Finnerty)

“Good times come and good times go,
I only wish the good times would last a little longer”

Social Distortion: “Story Of My Life”

So, the Steelers conclude our Erhardt Conference preview. And they’re a team who are always there or thereabouts…and may well be this season. Poaching Danny Meyers after his surprise release from Nottingham was a big capture, but more important perhaps is managing to grab fellow top Brit Colin Shields on his return to the country from a year in France. John DeCaro returns in net with the shamefaced look of a boyfriend realising his steady girlfriend is better than the stranger who made eyes across the bar, and Jeff Legue keeps Steelers fans happy by once again bringing his silky skills to Yorkshire. On D, Meyers is joined by returnees Matt Stephenson and Mr. Sheffield Rod Sarich as the recognisable faces.

However, in the new signings the Steelers have made they’ve recruited well. Cory Pecker will not only give endless scope for innuendo to commentators like me but will also score freely, Steven Goertzen will make space for the skill players, Shawn Limpright will provide a mix of snap, snarl and skill, and Jim Jorgensen and Drew Fata will provide added skill and bite to the defensive corps. Added to that, the Steelers have the best Brit Pack in the league by far, with Shields and Meyers joined by Ash Tait, Jason Hewitt, Lee Esders, captain Jonathan Phillips, Mark Thomas and Danny Wood in a group teams would kill their own mothers for, and the ability to run four lines  

However, somewhat surprisingly, my player to watch is none of those:

PLAYER TO WATCH: #12 TYLOR MICHEL: The ex-Cardiff Devil is one of the hardest working players I’ve ever seen in Britain. He can give and take hits for fun, and his 62 points with Cardiff last season he was in Britain show a player of no mean skill, too. The Sudbury native will probably center the Steelers’ 3rd line, when on most other teams he’d comfortably be on the 2nd. That alone should show the strength and depth Sheffield have up front. Given the right linemates he could have a big year.

UNSUNG HERO: #48 MATT STEPHENSON: The native of Midland, ON is probably one of the least flashy players in the EIHL-he doesn’t shout about his job, land big hits often or start fights-he just plays both defence and attack on the blueline very, very well indeed, as his 37 points and career in the AHL before coming to the UK show. This defenceman is one I’d love to see in a Blaze jersey-he simply does his job when and where required, and does it better than all but a few in the league-in fact, he does it so well you probably don’t notice him often. But you should.

X FACTOR: JOHN DeCARO

The Steelers goalie looked unsure at times last year, and his commitment to the Steelers can be questioned by the fact that he’d already signed for a team in Norway before having to return due to his post-hockey employers wanting him to finish his uni degree in Sheffield.. Can he backstop the Steelers to a tite in a very tough conference? More to the point-will his heart be in it?

 

That’s the end of your Erhardt Conference Preview. Coming Soon-the Gardiner Conference.

Inside A Hockey Team Media Day

This post was supposed to go up yesterday, but due to Internet problems it’ll be the first of two today…later on this evening I’ll be doing the first part of my EIHL preview with a team-by-team look at the Erhardt (Southern) Conference.

First of all though…

Tuesday was the official Coventry Blaze media day. Now, those of you envisioning a packed room of journalists shouting questions at a bunch of hockey players are going to be disappointed. British hockey simply isn’t popular enough for that.

A British hockey media day is a strange experience. The atmosphere resembles nothing so much as the first day back at school after the summer holidays, as the media people catch up with friends they haven’t seen all summer, and the team staff run around in a kind of organised chaos sorting things out while the players are on their usual morning practice. There’s an extra wrinkle added to the mix by the fact that most of the Blaze players this season were a) new to the team and the city and b) had only flown in at most three days before after talking to each other exclusively through the Internet and social media.

The first part of a media day consists of the players all getting their official photos taken for the team website/promo pictures after they’ve finished practice, which means that it’s all a bit fragmented as the players drift through the door as and when they’ve finished showering and changing, not quite sure who the people are, who they’re going to meet and what they have to do. They often seem surprisingly nervous, especially as you have to bear in mind that the North American players have more than likely gone through similar days several times before. Although it’s likely that they’ve never done so in an empty sports bar roughly ten second’s walk from their changing room before. 

