Image Problem: How EIHL Clubs Are Destroying Themselves With Their Own Marketing

The summer is a dead time for British hockey. With clubs making their offseason preparations in secret and trying to steal a march on other teams, the only real time clubs can count on any media coverage is either (briefly) for the return of players, or possibly a little more for a new signing. It’s hard to get any media buzz going at all when you’re fighting against national sporting staples like cricket, Wimbledon and all the other summer sports-especially when there’s not much going on on the ice, so you can forgive teams for not managing to keep up a consistent media presence. When there’s not that much to talk about, there’s not much point pushing for daily media coverage.

But EIHL teams, as a group, have a history of not using media to their best advantage. In fact, it could be argued that in the past year or so, while British hockey has trumpeted great advances in media coverage after Premier Sports covered the national team in both their Olympic qualifying campaign and the World Championships, they now have the best possible chance in a while, and possibly the tools, to increase media coverage in Britain-but they just aren’t taking it. In fact, the current attitude to the media displayed by those in power in the EIHL may actually in some cases be harming any chance the sport gets of “serious” media coverage.

Firstly, there’s the “perceived” professionalism of the sport in the UK, and the seeming lack of change within it. I wrote back in September about the EIHL’s seeming lack of professionalism even when introducing a social media policy…a big part of which was the seeming allowing of open threats and sniping from some public figures within the game while fining players and coaches (eventually) for seemingly lesser offences. The simple question is-if the EIHL doesn’t know the best way to control its own public image through its own people-then how can it hope to influence others?

That’s not to say that there’s not forces for change in the league-Privately, I’ve heard several people in positions of power in the Elite League, representing several different clubs, say that “we know UK hockey and the EIHL media coverage could be better, but what can you do about it?”. The answer lies in the effort for clubs to generate interest through their own coverage-the spread of Internet webcasting of games has accelerated over the past season or so, with more teams than just Belfast trying it…and while standards may vary, the effort at least is there-indeed the Blaze have been at the forefront of this with Coventry Blaze TV.

However, the EIHL’s relationship with the media has always been a somewhat curious one…those within power in the sport accept that they want the sport to have a higher media profile, but they are often unreceptive to offers of outside help, looking to grasp the maximum possible benefit for the minimum possible amounts of effort-even in efforts to spread the webcasting bug-and ideally, not spend any money on media promotion whatsoever, unless it’s persevering with a Sky deal which was much heralded when it came in but has looked less and less advantageous to the league as time has gone on.

In November, I wrote a blog post considering how the tired, samey, cookie-cutter press-releases of “official” channels were being usurped by a new type of fan coverage-of which this blog is an example-a lot of passionate, knowledgeable hockey fans from all over the country deciding that if the media wasn’t going to cover their sport, they’d do it themselves. I make the point in that article that in the NHL and some European leagues these fans are given all the help possible by clubs, including access to players, articles, press passes and all the sort of things you’d expect a club that wanted media coverage to give to those willing to write about and promote their sport for free. However, with a few exceptions in British hockey, these fans are given nothing-indeed, if the reactions of some prominent EIHL media officials and club officials are indicative, they’re almost seen as an annoyance.

In fact, and perhaps sinisterly, in some quarters of British hockey there almost seems to be a disdain for any view/media coverage that isn’t the official “club sanctioned” one. In fact, there’s almost a confrontational willing to dismiss the efforts of bloggers, writers and anyone who isn’t within the very small cabal of established EIHL writers-(an example of this occurred only today when Sheffield’s Dave Simms responded to my last blog post on Steelers budget with “full of nonsense”, but has so far neglected to point out exactly where it is wrong. So far this off-season we’ve also had this: a Sheffield player (Rob Dowd) and the same Steelers official (Dave Simms) publicly responding to a fan’s question with abuse and swearing:

Sheffield player Rob Dowd and EIHL/Steelers media rep/marketing manager/Sky Sports EIHL presenter Dave Simms dismissing a fan’s opinion in true professional fashion

Let’s be honest, you’d never be allowed to get away with that in most sporting leagues.

There seems to be a bunker mentality in UK hockey and an unwillingness to actually say anything worthwhile in club released coverage-Craig Summerton does an excellent job of summarising the failings in EIHL club efforts in PR here…I too have had figures within the UK game tell me that “I didn’t know what I was talking about so should shut up” or that I “knew nothing about hockey cause I’d never played” (that one was great fun to refute with “actually, I’ve played for ten years”). As Craig says, it seems that the default response to criticism/questions from EIHL clubs seems to be to insult and belittle fans and even volunteer media rather than engage with them-something that’s hardly going to improve the view of a sport if it’s seen by those looking to engage in coverage of the EIHL-particularly in a media world where seemingly it’s more about “who” you know that gets you the opportunities to represent the sport on a wider level rather than raw talent alone (although this is a rant that is covered fully in the social media post I linked to a little earlier.

At this point I should point out both in the interests of balance and in giving praise that there ARE clubs in the EIHL who are making great strides with the media-Belfast, for example, have an excellent relationship with UTV and the biggest newspapers in Northern Ireland while the Scottish clubs are regularly featured in the Scottish Sun and other newspapers north of the border-indeed this season Braehead will be sponsored by one of the largest newspapers in Scotland. Down south, Nottingham are active in their work with the local BBC stations, Cardiff’s GM Brent Pope has done a superb job this season in attempting to engage with EIHL fans and soliciting their opinion on how they think the league can improve, and Coventry, too, are doing well and beginning to make more inroads back into the football-dominated local media.

