Slashing And Hacking: An Analysis Of the UK Media’s Treatment Of Hockey

Remember yesterday, when I was criticising the UK media and saying that they don’t take hockey seriously in the current climate? Remember how I was worried that even those paid to cover the sport in the mainstream media weren’t exactly doing the sport any favours?

Well, this is a blog that appeared on Sky Sports following the weekend just gone, from their hockey writer, Neil Chiplen. It’s a blog that has made the vast majority of those who watch the sport in the UK go “huh?” But most importantly, it perhaps shows a) how the media treat the sport in this country and b) what happens when someone tries to write for effect and spectacularly misses their target.

But more than that, it shows the glaring gap in the market for UK hockey writers who will write thoughtfully and postively about their sport-like bloggers all over the country.

Let’s go back to GCSE English Language and analyse this article for “style and content” shall we? The original is here  , and is quoted in bold, with my comments in italics.

By the standards of the Elite League, that was actually pretty tame. Coventry and Nottingham set the bar too high last season. C’mon, the goalies didn’t even get into it!

First rule of journalism…check your facts. The Coventry Nottingham bench-clearance was on 4th December 2010. So that was a full season and a half ago. This could have been checked with about two seconds of research in Google if you weren’t sure. Not only that, but Brad Cruikshank, the main instigator for the scrap, didn’t even play in Britain last season. In the first two sentences, a writer who’s supposed to be the sport’s correspondent for the channel that covers the Elite League has made the most basic of errors-one noticeable to any hockey fan reading it. Good start, that.

Shall we blame the officials? Broadway Tom Darnell put on another marvellous performance, super-charging the mid-table rivalry by blowing his whistle when he should have bitten his lip and chomping down when he should have exhaled deeply through his silver aerophone.

Second rule of journalism…try and stay neutral. Applying sarcastic nicknames to the officials just makes you look a little silly-and personal attacks on the man himself rather than his performance? Pretty sure that goes against most sports writing manuals. But then, if you read the writer’s back catalogue Tom Darnell often gets similar stick. Anyone would think there was an agenda here.

Also…”mid-table rivalry?” Not a bad way to denigrate one of the bigger and more longstanding rivalries in the Elite League…as anyone who watches hockey knows, Coventry and Cardiff don’t like each other, and haven’t for a while.

Unfortunately, Broadway Tom always gets confused when he visits Cardiff, forgetting that he’s a stage-hand at the Big Blue Tent and not hogging the spotlight at the Wales Millennium Centre. It’s hardly a surprise that there was another post-game brawl at a Broadway Tom show. After all, he does love an encore.

“Another” post-game brawl? Are you referring to the Coventry-Nottingham one again, which Tom Darnell did ref? You can’t be because that happened during the game, and anyone with an ounce of research/UK hockey knowledge would know this.

Or maybe you’re referring to the Cardiff v Hull Stingrays brawl in 2009…nope, that was Dean Smith reffing. OK…maybe it was Cardiff’s last-minute brawl with Sheffield in 2008? Nope…Matt Thompson reffing there.

Starting to look a little ropey, this argument, isn’t it? If you’re going to mock someone, facts help.

Broadway’s leading lady, Mike Hicks, is also guilty as sin. He only put one sugar in Broadway’s coffee in the second intermission. Broadway never got back on track after that.

Wow. Calling the second official a girl and joking about women making coffee. Did we go back to 1970 for a second? This isn’t even funny. It’s just a desperate attempt to make a joke in a column going off the rails.

Shall we blame the stewards? The fluorescent jackets who get paid with a cup of hot chocolate and a match programme? Are they really willing to sacrifice life and limb for the sake of throwing themselves in between the crazy train that is Benn Olson and whoever the clown was who got all up in his grill?

“Up in his grill?!” Really? You rock that street talk, gangsta. Couple that with a disparaging reference to Benn Olson and this paragraph tries to make a decent point but fails spectacularly due to the ham-handed way it’s made. 

The stewards are there to A: Have a nice little chat with the fans. B: Make sure people aren’t spoiling anyone’s view and C: To watch the game, while sipping hot chocolate and reading their match programme. If you want to know where Block E, Row D, Seat 9 is, ask a steward. If you want to stop Benn Olson and a jacked up Devils fan going at it then call the police. Maybe the Devils can leave a few donuts on the back door to avoid having to pay up for a couple of Bobbies to hang around behind the bench and put Max Birbraer in a strait jacket whenever he gets a match penalty.

Oh…a tired police joke about donuts. THAT’S worthy of being published on a national website. The sarky tone about stewards will no doubt polarise people but it also belittles a group of volunteers.

If you’re scoring at home, we’re about halfway through the article and already we’ve had glaring fact errors, mickey-taking of all and sundry and a bit of misogyny. Surely it’ll get better? Let’s see.

Shall we blame the coaches? Gerad Adams and Paul Thompson spent Sunday night washing the blood off their hands, scrubbing with warm water and soap to remove the evidence that it was the two of them who masterminded this whole event.

Yup. Because fights in hockey only happen as staged scraps ordered by the coa…oh, wait, that’s a stereotype non-hockey fans have! Way to play up to it!

Adams signed a middleweight pit-bull in Devin “The Dude” Didiomete, who he has kept unleashed all season long. Devin the Dude is free to tweet, eat and urinate where he wants with not so much as a blink from Adams.

Hm. Semi-valid point. Made horrendously badly. And dude…stop with the sarky nicknames. They’re not funny.

