Long Nights And Goal Horns: It’s NHL Playoff Time, British Style

“Everyone is standing all over the place…roaring”

Bob Cole

Tonight starts the most wonderful time of the year for a hockey fan.

Sure, the British season ended a month ago, so live hockey has wended its way into the history books until August, but now, for the dedicated few, the true season begins.

As of tonight, the NHL playoffs begin. For the next two months, as the British sports pages are dominated by the end of the football season and the beginning of the cricket season, I and many others like me in this outpost of the hockey world will become creatures of the night and waking zombies during the day.

Sleep will be carefully rationed-a precious commodity stolen in the early evening, or a few hours in between the ending of an East Coast game and the alarm clocks. The chances of leaving for work having stolen an hours’ sleep after catching the end of a Western Conference OT thriller (Pacific time-zone games don’t even START until 3 am on a weeknight UK time, and four of the eight West playoff teams are in the Pacific Division) will increase. We’ll abuse our bodies, defy cicadian rhythms on a daily basis for our sport and swear three or four times “I swear I’m not doing this again this season” only to do it again a day or two later. And it’s brilliant. It’s what we live for.

The slide is swift. In the regular season, because the games come so thick and fast, there is a tendency for UK NHL fans to say “ah, I’ll miss this one and catch up on Twitter-I’ve got a busy day tomorrow” or “I’ll record it and watch it tomorrow night”. After all, that mid February game in Nashville can wait whatever your team is, partly because it’s not that important and partly because not even British Nashville fans will miss out on sleep to watch the Predators.

But in the playoffs, every game matters. From the hope eternal of a Round 1, Game 1, to the building nerves of an elimination game, to the joy of a team coming back from the dead, to the nerve-jangling, sinew-ripping, brain-melting tension of a game 7, to the euphoria and fulfilled dreams of a Cup win, we UK fans climb on the nightly rollercoaster on an early spring night in late April and we don’t jump off it until we arrive, circadian rhythms shattered, at the payoff of the Cup final as summer begins to kick into full swing.

And as we sit through the dark watches of the night sharing communion with our North American brothers and sisters via Twitter and a flickering TV/laptop screen turned down low so as not to wake the rest of the house, occasionally, we wonder why we do what we do. Non-hockey fans here ask us why, come NHL playoff time, as the rest of Britain revels in the lighter days, we look forward to and embrace the sleepless nights, the 4am starts, the double-headers, the miraculous comebacks and sitting living and dying by a game played by men we’ll never meet, 5000 miles away in the long, dark, restless hours. And then, almost as quickly, we answer.

Because “Hello hockey fans in Canada, the United States and Newfoundland” is a phrase that means as much to us as you.

Because we are a proud bunch of addicts who need our fix.

Because on the night of a Game 1, there is ALWAYS hope that “this is the year”.

Because it’s the sport we love, at its most frantic and glorious.

Because in a place where hockey is a minority sport, the long dark hours of the night are the time that it becomes a majority sport.

Because there’s ALWAYS a time for hockey-watching.

Because come playoff time, sleep is for the weak.

Because there’s nothing better than playoff hockey.

Because we love the game.

Because we hope.

Because we believe.

Because it’s the Cup.

Giddy up, Britain. It’s playoff time.

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GB Hockey Hits The Crossroads

So, it appears talk of the revolution was greatly exaggerated.

From a solid run in Div IA under Paul Thompson to relegation under Tony Hand’s system in only two years, GB hockey has fallen back down another step in the international ladder.

Supporters of the GB system will point to the fact that they made final Olympic qualifying this season, forgetting that as the top-ranked team in their pre-qualifying group, they should have done (and even then the team had to force their way into another level). They will also claim that the reorganisation of the IIHF divisions for this season means GB faced a much tougher task, forgetting that the IA/IB system of divisions in the World Championships has existed for many seasons, including for almost the whole of GB’s run in Div I…certainly for the whole of Thompson’s tenure as coach.

But having watched a GB team that was tentative, outclassed in both speed and skating by nations ranked below them in the world (nations that GB had beaten as recently as Olympic pre-qualifying in November like Japan and Korea being among the most notable) and a team that, unlike those of Thompson, had no recognisable plan or adaptation from the North American style of the EIHL/EPL to the faster international game, British hockey is being forced to take a long, hard look at itself at the international level.

