It seems the Braehead Clan post from yesterday struck a chord, with the club themselves featuring it on their fb page, 900 views and some very nice comments from fans around the league. Thank you to all who read and commented…it was much appreciated.
Today is partly a follow-up to that and partly a separate post. Last night I was reading various UK hockey forums and stumbled upon a debate on the impact of Drew Miller and the other NHLers signing in the country this time round, in which a debate was going after someone had called Miller “the biggest signing in Scottish hockey history”. Naturally Fife fans were up in arms about this, pointing to their signings of career NHLers Doug Smail and Laurie Boschman back in the 1990’s as “bigger”.
For what it’s worth, I’m in agreement that calling Miller Scottish hockey’s biggest signing ever is wrong.
In fact, I’d argue that he’s UK hockey’s biggest signing ever. Certainly based on the impact he’ll have on both his club and probably the league itself, as well as the way UK hockey is perceived at large.
At this point I can almost hear the rage from 5000 or so Belfast fans all yelling “THEO FLEURY!” at me. Along with an equal number of Fifers/Peterborough fans yelling “DOUG SMAIL!” or “GARRY UNGER!”. Might even be a few Blaze fans yelling “BELAK!” in there too.
So I’ll explain.
Sure, Theo Fleury is a Canadian legend. Sure, he has a Stanley Cup/gold medal/the ability to part the waves and walk off the Giants’ Causeway*. And sure, Smail/Unger/Boschman had long NHL careers. But there is a key thing linking all of these players:
By the time they came, they were far in the twilight of their careers. Their NHL days were long gone.
Smail, Unger and Boschman were big for their time, sure-but now, they fade behind Fleury for a variety of reasons, not least sheer name recognition. Mention the top three to anyone under the age of 40, and they go “what?” Mention Fleury, and everyone knows who he is.
Plus, Smail and Unger played in a time when British hockey was, frankly, laughable in skill level compared to today. Put any EIHL team today up against a BD1 team from the 90’s, and on pedigree alone, the modern team would win. It’d probably be quite close amongst the imports, but goalie ability means any modern EIHL import forward would likely score an absolute hatful. It says something when the points totals used to be in the high one hundreds for imports-for example Luc Chabot, who played 9 OHL games and was never drafted got 95 goals in 94/95. In 46 games. Smail got 82 goals in the UK at the age of 39. That just isn’t happening now. Sorry.
So, the “old guard” have gone. Now we’re into the realm (in UK hockey impact terms) of Fleury.
Stanley Cup winner. Olympic medal winner. NHL star. But again, Fleury’s best days were far behind him when he came to the EIHL. Sure-at Elite League level he was still incredible-and the name recognition is there. It can’t be denied that he had an effect on Belfast hockey too, with attendances rising 500 on average the season he was there.
The season after, though, they dropped. And the Giants themselves were a pretty good team without Fleury-don’t forget they had Mike Minard in net, and established stars of the UK game like Colin Shields, Ed Courtenay, Todd Kelman etc. Replace Fleury with a “normal” top line EIHL forward from that year (say Mark Dutiaume of Sheffield) and they’d still have come close to the title, if not won it. And Fleury was easy to market as an NHL star…but somehow, the Giants just didn’t do it right (Todd Kelman has admitted this on more than one occasion). If anything, Fleury in Belfast was an opportunity wasted-his impact was big, but it could have been so much bigger.
And so we come to Drew Miller in Braehead.
Miller has won more Stanley Cups than Fleury (2 to 1). At 28, he’s in the absolute prime of his career and fast rising up the ranks of one of the best teams in the NHL. When he leaves Britain, he won’t go into retirement or collect one last blaze of glory. He’ll go back to play in the best league in the world, and likely be considered a key player for the Red Wings.
His star is rising, not falling…which makes it even more surprising that he’s decided to come to the UK.
Then there’s his team. The fact that he’s chosen Braehead over one of the supposed “big” teams is MASSIVE for the Clan-in a crowded sports market in Glasgow, they now have a young, current NHL star who will potentially lead them to a league title.
They also (if I may be crude for a second) have marketing gold. Miller is a polite, grounded individual with film-star looks and an engaging manner-ideal to attract youngsters/teenagers of both sexes.
He also happens to be coming to a team who are trying to make a name for themselves and doing a decent job of it (as I mentioned yesterday). However, in football terms this is less like Beckham going to LA (which is a comparison many use to explain the Fleury impact upon his team) and more like Lionel Messi coming to Oldham Athletic.
But I think that IF Miller leads the Clan to a title in only their third season (something he’s capable of doing), the resultant buzz around the city coupled with the already-demonstrated skills of the Clan back office will mean that they will gain and hold a big place in a crowded Glasgow (and Scottish-wide) sports market-an achievement that will sustain them for years to come.
Belfast were a strong team pre-Fleury. Miller coming to Braehead means that the Clan will finally jump into the “big league” of British hockey-and more importantly Scottish sport, since BBC Scotland are now following them with far more interest.
Miller may only stay for one season, but he’s now the closest UK hockey has to the North American definition of a genuine franchise-building player both in the UK AND abroad-and in that respect he’s more important to UK hockey than any other player who’s come to the league. He’s certainly the opposition player most fans in the UK are looking forward to seeing, over and above Matt Beleskey, Antony Stewart and the rest.
And that’s why, if the lockout goes the season, this season will be one long burst of Miller Time!
*this last ability is only credited by Northern Irish hockey fans