Thompson went to the heavyweight division and signed old Ryback himself, Big Benn Olson, who was last spotted chanting “Feed-Me-More, Feed-Me-More” as he skated a lap of honour around the blue tent. Or should that be CM Olson, after the way he got into it with a fan? G and Thommo knew who they were signing.

A WWE reference?! How old are you, 15? I’m frankly ashamed that I got this one. Had to google who Ryback was, though. Another tip…when trying to be funny…obscure references may earn you high-fives down the pub, but on a national website most people will just go…”huh?”  

They wanted to put bums on seats and other players on their backsides. They didn’t expect that every fan in the building would believe the pantomime they were watching and take it seriously though.

Again with the “pantomime” reference. Comparing hockey to WWE is lazy. Not only that, as someone who watches the sport (I assume) you should know a lot better. But hey…easier to mock than discuss the role of enforcers/agitators, right?

Harsh luck old boys. Devin the Dude and CM Olson are good for business. Devin reminds me of Boris the Blade from Snatch, no matter how many beatings he takes, he keeps coming back for more. He. Will. Not. Die.

If you have to explain the reference explicitly, it’s too ham-handed or you’re not confident enough of it. First rule of writing style. Try Monty Python’s Black Knight next time. It’s funnier, for a start. 

How about Neil “Paul Heyman” Francis and Mike “Mick Foley” Egener? Franny is a legendary trash talker; he can get under your skin like a syringe and fill you full of poison. Egener fell for the okeydoke, taking the bait and walking right into Franny’s trap. Perhaps Egener was eager to get a fight bonus, or maybe the Blaze had put a bounty on Franny’s head? A free trip to Nando’s if you take out the Devils’ assistant coach, that kind of thing.

Oh-talk of bounties! And a hint that hockey players like fighting! We’ve never heard those jokes before!.

Quite aside from the fact that you’re hinting foul play, this is yet another “look at hockey-stuff like this happens all the time LOL” message. Way to sell it to people who don’t watch and have people who DO watch it think you’re someone with absolutely no knowledge of the game.

Everyone will act like this is bad for the game, but deep down everyone knows you don’t sell British ice hockey on saucer passes and soft hands. The attendance for the next meeting between the teams just went up a ton.

Considering they don’t play each other for two months, fairly sure the effect won’t be major.

Then of course we’ll go for the “hockey must be sold on fighting in Britain cause it’s crap” trope. Presumably you’ve never seen the likes of Jeff Legue, Shea Guthrie, Rene Jarolin or Daymen Rycroft, then? Either that or you don’t realise the level of skill you’re actually watching here as far as world hockey goes (at least on import standard, anyway).

The bans will be heavy. Devin the Dude will not be allowed breakfast on the second Thursday of every month. CM Olson will be forced to watch Hull vs. Edinburgh in slow motion. Franny will be banned from the bench, and will have to endure the mental torture of discussing powerplay philosophy over cocktails with Paul Ragan in the crow’s nest.

Oh, let’s mock the EIHL disciplinary system! And several of the league’s teams! Presumably you’ve not seen Edinburgh OR Hull this season, so don’t know about the likes of Janis Ozolins, Michal Dobron or Rene Jarolin, all of whom are joys to watch skill-wise. If you know what you’re watching, that is.

Broadway Tom will no longer be permitted to watch Glee the night before a game.

Yay! Another pointless shot at an official! Oh, and a hint of homophobia/sexism in there too. He’s a big diva, so he MUST watch musicals!

Egener will be condemned to a darkened room with nothing but a stopwatch, calculator and a DVD player showing back episodes of the EIHL Highlights Show and will have to count the number of times the words “Galbraith” and “Jade” are mentioned on average.

A shot at the Sky Highlights Show! That’s OK, a decent amount of hockey fans have do…wait a second. You WORK for Sky. Belittling your own employer’s product?! Hope the bosses don’t see this one….

The fan who got involved will be punished the most severely. He’ll have to go for coffee and cake with Corey Neilson at least four times this season.

As a Coventry fan, I have to admit to a semi-grin at this one. As a writer. Wow. We can see which players/teams Neil Chiplen doesn’t like, can’t we! A gratuitous shot at Nottingham! Normally as a Blaze fan I’m a fan of these, but here it just seems out of place and shoehorned in.

And finally, Brad Voth will be suspended for six games.

Finishing with an inside joke. Would be good if it wasn’t the same joke that’s been made since about 2006, though.

So basically, what we’ve got here, on a national website, from a correspondent who’s supposed to a) know the sport and b) works for the organisation that covers the Elite League, is an article full of basic factual errors, supposition, borderline libellous innuendo about two coaches and two officials in the Elite League, and a message that basically all people in UK hockey care about is fighting.

Oh, and a joke at the expense of his own employer, but that’s the least of the worries for us reading it.

This article sums up how even those supposed to be covering hockey in the UK see the sport-as a joke-something to fill dead  airtime at 11pm on a Friday night and be mocked (except when a big fight happens-then they’ll put it on earlier so people can laugh at the silly skating thugs like they are this week).

There are people out there writing excellent hockey analysis every week-passionate volunteers writing for websites like UK American Sports Fans or Slapshot Scotland, or their own blogs. These are the people who the EIHL SHOULD be looking to to promote their sport.

But until those people are promoted and given the chance by either the UK hockey administration or the media outlets, this is the kind of treatment it seems the EIHL can count on from at least some areas of the Sky Sports empire.

Granted, with Sky Sports being a massive concern there are several departments involved…Sky Sports News is an entity which is seperate from Sky Sports, and the scheduling is another department. As long as the highlights show team continue to produce the show and the UK blogging/writing talent out there continues to plug away, there is hope that all this talent and its hard work will eventually bring reward.