From the media part, this is often if not always the first time we’ve seen the new players arrive, which leads to a unique game called “Guess The Import” as we try and match any pictures we might have seen to the player. Agitator Gerome Giudice was the first player we recognised amongst the new players, followed by the massive figures of Mike Egener and Benn Olson. Defenceman Jerramie Domish was distinguishable by the fact that over the summer he appears to have grown a Kimbo Slice tribute beard that was truly horrific both in size and colour, while watching Dustin Cameron and Michael Schutte trying to conceal their delight at being given a young, attractive girl as their interviewer was entertainment in itself. Note to hockey media: if you REALLY want to get a player to open up, hire a good looking girly to interview them.

However, as the players drift in and Rob Coleman (who you may remember from earlier posts as the Blaze marketing executive) directs them to where they need to be, you can sense a relaxation in the room as the early first-day-at-school nervousness dissipates. Players split off from the main group (it’s notable already that the team cluster together-you can see the bonding process has already started) and settle down with the media, most if not all of whom are writers for the club magazine Ignite (in fact, there wasn’t a single representative of local media there as far as I could tell) and begin to laugh and joke as they interview.

Then, the headshots are finished and me and interviewer Stuart (who’s someone who wil also appear in the blog periodically) settle in for a group of quick video interviews for Blaze TV. Benn Olson, the Blaze’s main tough guy, is like many enforcers off the ice-quiet, polite and answers questions readily.

Two minutes later, he’s gone and coach Paul Thompson is next. He makes a few veiled comments about ex-Blaze player Rob Farmer, who that morning has signed for Braehead Clan in Scotland. The answers are delivered professionally but both Stuart and I sense that Farmer has left a sour taste in Thommo’s mouth by his rejection of a return to Coventry (Farmer left half-way through a two-year contract, and signed for Braehead on his return from a failed trip to a Kazakh team without having the courtesy to inform the Blaze that he hadn’t accepted their offer first.

We also hear that forward Shea Guthrie has been appointed captain for the season, with Russell Cowley and Mike Danton being given the A’s-however, we’re told not to mention this anywhere as there’s a press release scheduled for later on in the day. The first media embargo of the new season!

Meanwhile, the rest of the team have begun to drift away after being told their time is theirs once again…they will have a gym session before their first game in Cardiff on Wednesday night. Sam Smith is the final interviewee for us, and then, as he drifts away and people begin to pack up two hours after the morning has begun, Stu, Rob and I check the footage we’ve got and work out whether or not it can be used.

Then, it’s off to our “normal” jobs…and, for me, planning the Elite League preview and preparing further before the first live broadcast against Sheffield this coming Sunday. For the team, the season has officially begun.

And another media day has been successfully negotiated.

Stay tuned-later on today I’ll have the first half of this season’s EIHL team-by-team preview up. It’ll be a good one, too.