The problems are manifest. No-one can fault the commitment of those who pull on a GB jersey. The problems do not lie with the effort and commitment of those picked to represent GB, and not entirely even with those who do the picking and even those above them who run the system.

But before getting into those problems, let’s do a straight comparison between GB and one of the teams who finished above them this tournament, Hungary.

According to IIHF figures, GB has 1,484 registered adult male players as a pool to pick from, and 46 rinks, and is ranked 21st in the world. Hungary, meanwhile, has a total of 218 players, and 18 rinks that can used throughout the year. They are ranked 19th.

The Hungarians took bronze in this championship, beating GB 4-2 on the way.

So, the facts with GB hockey right now are that it has reached a state where a country with under half the available rinks and one-sixth of the available talent can out-perform it on a consistent basis.

That, frankly, is horrific.

Under Paul Thompson, the GB setup progressed-there was optimism under the setup and hope that the GB team could really challenge for a position in the top 16 of the world given time, even though it seemed that at time those running the GB setup were seemingly having to fight tooth-and-nail against those running IHUK in order to get anything done.

Then Thompson stepped down, taking his staff with him. Tony Hand was appointed to replace him-an appointment that was not only symptomatic of “jobs for the boys” but met with widespread apprehension amongst the GB hockey fanbase.

GB hockey then had a textbook “dead-cat bounce” that appeared to prove that GB could continue their steady performances, although the drop to last-but-one in April 2012 should have foreshadowed what was to come.

Then came the euphoria of the Olympic qualification, which only papered over the cracks in the GB setup. IHUK did a wonderful job of “spinning” GB hockey as on the up after that qualification, but the simple fact is that they should have gone through anyway, according to the IIHF’s rankings. The fact that their performance at the actual qualifying while on British TV was pretty much abject, in the same way that their performances in this last tournament lacked ideas, saw players who were slow and tentative in system and relied far, far too much on their goalie to bail them out is probably a much clearer indication of what GB under Tony Hand and the current organisation is.

So what’s wrong? Let’s go back to the comparison between GB and Hungary, two comparable squads in world ranking, for an illustration.

Despite only having 218 players to pick from in the whole country, the Hungarian ice hockey federation consider the national team important enough to commit to funding it for several tournaments, for which the Hungarian league stopped. Not only that-in 2011, when their last coach, Kevin Primeau, stepped down, they committed not to hiring an ex-local player who’s mates with all in IHUK as a cheap-option coach, but a proven foreign coach-ex-DEL coach and Canadian Rich Chernomaz.

Not only that, but the Hungarian team are encouraged to play together as much as possible-in fact, the vast majority of them already play for the same team-SAPA Fehérvár AV19. Chernomaz takes an active interest in the EBEL/MOL Liga and more importantly, the Hungarian team are his sole job.

Compare that with Britain, who appointed a coach who’s also a player coach in British hockey in the full knowledge that he wouldn’t be there for the first game of the World Championships. Oh, and he also coaches in a different league to the vast majority of the players, who he can never watch because he’s playing for his own team.

You couldn’t arrange a more shambolic scenario if you tried.

Couple that with some questionable personnel decisions already by Hand (a particularly glaring one in this World Championships being the omission of Hull’s Matty Davies, for example) and a hierarchy who is happy to trumpet receiving funding but never wishes to tell anyone what they’ve actually done with it, and GB has a problem.

But wait, there’s more. This is the same hierarchy that won’t arrange any international breaks during the season for fear of “clubs losing revenue” but WILL allow clubs who lost GB players to the Olympic qualification not to play that weekend, lost revenue or not.

A hierarchy that seemingly doesn’t see the benefit of having the national team of Great Britain involved in non-World Championship tournaments despite the fact that seemingly every other country in the top 20 in Europe will do their best to get involved in them.

A hierarchy whose former press officer publicly rubbishes all but the top league in Britain.

A hierarchy who until recently wouldn’t even pay for their own media officer to travel with the team.

A hierarchy who think that the methods (and seemingly the players) who got them by in 2005 will still get them by in 2013.