However, this still raises the question-are the EIHL and Sky the right partners, or should the league at least consider taking their highlights show and trying to place it elsewhere-on the BBC for example?

After all, if a company who the EIHL claim are “great in promoting the sport” are willing and consider their coverage of little enough importance to seemingly take aim at the sport itself on another arm of their empire just to fill a slow news day…all I can say is…god help UK hockey if it ever gets what the EIHL consider “negative” mainstream media coverage.

Clearly, with both certain areas of Sky and the UK mainstream media in general, hockey still has some way to go to be taken truly seriously…

There Is Such A Thing As Bad Publicity: EIHL’s Wild Weekend

So, after the events in Cardiff on Sunday, the EIHL is getting front page coverage in newspapers, Sky Sports primetime videos and comment on the BBC too.

This MUST be good for the sport, right?

Wrong.

Here’s the “front page” mentioned:

I don’t know about you, but there is no way I can look at that and think “yup, that’s the kind of image I want people to have of ice hockey-a sport where all hell breaks loose in a brawl and fans get involved.

Devils fans have been unanimous in condemning the fan’s actions, and the club have dealt with the matter by banning the offender for the rest of the season, so I’m not going to concentrate on that part of the story.

However, the post-handshake brawl has ended up on TSN, Sky Sports news and being RTed all over the place-and apparently this is being seen as some sort of big marketing jackpot because it shows the “passion of hockey” and “a great rivalry”.

A good friend and colleague of mine, Stuart Coles, argues in this excellent UK American Sports Fans article that such incidents as the Coventry v Cardiff post-handshake brawl are an excellent marketing tool, and that clubs can’t afford to ignore them. Whilst I agree with his point that rivalries themselves are fantastic if used properly, I’m dubious about those who think that it’s a good thing to have these sorts of incidents all over the media on the basis that “no publicity is bad”.

To the average sports fan in the UK, hockey is a joke sport-basically UFC on ice. Sure, those of us who actually watch it know that it’s the greatest sport in the world, but this week’s media storm over the fun in Coventry-Cardiff is, in my eyes, a perfect example of how NOT to market the sport to a new audience-and any club following the path of doing so is shooting both themselves and UK hockey in the foot with a twelve-bore.

Look at the Sky Sports video online. No mention of the game itselt-the great finish by Matt Beleskey, the nailbiting game the night before in Coventry, or the long history of excellent matches between these two teams. There’s so little research been done that they can’t even be bothered to find out who’s involved, calling Devils coach Neil Francis and Max Birbraer “spectators”. This from the network that supposedly covers the sport in the UK and is the most clued-up on it.

In fact, there’s no context in the report at all…it’s a typical lazy British media treatment of “hey, look at the silly thugs on ice fighting even when the games finished! Aren’t they funny? LOL”.

Over in North America, where hockey is much more popular, the tone’s slightly different. Over there the response when something like this happens is “what, they have hockey in the UK?” f ollowed by “Look at this gongshow!”

The major problem with this is that-while in most leagues in North America the marketing thrust is “look at this skilled sport that’s also brutal and passionate…come and join in!” the default response in the UK (even by those within the sport) is “fighting = passion = great rivalry = ticket sales”.

It doesn’t. As long as UK hockey fans and teams continue to have the mentality that fighting is a great selling point for the sport in this country and that moments like the Coventry-Cardiff brawl are something to be savoured, glorified and remembered fondly for the rest of time just like people STILL go on about the circus that was the Sheffield-Nottingham Boxing Day Brawl, then the sport will never be taken seriously by the media in this country.

Basically, it’s time for UK hockey fans and teans to stop going YAY FIGHTS! as a marketing strategy, because that attitude is ensuring nothing except that mainstream media will continue to laugh at the sport and its fans.

Before I get the usual taunts of “Euro pussy” and “bet you’re one of those who’d prefer hockey to be non-contact”, I don’t. I love a good, close, hard-checking game as much as anyone. I also accept that when you have a sport based on 200lb men colliding at 20 mph with blades on their feet and sticks in their hands, there is going to be a scrap once in a while.

But what I don’t accept is that this is a viable way to sell it, in rivalries or otherwise.

Imagine, for argument’s sake, that someone tried to sell you on going to a sports event with the argument “you should come to this, cause last time it all kicked off and several of our people got beaten the crap out of, so now we’re going to try and beat the crap out of them in revenge-particularly this one guy who we all REALLY hate who’s an arsehole and asking for it. Come and watch people you don’t know risk getting seriously injured for no other reason than entertainment. It’ll be awesome!”  

Now imagine that same event is being sold with the argument: “Come and watch two evenly-matched teams who’ll be working their arses off and doing anything they can to try and win a sporting contest! You’re guaranteed to see great sporting skill, speed and hard work. And feats of athleticism that’ll leave you speechless! And oh-it’s a rivalry game so you’re guaranteed passion, noise and two sets of fans who’ll take the roof off the arena. It’ll be awesome!”

Interesting if, like me,  you picked the second one. That’s a summary of how the NHL (God rest its locked-out soul) markets the playoffs. It’s an example highlighting all the good things about hockey-the skill, the speed, the potential every shift for someone to make the crowd gasp and go “how in holy CHRIST did he do that” (or as I call it, the HF Factor, for things that can only be responded to with the phrase “Holy f…!”

The first example, however, is closer to how UK hockey fans and more to the point teams look at a rivalry game when they market it. Look at how the main buzz ahead of this Wednesday’s game in Sheffield is “will Olson and Sestito fight again?” or how Sheffield focused on how Brad Leeb was going to get retribution for his sins in interviews before their early season meeting with Coventry.