The EIHL’s Lockout Lottery

I was planning not to blog again until Media Day for the Blaze on Tuesday-indeed the Blaze related Twitter feeds and all other club media over the weekend has been full of the arrival of the players from North America, reports of team meetings and players themselves tweeting about settling in. The first preseason game is in Cardiff on Wednesday, although the team will start the season one import down as Mike Danton’s visa issues mean he has been unable to travel.
However, my attention three days before the season starts, contrary to what you would think, has been focused not on my team’s preparations but outside the city and indeed the UK and what it’s found has made my thoughts run in an interesting direction, Elite League-wise.
Recently news has emerged that teams in two of the top leagues in Europe have agreed that there will be no part-season contracts offered to NHL players in the event of a lockout.
The teams in Sweden’s Elitserien and Russia’s KHL have made league-wide agreements that players signed at the season start will not be released in favour of NHL players who come looking for employment in the event of a lockout.
So far they are the only two leagues in Europe to take such a stance. One league that has already publicly shown its hand in opposition to this “NHLers all season or not at all” stance is the Swiss NLA. SJ’s Joe Thornton and New York Rangers’ Rick Nash have signed contingency contracts with HC Davos, which states that they will play for them in the event the NHL season is delayed or cancelled.
But there is a chance other top European leagues like Germany’s DEL, & Finland’s SM-Liiga could follow the Swedes and Russians. A poll by The Hockey News of Finnish NHLers reveals that most Finns don’t want to play in their homeland in the event the NHL shuts, adopting an “all or nothing” attitude.
All this leaves an interesting dilemma if you’re a coach in an import-limited, second tier Euro league, just like the EIHL. Especially if, like several teams, you have foreign-player spaces free on the roster still.
With NHL stars possibly being frozen out of most of their first-choice fallback destinations, is it worth gambling on being able to sign players far above the standard you could usually hope for-and if a lockout happens, how loyal do you stay to those imports who have committed to your club already?
This question may loom larger in Coventry’s mind over the coming weeks. The club has remained committed to bringing Mike Danton in despite his visa issues, both publicly and privately, but if the NHL doesn’t sort itself out before the CBA’s Sep 15th deadline and locks out, there will suddenly be a lot of players looking for jobs.
If Danton’s appeal drags on into late September and the Blaze start badly, loyalties may be tested by the availability of players both better and easier to get into the country.
Decisions will have to be made by Paul Thompson and other British coaches, particularly with a wider and deeper talent pool to choose from thanks to the Swedes and Russian teams ruling themselves out of the lockout cattle market.
The question is not-do EIHL teams want to sign NHL players in the event of a lockout? That answer is simple-Yes. Any team wants to get better if they can, and NHL standard players will have a huge effect in doing that.
The question is “how much are they willing to risk to do so?”
Personally, I can’t see any Elite League team not using all the resources they can-nor can I see any team holding over empty spots purely in anticipation of a lockout that may still not happen, even after the developments in other leagues.
Blaze’s loyalty to Danton, preferring to wait in hope of a successful visa appeal rather than sign another player or indeed leave the slot open is both laudable in the cutthroat world of British hockey and an example of the “better the devil you know” school of planning, even if it may leave the team weaker than planned at season start.
Other teams in Britain will probably take the same approach, for now. But I will be watching events across the pond even more closely over the next three weeks or so.
The recent SEL and KHL announcements mean that Paul Thompson and the other Elite League coaches will be doing the same, knowing that tough decisions could be on the horizon in the near future. and players coming into Britain will have to perform immediately. How both teams and the players respond to the questions posed in this article could be one of the most intriguing storylines in the early part of the 2012/13 season.

A Hockey Fairytale

“And this is the smile, that I’ve never shown before
Somebody shake me
Cause I, I must be sleeping”
Staind: “So Far Away
Yesterday’s post got a bit serious, didn’t it? This time, with the new season getting closer, we’ll walk away (briefly) from the minutiae of signings, visas, and all that stuff. I said that sometimes this blog would digress into stories of my hockey-watching life and things that’ve shaped my love of hockey, and this is one of those stories. Pull up a chair, settle down with a cup of tea, and (hopefully) enjoy, dear reader.
Every season, fans all over the world go through the doors of a rink hoping to see something special. They all have their own favourite memories of hockey watching, but there are usually a couple that stand out. This story is about one of those. More specifically, it’s my favourite hockey memory ever, and the one that made the sport go from merely a passion to something that is as part of me as eye colour or the fact that I have a inexplicable obseesion with Kendal Mint Cake. It’s also the kind of moment I dream of being able to call as a PBP guy one day.

Of course, most of the major hockey moments in my life have happened in front of only a few thousand people, and pretty much all of them have involved the Blaze. However, we’re going to step away from them now-in fact, they will play absolutely no part in this story beyond this point, except perhaps a brief background reference.