Team GB hockey is an amateur setup in a professional world. One of the great strengths of Paul Thompson and his backroom team was that they somehow managed to succeed seemingly DESPITE the efforts of the governing body, not because of them.

Forget the talk of import limits, junior development, and all the other issues that invariably get brought up at this stage…the very fact that GB’s u18 and u20 teams seem to be more successful than the seniors tells me that somewhere at the top level, the setup there just doesn’t cut it.

GB hockey now stands at a crossroads. A lot of the great work done by Paul Thompson and his team is seemingly being piddled away piecemeal by a governing body that refuses to change, refuses to adapt and refuses, point blank, to consider any thinking that might be considered as adventurous.

So here’s what they should do. Given that IHUK has around $100,000 in free money this year as a grant from the IOC, which was earmarked to cover costs of “training camps, travel etc”…(and you’re not seriously telling me they spent it ALL on the Olympic qualifying jolly to Japan) on top of their regular funding, some of the money must still be lying around. Here’s what to do with it.

Hire a dedicated, international coach: By “dedicated” I mean a coach whose job is “Team GB coach”. Not “Team GB coach when not doing his club team”. A coach preferably from a genuine hockey nation, who can bring in new thoughts, new systems, and new philosophies to a jaded setup. Not a GB legend who is coming to the end of his career who you’d like to keep around-no-one’s saying they can’t be given jobs in the setup but not a head coach, surely?

Actually let the team play together. Whether it be a pre-season training camp in August, an entry to an international tournament in February or a pre-World Championship training camp that lasts longer than “meet up on the plane and pick lines”, the GB squad has to be given more time together. If that means that the season starts and finishes a little earlier, then so be it.

Open the borders: There’s a hangup in the team GB setup about only using “British” players, not dual-nationals. Interestingly, though Hungary only used born-and-bred Hungarians, every other team competing with GB used dual nationals to boost their squad with the exception of Kazakhstan. There is a sizeable “Little England” mentality in the GB setup which argues that the GB squad must NOT use dual nationals.

And it’s bloody stupid. It’s holding the GB team down, weakening the player pool available and, while laudable in theory, it’s not grounded in the reality of international hockey, which is that, in the vast majority of nations, dual nationality is used to gain an advantage.

If GB don’t do so, they’re handicapping themselves before the games have even begun.

Let the young blood in: Look back at the GB squads over the past few years and they’ve all, almost without exception, contained 90% of the same names. There is no wish to experiment and blood younger players or break the status quo until it becomes absolutely necessary. Players like Matty Davies, Ben Davies, and even the likes of Gary Clarke back when he was tearing up the EPL simply don’t get a look in until the older guard are injured or even retired. Now, the GB squad is ageing. Jonathan Weaver is still being forced with the pressure of carrying a defence-and he was shown out badly for it this tournament-particularly by the speed of Japan and Korea. The international game is getting faster-it’s changing. But GB are not changing with it.

No-one is expecting GB to magically become an elite ice hockey nation. The chances of that happening with the current infrastructure are nil. But even staying in place with this current setup is looking like it could be too much to ask as the smaller hockey nations adapt and change with the times, proactively securing investment and putting long-term plans into place that are more than just “oh, we’ll let the guy we know do it and sit on our hands”.

One thing is certain-if the Team GB setup doesn’t change soon, then, like Nero, those presiding over the fragmented empire of UK hockey may merely be fiddling while their sport burns.

And tragically, like Nero, as long as they remain at the top, they don’t really seem to care if it does right now.

Following Up: Five Ways To Fix The Elite League

Wow.

Late on Friday night, I posted Five Ways to Fix The Elite League-five points that I thought might help the EIHL build on a season which, while it showed up several flaws that still needed to be fixed, was still arguably the most exciting in the league’s ten-season history. I expected a little debate, maybe a single comment or two from regular readers of the blog, and then things to fade a little into the ether the same way most posts do.

Instead, the post ended up being the most popular in the history of the site, receiving over 1200 hits in 24 hours (the previous record-holder, a post on the Braehead Clan, was just over 800), generating something like 300 replies on to me on Twitter and across UK forums, and being discussed and/or praised on Twitter by some of the most influential figures in the EIHL, such as Cardiff’s GM Brent Pope. And those were just the comments I was able to see. Clearly, the post has set people thinking. And the level of response was such that it’s worth a follow-up. So here is the feedback addressed, point by point.