You can bet that the next time Coventry and Cardiff meet this incident will be dragged up again by both sides in some variety of “Handshake Havoc II: THE REVENGE!” rhetoric. Talking heads like Dave Simms will mention the incident at length on their Sky shows and discuss the repercussions for next time. The build up the week before will be “they’ve had two months to wait…now, it’s payback time!”.

And somewhere in the middle of all this, a hockey game will be played in front of a crowd that’s either quietly or loudly baying for the other team to pay in blood.

Hockey as a sport has so much to offer. But unfortunately, all that it seems UK hockey can think to offer as an incentive to people to come and watch is the chance to see one big bloke kick the crap out of another, disguised with phrases that have been corrupted to glorify vicious brawls and horrific injuries like “OLD TIME HOCKEY!”.

The view of OLD TIME HOCKEY that everyone subscribes to is the physical kind-the romanticised view of the likes of the Broad Street Bullies in Philly, the snarling menace of Bob Probert, Stu Grimson, Tie Domi and the like. That’s the kind of OLD TIME HOCKEY the UK media would have you believe is all you get-intimidation, imposing of physical will and many, many vicious fights, all in the name of a game. The kind of OLD TIME HOCKEY that seems to be not just romanticised but adored as a marketing tool in the UK.

But OLD TIME HOCKEY is also the silky skating of Bobby Orr, the supernatural puck-handling ability of Jean Beliveau, or the fiery heart and passion of the player who stood not just for a team but a people, Maurice “the Rocket” Richard. It’s something much more than what most people in the UK understand it to be.

The trouble is, due to the exposure and glorification of films like Slapshot and the lack of education (or even attempts to educate themselves) of most UK hockey fans, media and arguably team personnel themselves, the game is being sold short in the UK over and over again. It’s being done a tragic, tragic injustive.

And the most tragic thing about it, as events like this bringing up the same lazy stereotypes in the UK media and the marketing strategies of teams prove, is that it’s those within the game and their attitude towards “publicity at any price” who are responsible for it.

Fighting is a part of hockey, but as a selling point, it’s nowhere near the best part. The sooner some in the UK game realise that, the better,

Blindsided: Sestito Is Judged Innocent, But UK Hockey Isn’t

Tom Sestito has today had his match penalty for checking to the head downgraded, and all of South Yorkshire is gleefully saying “WE TOLD YOU SO!” Those who like to see hitting in hockey are informing all and sundry that this was a perfectly clean hit, and a victory for old-time hockey. Stand ’em up and knock ’em down.

I can’t argue with the reasoning. Under the criteria the EIHL currently use, the decision is right. The video, which you can see below, is (and I happily admit this) at best inconclusive on proving a head hit. Under the current EIHL rules, the penalty can be overturned, and has been.

However, the reaction from UK hockey is precisely what I was talking about yesterday. It’s a classic example of the UK hockey fan mentality. “If it’s not crystal-clearly a bad hit, it must be perfectly clean).

Here is the hit (press the “skip” button to skip the long highlights and go straight to the hit itself):

Firstly, both camera angles are in just about the worst possible place they could be-the first shows nothing and the second has Ward’s body completely obscured at the moment of contact-so sure, there’s reasonable doubt over a head hit.

But this is what the hit reminds me of-another hit, which caused the receiver a concussion and got a two-game suspension despite not being to the head:

Both hits have the hitting player coming from the rear, and making contact with a player facing away from them. Both hits (assuming that the Sestito hit IS to the body) are shoulder-to-shoulder-area (although Hjalmarsson’s slightly more from behind), and both hits cause a player’s head to make violent contact with the glass.

And, based on today’s evidence, UK fans seem to think both hits are perfectly legal.

On seeing the Sestito video, I’ve revised my opinion of whether or not it was a check directly to the head-you simply can’t tell. I haven’t revised my opinion that it was illegal. And I still think that it proves attitudes of UK hockey fans  Let me explain.

Under the precise wording of the IIHF rule, which defines a check to the head as:

a check or blow, with any part of the body, to the head and neck area of an opposing player or which “drives” or “forces” the head of an opposing player into the protective glass or boards…

the EIHL can claim it was clean as there is no prove of either direce head and neck contact or that Sestito forced Ward’s head into the boards intentionally, thus avoiding both provisions of the check to the head rule and making their decision technically correct.

End of case, right?

Consider this, though…

The match penalty being “downgraded” due to lack of clear conclusive evidence is being used by UK hockey fans, especially those in Sheffield, as automatic proof that the hit was squeaky-clean.

It isn’t. It’s a hit that approaches from the blindside on to a clearly unprepared opponent. and smashes a player into the glass in such a way that his head appears to strike it.

While the EIHL’s decision is correct under their criteria, and it appears that the referee made the wrong call under the letter of the law (if I was calling that hit, based on the benefit of the video replay it would have been boarding, not “check to the head”) the downgrading of the penalty to a “game” penalty is being taken as proof the hit was clean and no penalty should have been called whatsoever.

In other words “if the call isn’t right, then clearly there was no offence”

And that’s a very dangerous attitude to have. It means that in the future, any similar hit will now have to be treated the same way. Including those which flirt with being from the blindside. The kind of hit that ended Marc Savards career, gave Sidney Crosby a concussion and is now being outlawed in the NHL.

Also, in the back of my mind, I know damn well that if that hit had been landed on a Steelers player and a similar decision made, the noises coming out of S.Yorkshire would have been very different. Just as they would be from every fan defending the hit had it been landed on them.