Hockey has given me some of the best experiences of my life. Watching Evgeni Malkin playing live for Russia before he joined Pittsburgh, as the Russians warmed up for the Turin Olympics with a match against Germany in Cologne while I was living over there.
Then, after the game. taking part in an unofficial Germany-Russia street hockey game as (probably) the lone British import on the German side, through the concourses of Cologne-Deutz station, over a main road and back, streaming over the pedestrian footpath on the main Hohenzollern railway bridge (basically, the equivalent of a few players taking over Tower Bridge to shoot a puck or two) and out onto the banks of the Rhine, with the teams at about 300-a-side, anything from beer-cans to tennis balls being used as pucks and seeing a paralytically drunk Russian hurl himself full-length to stop a flying beer-can shot by one of his mates going through the window of a moving tram, for example (he stopped the shot and the traffic).
Playing another game during the World Cup in Cologne main square which turned into a weird hybrid of football and hockey with a bunch of chanting Swedes, Poles, and Portugese was another one.
Or, closer to home, jamming home a loose puck from all of about six inches out in an empty Skydome to finally score a goal in a competitive game at my home rink-even though the place was empty, it was a rec game and only the players saw it, I still went ballistic in an outpouring of joy which included a weird “up on one leg, cocking a shotgun and firing” hybrid of a celebration (one I still use in the unlikely event of scoring) and had to be held up by a linemate as I nearly went over backwards.
All not bad nominees for “greatest moment”, but surely my greatest hockey memory has to involve the Blaze, right?
Does it hell.The greatest moment of my hockey life was this: Bill Lindsay scoring the overtime winner for Cologne against Dusseldorf in game 4 of the 2005/06 DEL playoff semi-finals.

A bit of background here: I’d moved to Germany at the beginning of that season, and Cologne were my nearest team. Being alone abroad, and having not really found that many friends at uni, the weekly train-journey from Aachen to Cologne, then the underground from Hauptbahnhof to Deutz, followed by the walk up the steps to purchase a ticket at the ticket window, became something of a ritual…it was bringing something of home with me, even if the colours and language were different. It helped that I made friends with a fair few Haie fans thanks to being able to speak fluent German, and given that I was becoming seriously disillusioned with British hockey at the time, the Haie became more and more important to me.

I started watching games over there as a neutral, but got sucked in as the Haie (or Sharks, if you prefer English) began to band behind the killer instinct of Slovak sniper extraordinaire Ivan Ciernik, the blossoming young goalie Thomas Greiss (who is now in the San Jose Sharks system) and the crafty veterans Dave Mcllwain, Brad Schlegel and Alex Hicks (to the point where, when they came over to Coventry to play the Blaze as part of the Ahearne Cup, I supported the Sharks for that game) and then came my first KEC-DEG game.

DEG are Dusseldorf Metro Stars, and anyone who’s been anywhere near Germany knows that the rivalry between the two great Rheinland cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf, standing half-an-hour’s journey from each other on the banks of the Rhein, is possibly one of the fiercest city-to-city battles in Europe. Think Manchester and Liverpool, only tripled…Dusseldorf is the capital of the state of Rheinland-Westfalen, while Cologne is the economic powerhouse and one of the culture capitals of Germany-it’s the beautiful classical maiden to Dusseldorf’s rugby-playing powerhouse of a modern businessman.

Hatred of the other city isn’t learned in the inhabitants of these two towns-it’s fed to babies with their mother’s milk. The Haie-Metrostars games are known as the “Rheinderby” and if you think the hype over each Sheffield-Nottingham game is bad, then look away-these games are bloodless wars on and off the ice-you get the sense that, as long as these games are won, any poor season can be forgiven.It was the most unbelievable atmosphere I’ve ever experienced…words simply can’t do it justice. Imagine the atmosphere at the EIHL Playoff Finals just before the first game, then multiply it by 17,000, and you’ve got the Koelnarena on derby day.