Point 1: Kill the Challenge Cup/bring in the Autumn Cup

It seemed the majority were in favour of the changes to the Challenge Cup competition and its replacement with an “Autumn Cup” to streamline it…however it was interesting that some, for example Dave Simms on Twitter, seemed to think that the slight shortening of the cup competition would take away games, so any disagreement came in on financial grounds-with Simms saying “implement all of these changes and the league is bankrupt in a year”. Leaving aside the fact that that seems like hyperbole, it should be made clear that these proposals were made with the intention that the number of games each team is guaranteed to play wouldn’t change…all that would happen is that the first eight games of the season would be CC/Autumn Cup group games as well as league, with all afterwards counting for league only. If anything, this would increase the prestige of the league title as it’s effectively adding eight more games to the league season without having to find any extra dates to do so.

A lot of fans suggested a straight-knockout Cup competition similar to football’s FA Cup, inviting the top six teams in the EPL to take part also. Sorry-but while this competition is a good idea in theory, I considered and rejected this idea purely because a straight-KO would need EPL teams to take part-and the relationships between the two leagues are such that to organise such a competition would require a decision on which league’s rules to use…if you use EPL rules then over half the EIHL team’s imports sit out, use EIHL rules and the EPL teams are potentially at a major disadvantage. Couple that with the sometimes-frosty relationship between the two leagues and the travelling distances involved and I just don’t think this is viable. Maybe in the BNL days it may have worked, but arguably at the moment the league rules are simply too far apart for EPL teams to be convinced of the benefits.

Point 2: Minimum Brits/development licence

This was the point that divided a lot of people, with some arguing that “you can’t dictate where the established Brits play” or that “most of the good Brits nowadays are under 25” or simply “the big teams will still load up on the GB team”. Some even suggested that a “veteran rule” would force older Brits out of the league altogether.

I don’t think there’s any way that bringing young talent into the league will force older Brits out-but it will increase the competition for their jobs-which is surely only a good thing for the standard of the league?

Interestingly, some suggested implementing the EPL rule whereby only three imports can be on the ice at any one time. Can you IMAGINE the rumpus that would cause in the EIHL? That said, it might be worth a try…

Point 3: All Points Count For Everything

This was the most popular point by far…it seems that all the fans want in the EIHL is a logical, simple scoring system that leaves no confusion over who’s where in the league OR conference.

Point 4: Reducing Playoff ticket prices

Again, the main argument against this was that “it has to be run as a commercial enterprise”-which I can see the point of…but frankly, if the EIHL is relying on one weekend a year to ensure the stability of the league as a whole then there are far bigger issues to address than the ticket prices.

Point 5: Conference-based playoffs.

There was a clear split here. Gardiner fans, in the main, loved it. The fans that didn’t? Sheffield, Nottingham, and to a lesser degree Belfast.

Well, of course, since there’s a big chance that one of the “big teams” may not even make the playoff QFs under the conference-based system. Apparently to some this is a “bad thing”.

To me, it’s called sport.

The main argument was “we want the best teams in the league in the playoff final”. Well, the NHL very rarely has the best teams in the league face off in the Stanley Cup Final (last year, an 8th-seed won it) and they seem to be doing just fine, thanks. Almost invariably in the EIHL era the playoff final weekend has seen the same four or five teams make it, with Cardiff being the only one to make every playoff despite never winning a league title. Every playoff weekend has seen at least three of Sheffield, Nottingham, Cardiff, Coventry and Belfast compete.

Before Hull last season, Newcastle in 2005/06 (seven seasons ago) were the last team outside these five to make the weekend.

Clearly, if the EIHL is going to truly claim that it’s more competitive in more than just a token fashion, something needs to change.

I refuse to accept that a Gardiner-Erhardt system will automatically lead to a one-sided one-off final, either. Look at Nottingham taking two games to (barely) dispose of Fife this season, say, or teams like Edinburgh beating teams like Nottingham and Sheffield. The whole point of the playoffs is that it’s a SEPARATE COMPETITION to the league…if you want “the two best teams” in it as a fan then we may as well just have a 1st-v-2nd playoff final every year and be done with it. Clearly, though, that’s a horrendous idea.