Yesterday I wrote about the EIHL needing to set a precedent. I suggested that ANY hit that causes a head injury should be worth a one-game suspension at minimum, with more added on the basis of intent.

I also said that UK hockey attitudes need to change, with less emphasis on “if it’s clean under the letter of the law then fine” and “hockey without hitting is nothing” and more emphasis on knowing and lessening the dangers of play in a fast and violent sport and working out ways to cut them down.

I stand by that.

I can’t help thinking that Sheffield have got away with one here. So (from reports) has Andy Ward.

Next time, if the rules aren’t toughened up further still, we might not be so lucky.

Heading Into Danger: Why The EIHL Needs To Make The Right Call On Head Hits

Let’s play a game, shall we, Elite League fans? I’ll start, and see how you answer.

Sounds like fun. We’ve got nothing else to do this Tuesday. Go ahead.

OK. Imagine a hockey player. Imagine he’s in the middle of a game just like any other, when he gets a check that knocks him unconscious. A check that sees him stretchered off the ice.

Dangers of the game, right? Should have kept your head up, kid.

But this is a hit that he never saw coming. A hit that sees an opposition player make contact with his head.

But wait, the other guy couldn’t help it. He was bigger. It looked to us like he went to lay a clean hit-just caught the first guy in the head when he stood up. You can’t blame him for that, right? It was an accident.

Well, clearly the ref didn’t think so-he threw the checker out. Match penalty.

No harm done, then, right? The other guy got a match penalty plus a couple of games suspension. The league are going to review it.

What punishment should the guy get?

We’re fans of his team, and we think it was a clean hit. The guy’s…what, 6’4,, 6’5 and the kid he hit was 5’11/6′? Size difference is an issue here, he can’t be expected to be punished for being tall. It was an accident. No penalty.

We’re fans of the guy who got hit. Throw the book at the offender.

We’re everyone else in the league. A few games is fine. Maybe four.

OK. Let’s say three games. Maybe four.

Sounds about right.

Now imagine the guy hit steps back onto the ice fine after a brief concussion, and carries on playing. The checker serves his suspension, and that’s that.

Sure. All’s fair. The system works, right?

OK. Now imagine the same situation, except this time, imagine that one player knowingly hits another in a way that has been proven will cause the guy hit to start getting dizzy. He’ll suffer nausea for no reason. For the first few weeks after the injury, daylight is painful, so he’ll have to spend his time in a darkened “quiet room” with minimal stimulation.

Wow. That’s nasty. Vicious, even.

It gets worse. He’ll have balance problems. Time will slow down and speed up for him, or at least his perception of it will.

He’ll suffer acute depression as his brain tries to heal itself from the jarring it’s caused, but doesn’t. Any physical exercise will cause horrendous fatigue, blinding headaches & acute pain. When he tries to come back and play hockey again, doctors will tell him to stop because it’s seriously unsafe. Despite trying, it’ll probably end his career.

And on top of all that, he’ll suffer random memory loss. Sometimes short-term, sometimes long-term. His life will be forever blighted by that one moment where another hockey player collides with him. So, knowing that, what penalty would you give?

Jesus. If someone hit another player in that way, they should be banned for life, No question. I don’t care who they are or if they play on my team.

Right. That second hit? It was the same one as the first. A check to the head. So now what do you think, EIHL fans?

……..

That fictional conversation discussed two hits. The first was a description of Sheffield Steeler Tom Sestito’s hit on Hull Stingrays’ Andrew Ward, with the responses based on the reaction of fans across Britain this week.

The hypothetical effects of the “magical” second hit are not imaginary at all. They’re the daily problems faced by Marc Savard of the NHL’s Boston Bruins as he still tries to recover from a hit to the head delivered on March 7th, 2010 by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke-a hit that was adjudged to have no intent to injure by league disciplinary officials. A hit for which Cooke served not a single game of suspension.

A hit that was claimed by Cooke’s club and fans to be “an accident”. Just like many Sheffield fans (and now the club in this article) are claiming was the case with Sestito’s.

They’re caused by PCS or post-concussion syndrome-an illness that can be caused by any violent contact to the head-deliberate or not. Like, say, the kind of contact that might happen accidentally if a 6’4 player hits a smaller player. Or the kind of contact that isn’t always intentional, but may happen when players go in for hard hits and mistime them.

The kind of contact that many Elite League fans (Sheffield this time round, Cardiff fans in the past over Brad Voth, to name but two) say is bound to happen occasionally and that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of taller guys to try and avoid. Because “it’s just hockey, right?”

Try to tell Marc Savard or any Bruins fan that his life has been blighted perhaps irreparably because of something that’s “just hockey”, and see what happens, Elite League fans. You’ll probably get a response of two words…the first one rhyming with “puck”.

This “sometimes head contact just happens-let the league deal with it” attitude is, to me, an attitude that needs to change, right now. British hockey fans need to get into the mindset that ANY contact with the head during a hockey game is bad. They need to stop breaking out the “size matters” argument because frankly, that’s sheer lunacy. These players are pro sportsmen. They know damn well how to minimise the risk of injury to opposition players if they want to. And they know damn well that if they’re a big guy checking a smaller guy, to land a clean hit, they have to adjust.

This season, the EIHL disciplinary committee has made a good start to the year, with fair and even-handed decisions so far.