Now imagine that in playoff time (German playoff series are “best-of-five”), with the Haie 2-1 down and having to win to keep their season alive, and 17,000 people, including a thousand or so from just up the Rhein, holding their breath as the puck drops and hoping for the result to go their way.

What followed was 70 minutes of the greatest hockey I’ve ever seen.

Cologne scored first through Alex Hicks, who had already announced his retirement at the end of the season.-every shift could now be his last, and boy, could you tell by the way he leapt high into the air in celebration as the puck hit the net. The first period ended 1-0 Cologne, before the momentum went back the other way as DEG pressure told, Chris Ferraro scored and the game was once again balanced on a knife edge. A blast from Stephane Julien moments later restored the home advantage, before the script went badly, badly wrong.

First, Hicks earned himself a game misconduct for a viciously hard hit on DEG’s Alex Sulzer, which was not noticeably harder than any of the others flying in (every collision was a board-rattler that night), but was judged to be from behind-and so from now on, the continuation of his career rested on his team-mates. And they seemed to wilt under the pressure-Klaus Kathan and Andy Schneider, both German internationals, scoring in quick succesion with a bullet wrister and a rebound respectively to leave the Haie 20 minutes from elimination.

The third period was horrifically tense. First, elation as Eduard Lewandowski tipped in a Mcllwain pass to equalise. Then, despair as DEG were awarded a penalty shot thanks to a Metrostar being hauled down on a breakaway-the silence when Craig Johnson scored was bottomless-the celebrating DEG fans one tier above my place in the terracing behind the goal sounded like ghosts laughing in a deserted mansion.

The clock ticked, with the roaring of the Haie crowd ceaseless, like the thundering of a hurricane-tossed sea, but becoming tinted with more and more desperation. The clock ticked past 59 minutes, and people were praying in the stands.

Then, the puck went into the DEG zone yet again as the waves of red charged forward one last time, bounced, found the stick of Brad Schlegel, and was propelled like a rocket into Andrei Trefilov’s pads-it came out and the hopes of a city sat on the stick of Bill Lindsay as he found himself with an inch of space and got to the puck just as the goalie dived…and poked it home.

Bedlam. Utter, total, complete bedlam. The ghosts across the river in the cathedral must have stirred in their sleep at the roar of complete, mindless joy which nearly lifted the roof off the Koelnarena. We were going to overtime…

A season resting on every pass, every shot, every check. You don’t know the tension until you’ve lived it, and I did that night…when Lewandowski broke away, the air seemed to be sucked out of the rink as the crowd held their breath, only to be expelled in a primal roar of anger as he, too was pulled down from behind.

Oh. My. God. Penalty shot. In overtime. For Cologne.

Jan Alinc was the man chosen to take it. And, unbelievably, he fanned on the shot.

Back and forth the game went, before it ended in a single, glorious second right in front of me, when this happened. I was stood at ice-level, right behind where Mike Pellegrins loses the puck, and as Lindsay scored I thought the roof had come off the Koelnarena, as I joined in with and was lost without trace in a hurricane of noise which the tape simply doesn’t do justice to. Sometimes, in quiet moments, I can replay the whole scene in my mind as it unfolded in front of me.

I’m certain that, this time, the ghosts in the cathedral woke up and roared with us.

Unfortunately, time has dulled my ability to summon back anything close to the emotion of how I felt at that precise moment, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that (and I remember the words I used even if I can’t remember the feeling itself) I felt like I was lifted up on the shoulders of the hockey gods. Nothing before or since has come close to the extremes of emotion I felt in that game. I don’t think anything in hockey ever will.

And, in some ways, that’s sad. But I look at it this way as I travel to every Blaze game with part of me in a ceaseless hoping to get a feeling close to it,   and this time, to provide my own soundtrack.

This moment was the one that made me decide I wanted to become a hockey PBP guy rather than just watch it as a fan. And six seasons later-here I am.

Sure, I’d dreamed of doing it in the NHL. I went for a KHL job this past summer, but was told I wasn’t quite experienced enough yet (This will be my third PBP season).  But I’m very lucky to be doing what I do, and it proves even now that even if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll land among the stars.