Right?

One of the questions I’ve been asked most often is which changes I’d pick if I could only implement some of the changes I’ve thought of-rank them, if you will.

Of the five recommendations, the two that I think NEED to happen are the change to the scoring system and conference based playoffs, closely followed by the Challenge Cup changes. The “cash-cow playoffs” would be nice cheaper, but I think that if you make it more likely fans will see three competitive games and three titles won over the weekend, the price becomes a (little) less of an issue.

There’s my reaction to people’s concerns, anyway. The over-riding message I’d send to the Elite League owners given the chance, though, is this:

You’ve taken the first steps towards a truly sustainable/competitive league with the conference system, even if at times the scoring system was needlessly complicated. It’s the first step in bringing the game back to the people who watch it ALL over the league, as opposed to the traditional powerhouses. You’ve seen the response from fans and people within the game-the excellent initiative brought in by Brent Pope has seen to that.

Now, it’s your turn.

Five Ways To Fix The Elite League

It’s off-season time now, and with some saying that this was the best EIHL season ever, it appears that the much-maligned EIHL board have at least begun to take steps towards improving the product to a level where it can be taken as seriously by the wider world as it is by the world of UK hockey fans. These changes are not some “magic wand”-I’m not realistically going to think ice hockey will get anywhere near the status of “major” sports in the UK. But maybe they’ll help to improve the sport further. So here is a Five Point Plan to fix the EIHL.

Point One: Kill The Challenge Cup.

Let’s be honest…the Challenge Cup is a dead flush. I wrote a post way back in October describing why the Challenge Cup had to go,  and I still feel the same now-at least in its current format. The Challenge Cup is becoming an irrelevance-teams are now using games to double up for league points instead of making it a competition in itself, it’s labyrinthine in structure (8 games just to eliminate one team in each group for the quarter finals? Really?!) and it quite frankly gets in the way early in the season for quarters, semis and finals that are only going to be played midweek anyway. So here’s what you do…you kill it. Replace the Challenge Cup with an “Autumn Cup” with two groups of five EIHL teams that are randomly-drawn at the summer fixture meeting…then play each other home and away once each in the first 8 games of the season, with points counting both for league AND Cup standings. Top two from each group qualify for the semis, which run in a 1A v 2B, 2A v 1B fashion. The final then is a two-legged affair in November.

That way you have silverware early on, a streamlined cup competition that actually works, and the early season means something more.

2. Make a Minimum, Not a Maximum

The “import” limit in UK hockey is a farce. Not least because players are classified as imports for league play while being British for international play (I’m looking at you, Corey Neilson and Rod Sarich). Plus, the claim that import limits help Brit development is horrendous…it doesn’t. All it does is drive up the prices of the “premium” British players and make for token UK youngsters sat on the bench.

So here’s how the EIHL shows its commitment to the British hockey scene. Rather than saying “you must have no more than this number of non-Brits” say “you must have this number of young Brits on your roster”.

How? You make a rule along the lines of the Forderlizenz (development licence) rule in Germany, which states every 20 man roster is not only limited to 10 imports, but must have at least three British players under 23 on it. All of a sudden, young British players are being given a chance to break into the EIHL, and the seniors can’t demand as much money for the remaining spots…either they accept a little less money or they’re squeezed out by the youngsters. And, like the “veteran” rule in NA leagues, it means that teams can’t monopolize the “best” players for their Brit pack, spreads the top British talent around the league, and allows a genuine pathway for young Brits to break through into the top level of the UK game.

3. All Points Count For Everything.

This is so astoundingly simple a scoring system, and reeks of so much common sense that surely the EIHL wouldn’t miss out on it, right? Wrong. In the NHL, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing…the points count for both the overall standings and the division standings. So why on earth aren’t we doing that here? The silliness that sees a team being top of the overall competition without being top of an arbitrarily-defined group of teams within it is something that’s frankly embarrassing to all concerned.

4. Stop Seeing The Playoffs Only As A Cash Cow.

80 quid for three games of meaningful hockey that your team might not be playing at is simply TOO MUCH. Stop mucking about with the format and make it simple…semis on Saturday. Junior international and finals on Sunday. 30 quid a day. 15 quid a match. Or about what we pay to watch our teams anyway, only with the added pomp and circumstance of an actual final weekend.