However, this is their chance to take an early-season stand on head hits, just as has been done in the NHL already. It doesn’t matter who the player is. It doesn’t matter that the Sheffield spin machine are trying to claim that this hit was “an accident”. This ban will set a precedent for the future. If a “check to the head” call on the ice is overturned or downgraded, then it undermines the officials. Let them stand except in cases of CLEAR (as in crystal) misjudgement. If you’re not sure, but can’t show clear misjudgement…then don’t add any further games.

Hits to the head, whether accidental or not, are some of the most dangerous plays in hockey. In the past the EIHL has seen fit to deal with them as an “automatic” match penalty/three game suspension, but also allowed the loophole of appeal. This needs to change, at least in cases of checks to the head-before someone gets REALLY hurt.

I’m arguing for a zero-tolerance rule on head contact in the EIHL. If a check is adjudged to make contact with the head of an opposition player (even if it’s accidental or not called on the play), then it’s a one-game suspension. No appeal, no nothing.

If a player is thrown out of a game for a check to the head (as was Sestito) and the call is found to be correct upon video review, then, in my eyes, it should be a mandatory ten games. No ifs. No buts. No arguments.

Come back and do it again (and have it upheld)…you’re done for the season. See ya.

Sure, some may say it’s draconian. But this way, you know that suddenly EIHL players will become a lot more aware of how they’re checking their fellow professionals, and a lot more careful. Fans will realise that a) the EIHL disciplinary system is strong and b) that checking to the head is something awful, not an unfortunate accident.

Maybe, just maybe, this horrendous passing of responsibility from the checker to the checkee will die out amongst UK hockey fans, and we won’t get the case of a professional club legitimising the attitude by saying “it was an accident” in order to gain an advantage.

And, most important of all, hockey will become safer in the UK, and bring us closer to eradicating the heartstopping sight of an unconscious player being carried off the ice from UK rinks, and lower the chances that we’ll to have our own version of the heart-rending Savard affair in the EIHL.

But, for all this to even begin, the EIHL has to make a strong decision on the Sestito check. One that will send a message that it doesn’t matter who you are or what team you play for-head hits are way beyond the pale in UK hockey, and will be dealt with accordingly.

We can but hope.

Pictures Mean Nothing: What We Learned This Weekend

It’s Monday, so it’s time for another What We Learned.

When Steelers Are Good, They’re Very Good…:

Sheffield came to Coventry on Saturday night and looked very good inseed, holding the Blaze to only 14 shots, including one in the third period, during a 3-0 win. Don’t forget, this is a very talented Blaze team that struggled manfully despite having a squad reportedly ravaged with flu, but the Steelers looked very polished indeed. If they can hit that level most nights, then I fear for the rest of the league.

Guts Equal Glory

That said, the Blaze did superbly well after a somewhat flat performance on Saturday (caused, reportedly, by a flu bug sweeping its way through the squad), by battling to a 1-0 win in Scotland the next day. Given that flu causes most people to decide to have a duvet day, there is serious praise involved for going up against a Caps side who are very tough at home and winning, especially as by all accounts the Caps played very well.

Winning With Style Is Nice, But Just Winning Is Fine Too

On Saturday night Sheffield came to the Skydome and played the kind of game that will not live long in the memory. Their goals weren’t that pretty, there were no real moments of individual skill and it was a match that left everyone a bit flat.

On Sunday night the Blaze went to Edinburgh and gutted out a narrow 1-0 victory which, by all accounts, wasn’t a classic. But it was two points that were sorely needed.

We saw another example of pragmatism as Cardiff beat Nottingham 2-1 in a low-scoring match in South Wales…another example of grit beating supposed flair and speed in what was by all accounts an excellent contest.

And that’s the key theme in this season’s Elite League. Points take precedence over pure entertainment as far as the standings go, and there are a lot of teams (Dundee, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Hull, Cardiff) who will not always be swashbuckling to watch but are set up purely in an attempt to win games.

This league seems to cycle between high- and low-scoring matches but the common theme is teams not caring how they win, as long as they do.

Angels And Demons

Tom Sestito is a polarising figure in the Elite League already. On Saturday night we saw the best of him in Coventry as he was a constant physical presence in front of the net, scored a textbook powerplay goal, and earned a deserved man of the match award. On Sunday, the Tom Sestito we knew from the NHL returned as he landed a hit on Hull’s Andy Ward which saw the Stingray stretchered off and Sestito thrown out of the game for a check to the head.

The Steelers are appealing the match ban that results, so it’ll be interesting to see what the EIHL disciplinary team do. News will come later this week.

Continental Troubles

Belfast represented the UK in the second round of the Continental Cup this week and did well, winning two games out of three, including an 11-1 thumping of Dutch side Geleen. Unfortunately, they sandwiched it with a 7-1 loss against a dominant Landshut Cannibals, which means that despite a brave effort, they don’t qualify for the next round.

Size Matters (Sometimes)

On the subject of the Sestito hit, a lot of Steelers fans are using the fact that Tom Sestito is 6’4 and Andy Ward is a lot less to defend him, saying that he can’t be penalised for his size.

This is interesting, given that size was apparently no defence for Brad Voth landing a high hit on Ashley Tait, nor Voth on Stefan Sjogren. In fact, Steelers got quite angry on the whole thing, saying that size was no defence and it was the responsibility of the checker to adjust.

If you’re considering using the size defence, just imagine how you’d react if the hit was…say, Benn Olson on Lee Esders, or Corey Neilson on Ben Davies*. If you’d react differently if your team’s player  was the one on the receiving end, then you can’t use it as a defence. Ever.