In a week or so, pre-season games start in Britain. Hockey is back. And once again fans will stream through the doors all over the UK, hoping that someone gives them their own, personal piggyback on the shoulders of the gods.

And the best thing about the start of a new season is…it could come from anywhere.

On Tuesday, it’s Blaze media day. I’ll be along and will of course be writing about what it’s like to be part of a hockey media day. Then come the preseason previews for the British league on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Each team will be rated, unsung heroes found, players to watch highlighted, the lot (for example, look out for Belfast forward Andrew Fournier).

I’ve been doing it all offseason cause that’s what PBP guys do.

Now, the countdown’s officially on. 6 days to go until the puck drops on another season, and maybe, another fairytale is made.

This is gonna be fun.

The Chase Begins

The idea for this book was born about as far away from the chilled air of an ice rink as it’s possible to get. On the hottest day of an English summer in mid-July 2012, deep in the dog-days of an ice-hockey offseason, in fact.

Summer does funny things to a hockey fans’ mind, particularly in Britain. We are a clannish bunch, clinging desperately to dreams of “twisted wristers”, “Crispin Glovers” and “bolts from the blue line” like we’re holding onto a tiny raft in a sea of massive sporting indifference. We are a people who flock together, happiest in the company of those who know what a five-hole is, or like to while away time in the pub debating who will win the Stanley Cup.

But, unless you know the places to go, those with ice in their souls will have to wander widely in this land before finding a fellow hockey lover-and even when they do, it still takes a little while to work your way into the small but incredibly passionate world that is that of British ice hockey fandom.

You have to sometimes be prepared to watch (and play) games in rinks that would probably be laughed at as ramshackle in Toronto or Winnipeg, with crowds smaller than junior A games in many places, or stay up until dawn to catch your NHL team live on an unreliable Internet feed or obscure pay-satellite channel (East Coast games aren’t too bad, but those on the West Coast often don’t start until the very dead of night, and God help you if there’s overtime in the playoffs-many’s the time I have finally seen the end of a West Coast game as dawn is beginning to steal across the sky and the milkman and postman are making their deliveries outside).

Here in Britain, football (the proper version, the one North Americans call “soccer”), rugby and cricket dominate the back pages. The sporting public is one that, in the main, is simply unaware of the joy involved in watching one of your d-men go coast-to-coast, or a streaking forward take a saucer pass out of the air and snap it top-shelf. Mention hockey to the average British sports fan and you’ll often be greeted with a blank look-mention that the sport is played in Britain to a decent level and that there is a well-established (though confusing to outsiders) system of leagues in place and that there’s a team in your town, and you’ll often be greeted with surprise or a response of “but that’s the game where they just fight all the time, right?”

In the long summer of 2012, with the country gripped by Olympic fever (or Olympic apathy, depending on who you listened to) due to the Games taking place in London, the off-season seemed to take us further away from a land of ice and flashing blades than ever. But lost amongst the discussion of anti-aircraft missiles on rooftops, British medal hopes and argument over whether it was all worth it, people all over Britain were closely monitoring the off-season moves of their team, watching who signed for their rivals, and already trying to work out their teams’ chances of glory (or lack of them) come the new season.

Just like hockey fans all over the world, in fact.

For me, the comings and goings across British hockey hold more than a fan’s interest. For the past two years I’ve commentated on Coventry Blaze games broadcast live over the internet to paying subscribers, dreaming of using my local team as a stepping stone to become the next Gary Thorne, Doc Emrick or Jim Hughson. The Blaze have been my team since 2000, when they moved to Coventry, and, like hockey, have become one of the consuming passions of my life.