Trust me on this one. People will come. And they will come in far greater numbers. The playoff weekend is supposed to be the final weekend of the season-a massive hockey jamboree. An overpriced love-fest for the Erhardt Conference, as it has been the past few years, simply isn’t going to cut it.

5. Make the Playoffs Conference Based

This one’s perhaps the most radical change on the surface, but it’s astoundingly simple to implement-and ensures that two teams from each conference will always make Nottingham. Furthermore, it gives teams even more incentive in the playoff quarter finals AND ensures that, even if you don’t win the playoff final, there’s still a reason to celebrate on BOTH days at PO weekend.

It’s very simple. Ditch the “league position as playoff seeding” system and seed by conference instead.

After the league title is awarded, the teams split into conferences for the playoffs, with (and here’s the key change) the bottom team IN EACH CONFERENCE missing out, not the bottom two teams in the league. 1st v 4th and 2nd v 3rd in each conference play each other, with the winners of each quarter final progressing to Nottingham. The two teams from each Conference then face each other on the Saturday, with the winners being crowned “conference champions” and progressing to the final on Sunday. It’s then Gardiner champs v Erhardt champs for the EIHL playoff title.

Think about it. Under this system, the playoffs would be far more likely to have two genuine rivals facing each other in the quarters and semis (imagine, say, Edinburgh v Fife and Coventry v Nottingham for Conference Championship), & ensure that everyone has the chance to reach the playoffs until the the final day of the league season in both conferences. It’d also pretty much remove any doubt over who is the best team in the league and ensure that the playoff weekend will never be dominated by one conference in presence. Plus, it makes it genuinely harder to get to PO weekend…there will guaranteed be no easy games.

If it means one of the “bigger” teams losing out, then surely that’s even better for parity in the league-and if it works for the NHL, it can’t be too bad, right?

This leaves us with four possible trophies for a team to win still, but ensures that any doubt over a Grand Slam from now on is eliminated…you HAVE to win your conference to win the league and the playoffs.

Also, it makes things a lot simpler for anyone watching, as they know where all points are going, who keeps the league standings and who is the champion of the conference in each case. It also, crucially, increases the importance of the conference titles and actually makes winning them a palpable achievement even if you don’t win the league, and establishes a clear hierarchy-league, playoffs, conference title, Challenge Cup.

And that’s your lot. Sure, they won’t all be accepted as ideas and I’m sure they’ll provoke a fair bit of debate, especially the playoff reform, but it’s got to be worth a try, right?

Let me know what you think…

Hockey v Hate: Why The EIHL Needs To Stand Up And Be Counted

Today saw a landmark moment in hockey.

It wasn’t an overtime win, a championship, or the breaking of a winning streak. It wasn’t a moment on the ice at all, in fact.

But the repercussions of it might just change the world of hockey for the better forever.

The NHL, the biggest league in the world, have officially announced a partnership with the You Can Play Project, a growing foundation in North America started by the family of NHL GM Brian Burke in the memory of their son Brendan, who came out as openly gay in 2009 while a student manager for the Miami Redhawks NCAA team, had become a key anti-homophobia advocate in sports, but was tragically killed in a car-crash in 2010 at the age of only 21.

YCP was started by his brother Patrick with the aim of continuing to champion the rights of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangender) sportspeople, particularly hockey players, in April 2012. Its mission statement is thus:

ou Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.

You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.

Since its founding, YCP has been supported of some of the best hockey players in the world, including Henrik Lundqvist, Shea Weber, Dustin Brown and my own favourite NHLer, Jason Pominville. AHL teams have committed to joining the project, as have several colleges in North America and several teams from other leagues.

But, with the support of the NHL the project has jumped another level. But still it only remains in North America.

Using statistics as a base (the latest statistics say one in 100 people in the UK say they are gay, lesbian or bisexual, thus assuming an equal spread statistically one in 50 men are in the UK), there were 40 gay or bisexual players playing in the Elite League last season. There are likely several thousand LGBT fans watching the Elite League every weekend.