It’s A Long Road Out Of Hull’s Hell

With all the furore over Sunday’s events, it’s easy to forget that the Stingrays pulled out a 4-3 win against Dundee on Saturday, in a vital game for their confidence. It seems that, while the Stingrays still have a problem or two, Sylvain Cloutier has found a way to at least start to fix them.

That’s your brief summary of events this weekend…check back tomorrow for more Chasing Dragons (which will appear as soon as I know what I’m writing about).

 

*(these players are picked purely due to size difference and not any comment on their play)

In Praise Of The Warrior: Why Benn Olson Is The Best Tough Guy In The Elite League

With import limits tight there’s considered to be no room in the Elite League for a genuine “enforcer”.  Anyone who comes over with the thought of dropping the gloves in their minds has to be able to play with the gloves on, the wisdom has it. Look at the criticism of Sheffield’s Tom Sestito signing, or the stick handed out to Benn Olson from opposition fans-both derided as players who are far more comfortable with their gloves off than on. The mockery was loud and long in the early part of the season, particularly from a Sheffield direction.

Funny, that, because in the giant native of Port McNeill, BC, Coventry have found a player who may be the best tough guy not just in this season’s Elite League, but for a fair few seasons. And it appears not even Blaze fans really realise just how good he is. Here, in five simple reasons, is why Benn Olson is the best player of his type in Britain, with a little help from the classic text on battle, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

1. Demolition Man

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.

Olson is the prototypical hockey enforcer. 6’4, 216lbs and with a reach longer than some opponent’s stride, he makes the brutal art of hockey fighting look…well, just like an art. He knows his strengths, and uses them to the full in every scrap, trying to hold opponents out at the limit of his reach and landing bomb after bomb over the top. Due to the chaotic nature of hockey fighting, not all of them land, but when they do, they’re devastating. It’s a strategy that works. Usually, convincingly.

 

2. Hearts And Minds 

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

“Big Bad Benn” has already built a reputation in the EIHL. Look at noted wind-up merchant Devin Didiomete-unafraid to go after everyone and anyone on Twitter, but now he’s met Olson twice, he seems to be all sweetness and light. After the first two Coventry games the Devils agitator was anonymous in the third meeting, barely daring to try and go after the other Blaze players for the knowledge that he’ll be called to account. Guillaume Lepine, too, turned down a scrap against Nottingham and while the two will no doubt meet in the future, the fact that the Panthers hard-man was a little more circumspect on the physical play than usual (helped, admittedly, by Mike Egener smashing him into the plexi with a beauty of a clean hit after they’d fought, also) is the clearest indication yet that when Olson is around, opposition players tend to be a little more careful of what they’re doing, a little more circumspect, based purely on reputation alone. That benefits the whole team.

3. Pick Your Battles

Therefore the best warriors bring their enemies to the field of battle, and are not brought there by him.

One of the main dangers of having an enforcer on the ice is that they can be provoked into scraps, or pick a fight at the wrong time. Olson is possibly the most intelligent tough guy I’ve seen in a Blaze jersey…he will only fight when there’s a) no other option or b) when it will harm his squad least. He picks his opponents carefully, too…making sure that if involved in a scrap he’ll not be drawn into a fight with a lesser value player but try and take an opponent of equal or greater value to his team (the best example being a refusal of fighting talk by third-line Sheffield forward Jason Hewitt in favour of taking on one of their top dmen in Drew Fata up in Sheffield recently). Fighting itself may be emotion-driven, but getting into fights requires thought and a decision, and Olson usually makes the right one.

4.  Thorn In My Side

If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him.

Olson is a master of playing on the edge. In front of the net he’s a constant presence at both ends of the ice when given free reign, never giving forwards a moment’s peace. He’s not the quickest of skaters but is more than capable of frustrating forwards by using his long reach and stature to simply cut off any escape route along the boards, and has sound positional play. In the attacking zone, he’s simply a big body planted in front of the net who is VERY tricky to move, and adds an extra dimension/option to the Blaze’s powerplay. And you can see opposition forwards don’t like facing him on the ice, because they know exactly what sort of problems he’ll cause them. The kind that leads to frustration and, often, retailiation.

5. Team Player

 The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.

The key thing about Olson’s effectiveness is that he doesn’t think of his own play or fame when fighting-his role as an enforcer is always played in a way in which it can best help the Blaze out (unlike some famous enforcers in the past). He’s a player who knows what his job is and does it extremely well night in, night out in ways that may not get him the praise of others-if the gloves don’t drop then often he barely gets a mention in post-game talk.

Off the ice, Olson conducts himself calmly and with dignity, not stooping to the self-aggrandizing Twitter talk/heroics of some other notable players of his type. On it, he does a thankless task of combined stay-at-home defenceman/enforcer better than anyone else in the league.

And that last sentence is why every other team in the Elite League would secretly love to have him on their roster.

Tomorrow night, he’ll go out and do it just the same as any other-whatever the hype may be.

Under The Radar: 10 EIHL Players You Should Be Watching

Every league has its stars and its underrated players, but the EIHL seems to be particularly susceptible to “star player” syndrome. Think of Coventry and you think of Shea Guthrie or Brad Leeb, of Braehead and it’s Jade Galbraith, of Cardiff it’s (probably) Devin DiDiomete or Mac Faulkner. Today on Chasing Dtagons we pick out ten Elite League players who EIHL fans and pundits should be talking far more about. It’s time for Under The Radar.