Every Sunday from late August to mid-April I can be found at the small, 3,000 seat Coventry Skydome, positioned on a media gallery describing the action on the ice to a small audience of (at most) a couple of hundred people, as around 2,000 people watch. In the Blaze’s time at the Dome I’ve played match-night music, sat in the penalty boxes and listened to all manner of profanity from angry North Americans, stood nervously behind a goal with a switch in my hand watching the puck intently and ready to light the lamp that would bring hundreds of people to their feet in a roar of joy…or anger if, as has happened a couple of times, I’ve been trigger-happy.

And also, when the rink is empty on a Friday or Sunday night and the blue-and-yellow seats stare silently down as mist hangs over the ice like the lingering ghosts of snipers and grinders past, I’ve joined other hardy souls in attempting to replicate the action I’ve watched on the ice myself. I’ve helped in the office, interviewed players for magazines and radio, written articles for the matchnight programme…and I’ve travelled many thousands of miles up and down the country following the Blaze and playing, taking in rinks from Dundee (Scotland) to Gosport (Isle of Wight) and Belfast in Northern Ireland to Peterborough in the east of England.

Ice runs in my veins, with fragments of blue-line and face-off circle speckled throughout-and like many hockey fans, for me the blazing, bright days of summer seem just too long as we prepare for the glorious time from late August on when the rink doors open again, the thump of flesh on plexi and crack of Kevlar on rubber provide a soundtrack to our lives and the mournful-yet-ecstatic bellow of a goal-horn echoes through the British winter nights.

The 2012 offseason seemed like any other, as I passed the time when not at work hockey-blogging, tracking NHL and British hockey offseason moves, playing (not very well) and preparing to take my place behind the microphone again.

Then I read (well, more accurately re-read, for about the 15th time) Jason Cohen’s great Zamboni Rodeo-an American journalist’s story of a season with the WPHL’s Austin Ice Bats. Few books come close to evoking the atmosphere of life in a minor-league hockey team quite as well as this one does-the fights, the friendships, the sound and the fury). I’d picked it up purely to kill the dull ache of being without hockey that summer causes in my soul, but as the games played themselves again and the characters skated across the page, I began to think.

The 2012/13 season would be an important one for the Coventry Blaze. Four-time champions of the British Elite League since moving to the city from nearby Solihull in 2000 (the Elite League formed out of the ashes of the Superleague in 2003 with Blaze as one of its founding members, and they’ve won it four times so far, in 04/05, 06/07, 07/08 and 09/10), the Blaze had struggled in the last two seasons.

Run on a knife-edge budget and relying on fervent local support to keep them going, the Blaze had been hit by a rising tide of fan dissatisfaction as their high expectations weren’t met. Worse, in many fans eyes, the owners and people running the club had seemingly forgotten about their once-close relationship with the supporters, seeming to see them less as people and more as sources of income.

Then, in Christmas 2011, the Blaze themselves had been days from going out of business before being saved by a British-hockey-wide effort, with money being donated by players from opposing teams, fans and local companies to ensure the team finished the season after their major sponsor failed to come up with sponsorship money. The Blaze had survived, but barely-and coach Paul Thompson and the owners knew things needed to change.

Paul Thompson, known as “Thommo” to both friend and adversary, is a British hockey legend. After a promising playing career was cut short by injury, he was offered the chance to coach the Blaze in their former incarnation in Solihull in 1996, at the age of 31. As a rookie coach he says in his autobiography, Benched, that on his first training session he was “terrified”.

16 years later, the Blaze are the only team he’s ever coached, and he has led them to trophy after trophy. In Coventry, he’s led his teams to five league titles, one playoff title (2004/05 season, in a year where the Blaze won the vaunted “Grand Slam” of Elite League, Challenge Cup and Playoff Trophies), two Challenge Cup wins, and two British KO Cup wins. He’s also twice been named EIHL Coach Of The Year. Not a bad résumé, really.

There are few more passionate men in British hockey-and few men who are more able to turn the air blue when needed. But Thompson is also an astute coach, and when he realises changes need to be made, they’re made. And made with conviction.