And yet, in locker rooms and crowds all over the country and during games at all levels, there are probably still homophobic jokes being made, homophobic insults being thrown around…and also a UK media that in the main thinks that hockey is a sport where a bunch of neanderthal idiots go to beat each other up.

The Elite League could gain themselves the kind of positive press coverage they could only dream of not only in Britain but internationally in the hockey world, while at the same time truly committing to their much-trumpeted “sport for everyone” marketing ethos &, not least, start a contribution making the world of sports in the UK a little better.

All they have to do is stand up and say “yes, we too want to work with the YCP project.”

They’d become the first sports league outside North America to join one of the fastest-growing movements for change in sports, as well as opening up the sport in Britain to a whole new market of people who up until now have been marginalised by the majority of sports in the United Kingdom (think about the homophobic abuse hurled on the football terraces across the UK every weekend, for example).

They would also begin to provide a force for change among youngsters in the sport-teaching them that hockey is a great thing because, as the project says “if you can play, you can play”.

All it takes is a phone call and a little bit of commitment from the EIHL, and suddenly the sport of hockey will come on leaps and bounds in terms of positive PR-and the league itself will become better-known on the worldwide stage. It’ll cost you nothing, beyond common decency. And the rewards it’ll bring

Plus, of course, it’ll be a contribution, however small, to making the world a better place.

It’s said that where the NHL leads, the rest of hockey usually follows nowadays. So come on, EIHL. Do something amazing. If the NHL can do it, you can, too.

Stand up, say “we support You Can Play”.

And just like the NHL, help change the world for the better.

Your move, EIHL owners.

A Triple Farewell: Goodbye and Good Luck

Goodbyes breed a sort of distaste for whomever you say good-bye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again.”

Elizabeth Bowen

It seems I’m writing far too many of these at the moment. Barely three weeks after being hit by the new that Paul Thompson is leaving Coventry for pastures new, we see Greg and Brad Leeb both declaring their retirement from pro-hockey yesterday and today it being announced that Shea Guthrie is leaving the Blaze to follow Thompson to Troja-Ljungby in Sweden.

Crash. Bang. Wallop. That’s the sound of the Blaze being hit by a nightmarish one-two-three of departures early in the off-season.

I was already formulating a farewell to Guthrie today, then realised I couldn’t really do a post without paying tribute to the brothers Leeb at the same time. So here we are.

Chasing Dragons offers a triple-tribute for three of the best players to be seen in a Blaze jersey, and arguably three of the best players I’ve had the pleasure to call a game of so far, all with their own distinctive qualities.

Farewell I: The Quiet Magician

When I first saw Greg Leeb play live, it wasn’t in a Blaze jersey. It wasn’t even in an EIHL jersey. I was living in Cologne in 2005/06 and watched his Nurnberg Ice Tigers take on my Cologne Sharks in the DEL. That year, he was in his third season in Nuremberg and fourth in the DEL…a centre who seemed to fit in beautifully to the fast, skilled game played in Germany. He stood out mainly defensively, winning faceoffs and neutralising the offensive forwards well, while providing an offensive threat at the other end. His size didn’t seem a handicap as there were plenty of smaller, skilled players around him-so many, in fact, that others stole the limelight ahead of him. I remember the older Leeb being a good player at DEL level, but others on that Nuremberg team drew my eye more.

Seven years later, he came to Coventry as a signing that aroused interest but not hype-he seemed to be a similar two-way forward…a very good one-brought in to take some of the creative load off Shea Guthrie (of whom more later), true, but his brother Brad stole the limelight when signing a little later.

Then we saw Greg play. At 5’7 and 161lbs he was small, fast and smooth skating-that much we noticed quickly. But Greg was the kind of player who you come to appreciate more and more the more you watch him. He rarely lost a battle along the boards and was a superbly smooth skater but for me the memory of Greg Leeb I will take away more than anything was the sight of him, on a Blaze powerplay, setting up in his favourite position along the right half-boards, head up and puck on his stick-the great creator.

Greg’s calmness on the puck was almost supernatural-the game seemed to slow down when he took the puck on his stick in a way that I’ve only ever seen from one other player in all my time watching UK hockey-that player being Tony Hand. It didn’t matter what the game situation was-Greg operated in a dimension where time rarely seemed to matter. He turned passing the puck and setting up the play from a necessary, mundane skill into an art form.