1. Greg Leeb (Coventry Blaze)

His brother Brad gets all the plaudits for scoring and is generally viewed as the bigger threat, while Matt Beleskey is the new flavour of the month, but the older Leeb brother is the replacement for Dan Carlson Blaze have been crying out for for the past few seasons and may be the best pure centre in the league. He’s almost supernaturally calm on the puck, has a positional instinct few can better and is a beast in the faceoff circle, with Paul Thompson putting him out there whenever a crucial faceoff needs to be won. Couple that with a point-a-game plus scoring rate and an ability to run the powerplay from the point (watch him drift between the blue-line, faceoff circle and behind the net on the right side of Blaze’s powerplay, always providing an option), and the little man from Red Deer may be one of the signings of the season so far.

2. Casey Haines (Fife Flyers)

No-one expected much from Haines when he signed in Fife-his acquisition went by without any real comment from the league at large and his ECHL stats were good but not great. However, since he’s arrived in Kirkcaldy the 26-year-old has shown an appetite for goals, getting nine of them and 17 points to be up in the top three of league scoring, as well as being named Flyers captain. He’s a constant threat offensively and is fast making a reputation for himself-keep an eye out for him when the Flyers visit your rink.

3. Sami Ryhanen (Dundee Stars)

The Finn was briefly impressive in a short stint with the Nottingham Panthers last season, but the measure of how effective he was expected to be in Dundee is perhaps best taken by the fact that even the Elite League website can’t spell his name right. Now, however, the silky Scandinavian centre is leading the Elite League in points and has formed a lethal partnership with Mike Wirll on Tayside that’s almost singly responsible for the Stars being where they are-between them Wirll and Ryhanen have scored 14 goals and 39 points, with Ryhanen being the major creative force on the Stars attack and his soft hands being a joy to watch.

4. Chris Blight (Cardiff Devils)

His linemate and friend Mac Faulkner is getting all of the attention thanks to his early-season goalscoring exploits, but a lot of those strikes are being set up by Blight’s tireless work in the corners and solid physical play. The Etobicoke, ON native can score himself, as evidenced by a 25-goal season in the ECHL, but so far only has three goals. The eleven assists are perhaps more indicative of his value to the Devils and Faulkner in particular-Blight makes that Devils top line tick and allows his linemate to take the plaudits.

5. Brock McPherson (Braehead Clan)

I picked the big Canadian out as an unsung hero for the Clan in my preseason preview, and since then he’s done nothing to prove me wrong. Sure, 9 points isn’t the most impressive scoring statistic, but McPherson is a key component of making the Clan offense work. He’s strong, surprisingly quick for a big guy and does the dirty work behind the net and in the corners as well as anyone else in the league, as well as being a physical presence that allows the likes of Drew Miller and Jade Galbraith to get on with what they do best relatively unmolested.

6. Janis Ozolins (Hull Stingrays)

On paper, Ozolins was a cheap, makeweight signing-a pickup from the Sheffield Steeldogs after an impressive EPL season who was likely going to struggle at Elite League level, with questions over his ability to make the step up rife.

But then we saw the little Latvian play. Watching Ozolins stickhandle in traffic is a thing of beauty-he’s quick and elusive with a surprising amount of strength for someone listed at 5’9 and 165lbs. Search for highlights of Hull’s visit to Coventry this season and watch both his calm finish for a goal during the game and his audacious penalty shot, and you come away thinking that the 23-year-old from Riga may have some of the best hands in the EIHL. The Stingrays have found a little diamond.

7. Daymen Rycroft (Belfast Giants)

Rycroft is another player whose CV looked less impressive than some of his teammates, having spent the majority of his career in the Central Hockey League rather than the ECHL or AHL. When he was signed he was expected to be a solid forward but play second fiddle to the likes of Noah Clarke and Greg Stewart.

That expectation has gone out the window. The 5’11, 180lb Albertan is now the Giants’ top scorer and a key component of their powerplay, using his vision and quick shot to cause opposition defences all manner of problems. He’s one of the main offensive threats on a stacked Giants team, which is no mean feat in itself, but still toils a little in the shadow of his more illustrious linemates.

8. Nicola Riopel (Dundee Stars)

There were a few raised eyebrows when Dundee signed the 23-year-old Canadian-Italian…after a decent junior career with the Moncton Wildcats Riopel had hardly set the world alight. However, like Garrett Zemlak last season he’s come into an unfancied team and given them a chance to win every night-he’s currently in the top five in GAA despite having a workmanlike but unspectacular defence in front of him, and would likely be being talked about far more if he played for a more glamorous team than the Stars.

9. Michal Dobron (Edinburgh Capitals)

Another signing that surprised many mainly for his sheer quality, Dobron is the latest example of Caps coach Richard Hartmann pulling out a gem from Eastern Europe to follow Rene Jarolin last season. The Czech is a big presence at 6’2, 238lbs but more than that he’s very skilled indeed, and could probably fit into the top four if not the top pair of most EIHL teams. Certainly he’s far more impressive than Nottingham’s Martin Tuma, who has a fairly comparable CV, and will likely find himself on a Team Of The Year if the UK’s ice hockey journalists are doing their job. Despite that, he rarely gets a mention outside Edinburgh.

10. Martin Cingel (Edinburgh Capitals)

An Edinburgh legend, Cingel is one of the hardest-working players in the EIHL and is scoring at nearly a point a game despite being on a struggling squad. He’s also captain once again and the calmness and stability that he brings to what is often a hectic hockey environment in the Scottish capital cannot be underestimated-Cingel’s an anchor around which the rest of the Caps can congregate even when times get hard, and while he may not be the best player in the league and age may be beginning to catch up with him, his effect on the Caps has a value that can’t be measured in mere numbers.

Right. There’s your ten under-rated players…tomorrow we might have a look at those overrated as well. Happy Thursday…