This 2012 offseason had been one of the most eventful ones for several years. As part of the rebuild Thompson had ditched many of the Blaze team from the last season, including long-time club captain, defenceman and British hockey great Jonathan Weaver, and begun to build a new, in-your face squad. Amongst the 11 non-British trained players, or “imports” he’d brought into the squad had been brothers Greg and Brad Leeb, former OHL grinder Gerome Giudice, AHL tough guy Benn Olson and former Tampa Bay draft pick Mike Egener. But the major signing was also, for many, the most controversial.

Former NHL player Mike Danton had been signed for the Blaze after a five-year stay away from the game. The ex New Jersey Devil and St. Louis Blue was looking to rebuild his career and his life after serving a five-year prison sentence, and after stops in Sweden and the Czech Republic, was bringing his tough, all-action game to Coventry as arguably the star signing alongside silky-skilled fellow forward and returnee Shea Guthrie.

But with one ex-EIHL coach saying he didn’t believe Danton should be allowed into the league and criticism from opposition fans (particularly those in Belfast, who had long memories of an incident that occurred at the Skydome when their own troubled-yet-skilled ex-NHLer Theo Fleury had played there), and questions over whether the British Home Office would even allow him a visa to play, it had already been an eventful season.

This background, and the late hour, combined with the intake of some fine English ale, led me on a flight of fancy. I wondered about writing my very own Zamboni Rodeo, on life in a league that very few in the upper echelons of the sport took seriously, played in a country where hockey was a genuine minority sport. I wondered if, since I’d spent years around the team anyway and was well known at the rink, if the team owners and coach would give me the access to the team.

And so I spoke to a friend of mine, Rob Coleman. Rob is an amiable man with a ready laugh, a quick sense of humour and an encyclopaedic knowledge of 90s music. Like me, he’s also a hockey lifer.

He’s been involved with the Blaze even before they came to Coventry, and like me has spent many years following the team. I first met him on away trips, before first working with him when I was the matchnight DJ and he was the person responsible for co-ordinating events and timings on a match-night (as a volunteer). A few years doing sterling work in this area, and also pairing up with me to commentate on the webcast, brought him to the attention of the owners, who tempted him away from his job to become the Blaze’s marketing executive.

He is also the man who is mainly responsible for dealing with fan queries, being the public face of the team for fans, marketing the team (on a budget of…well, pretty much zero) and providing fans with the matchnight experience. If it happens off the ice on a matchnight, from the music to the giveaways to the kid being presented with a birthday card by his favourite player, you can be sure that Rob has been involved in organising it, somehow.

I pitched my idea of an “insiders view of a season” to him. Actually, I mentioned it to him late at night while on Twitter, just after asking my hockey-fan followers across the world (all 300 or so of them) if they’d read such a book. The reaction convinced me to at least ask the Blaze, through Rob, if they were interested in collaborating.

Rob’s answer was positive and interested-he’d read a similar book to Zamboni Rodeo before and thought it gave a great view of the inside of a hockey team.

But the sting was in the tail of his answer.

It’s not me you have to sell to, mate. You need to convince Thommo”.

This was a daunting task. Could I convince the most successful coach in British hockey to let me into the private and normally-closed-off world of a pro hockey team dressing room? Especially one as jealously-guarded as that of the Blaze?

No. I couldn’t. Despite my efforts, a few weeks later the message came back “that’s probably not going to happen”.

But I could still write about it from a perspective as a PBP guy. Still give a new perspective on hockey to the few Brits and North Americans who wanted to read it. And who knows, maybe this could become better than a book, cause a life in hockey is a story that doesn’t stop after a season. 

And so, Chasing Dragons was born.

Here we are, two weeks before the beginning of the season, and this first post has hopefully whetted your appetite for more. I’ll be trying to update it at least once a week-maybe more once the season starts. You can dip in and out, or read every post and follow life as a hockey PBP guy in a hockey backwater-and follow a season with the Blaze and British hockey, too. Maybe more than one. I haven’t decided yet.

One thing’s for sure-the chase starts here. Hopefully you’ll come along for the ride.

Let’s go chase that dragon.