At its best, watching Greg Leeb in action was to watch him as director of an intricate dance in which he seemed to mould the action on the ice to his will and not so much pass as caress the puck to his team-mates with a touch lighter than a summer breeze on a sleeping eyebrow.

In short, he made the mundane beautiful. And he did so quietly, consistently and in a way that will only be noticed by its absence next season.

Farewell 2: The Silent Assassin.

While Greg Leeb was calm and quiet, Brad, who came to join his older brother shortly after Greg was signed, was almost silent, but with a truly volcanic temper and a mean, ruthless streak that boded well for someone who made his career scoring goals.

Greg took pleasure in the intricate artistry of the game and out-thinking opponents. Brad, on the other hand, preferred to use his hockey stick like a rapier, thrusting killer blows through defences in the form of a deadly-accurate wrist-shot and a lethal one-timer. His speed and movement was the equal of Greg’s, but his style of play was the yin to his brothers’ yang…Greg prepared and loaded the rifle and set up the killing shot, and Brad pulled the trigger.

His volcanic temper was that of a typical younger brother, too…despite the difference in age it was Brad who seemed to be the protector, always stepping in where necessary and raging at any injustice, real or perceived.

But there was no question that together the Leeb brothers combined beautifully like, say, hydrogen and oxygen-two disparate elements forming to make a deadly, cohesive whole.

The EIHL losing one is painful. Losing both is a hammer blow. And yet, somehow, you couldn’t see it happening any other way.

Farewell 3: Captain Canada

And so we come to the final of our three farewells. In 2011/12 the Blaze signed a 24 year-old from Carleton Place, Ontario, of whom nobody really knew. Shea Guthrie was sold as a dynamic skater who would provide useful scoring, supplementing the likes of Owen Fussey and Matic Kralj with a bit of speed and timely goals. He wasn’t the star name on that roster at the star of the season, but was still greeted with a little cautious optimism…however, there were some who wondered how productive the new Blaze forward would be.
Then he arrived. In a season where the team went up and down in performance and the exploits of the team as a whole were mixed, just like fans’ reactions.
Guthrie almost instantly won the hearts of the Blaze crowd with his swashbuckling style and sublime stick-handling, though, stepping forward to drag the team along behind him through sheer force of will throughout that season. His commitment and never-say-die attitude throughout a season of turmoil on and off the ice led him to be a universally-acclaimed choice for captain for 2012/13 and referred to in hushed tones as “a franchise player” by fans.
Some players, particularly those barely into their mid-twenties, may have buckled under the pressure. Guthrie didn’t. Perhaps the best praise of his influence on the Blaze can be seen by how different a team they were without him-an injury in December saw the Blaze lose their talisman and the season suffered as a result.
However, for all the talk, perhaps Shea’s greatest game was one of his last. Captain Shea’s hat-trick at Ice Sheffield in the PO Quarter Final 2nd leg, including a truly thundering blast of a slapshot for the overtime winner, was the game that finally saw him go from franchise player to god in Coventry in a truly great captain’s performance that will burn bright in Blaze fans’ memories for years to come.
Some hockey players use their stick as clubs to smash the puck and opposition into submission. Guthrie used his as a wand, with his hands & feet working together in a mesmerising dance to conjure the impossible from nothing as he danced across the icy plains of UK rinks like a young gazelle. There have been few better stickhandlers in the Elite League era, and few better skaters either.
Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to Guthrie as he departs is that there is no player I’ve ever seen out of the thousand or more I’ve watched at the Skydome who played the game with such primal joy, nor who could make you believe in the existence of a hockey deity so easily. He enjoys playing as much as we enjoy watching him play-to see Guthrie in full flight is to catch a glimpse of humanity touching the stars with its fingertips. It’s a sight that burns itself into your hockey-loving heart and makes it sing with joy. And sadly, it will light up Swedish rinks next season, not the UK. But we are all happier in Coventry for having seen it.

PART 4: FINAL FAREWELL

All three men above will now bid farewell to Skydome ice, two at least certain never to return to it. The third…well, we can hope.

To Greg Leeb, Brad Leeb & Shea Guthrie, Coventry says goodbye and good luck.

Safe travels, gentlemen. And thank you.