However, the EIHL still seem to be reluctant to accept “too much” media coverage…particularly if they feel there’s the slightest chance it will affect the bottom line.

The best example of this, and also perhaps the most breathtaking example of an EIHL owner self-sabotaging without seemingly even knowing it, is from Sheffield owner Tony Smith.

On May 16th in a Sheffield Star article which you can read here, Smith stated he wanted to up crowds in South Yorkshire, and also took a veiled shot at the BBC in the area, claiming they weren’t interested in covering the sport. He said this about the Steelers media coverage (quote in italics, bold/normal text mine for emphasis:

“I saw Tanya Arnold banging away about rugby every night on BBC Look North (local BBC news for S.Yorkshire), which seems a bit one-sided coverage, but I suppose rugby has more money and hype,”

Granted, rugby is popular in Yorkshire, as it is in the rest of the country. However, call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure that if a sports league wants more coverage, then having one of the top figures in that league publicly criticising one of the biggest providers of that coverage AND taking a shot at one of their employees is probably not the best way to make friends.

This quote only gets more surprising when you bear in mind that Tony Smith, as Steelers owner, refused access to the BBC (in the person of BBC Nottingham) when they wanted to cover the Sheffield/Nottingham Challenge Cup game live on (free) BBC radio only a month earlier, as he was worried that it would harm the (pay) webcast produced by…the Sheffield Steelers. In the past the Steelers have also shut down a free radio commentary service provided by fans that had become incredibly popular.

So, if you’re tracking, what we have here is a team owner complaining about the BBC not covering his team….having refused to allow the BBC to cover his team only a month earlier.

The cognitive dissonance at work here is something special. It’s truly self-sabotaging. It’s basically criticising a national media group who WANTED to cover your team and were prevented by you for not covering them enough.

It’s the most spectacular of PR own goals, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the BBC are more reluctant to cover the Sheffield Steelers and possibly British ice hockey as a whole in the future.

But sadly, it’s also a glaring example of the attitude of some in the EIHL-that they want media coverage, but only when it suits them.

And it’s the latest example of an attitude which, while it is by no means held by all owners, is only going to sabotage the efforts of their counterparts both inside and outside the league as they strive to tell more people in the UK about this great sport of ours.

The strides made with Premier Sports and Sky up until now show that, if they want to, the EIHL can get people interested in covering the sport in the UK. A start has been made. But regrettably, unless some (and only some) in power change their attitude and the examples of Belfast and the Scottish teams are followed by the other clubs in the EIHL, this attitude will only continue to harm the sport that those who hold it claim to love.


Money (Doesn’t) Talk: The Sheffield Problem

It was supposed to be a foregone conclusion, one we’d seen a hundred times before.

Coach leaves team, coach goes to new team, coach takes star players from old team with him.

When Doug Christiansen surprisingly left the Belfast Giants in April to become Sheffield Steelers coach, there was a suspicion and fear in Belfast that he’d take Giants stars like Adam Keefe, Colin Shields and Daryl Lloyd with him.

These fears were only exacerbated when Steelers owner Tony Smith publicly stated that the Steelers would have (in British hockey terms) a massive budget-one that would dwarf that of most other teams in the EIHL, including that of the Giants.

Indeed, the Steelers owner also stated that he was confident that this budget would allow Christiansen to recruit whatever player he wanted, and indeed Christiansen himself was very vocal about getting his “own players” in.

We also, inevitably, heard all the talk from Dave Simms about how Sheffield was a great club and the signing of Christiansen would enable recruitment to take place easily-especially with the budget.

So far, though, it appears that money hasn’t really talked for the Sheffield Steelers.

Adam Keefe. Daryl Lloyd. Kevin Saurette. Three of arguably the top players in the EIHL last season, targeted by Christiansen to bring with him from Belfast as part of the Great New Riches Era in South Yorkshire. All offered (as stated by Sheffield media) lucrative contracts to follow their former coach. All…turned down, in favour of slightly less lucrative contracts back in Belfast for next season.

Rob Dowd-a great player who (if reports are true) has returned to Sheffield purely due to reasons of the heart. The fact that some EIHL insiders are saying he’s had the biggest contract ever thrown at a British player given to him in order to return to Sheffield, we are told, has nothing to do with it-it’s all about Dowd’s love for Sheffield-the club he left to go to Belfast only a few seasons ago.. Given that Jonathan Weaver, the previous holder of this title, was reportedly on £1200 a week, Dowd’s salary is going to be, in British hockey terms at least, astronomical. The Dowd figure is rumoured to be comfortably above that, and certainly money that some even say is more than the supposedly much richer Troja-Ljungby were willing to pay.

Now, good as he is, is Rob Dowd worth that kind of money to any club in the EIHL? Or are Sheffield throwing all their money in one or two baskets, trumpeting the massive budget they have and hoping no-one notices the key fact…

Even despite their “massive budget”, Doug Christiansen can’t even attract players he’s coached before-players who supposedly bled for their coach.

It gets worse. Jim Jorgensen (a player whose offensive abilities would, you think, at least see Sheffield try to retain him) was allowed to leave without a murmur for a league which offers comparable salaries (I’m reliably informed by contacts in French hockey that his offer in Morzine is broadly comparable to what he was on in Sheffield last season).

Then there’s the fact that Sheffield have had to release Ashley Tait in order to afford Rob Dowd-claiming they’re reallocating budget elsewhere. Just how much of it is going to Dowd, though? Aaron Nell, Tait’s replacement, will not have come that cheaply after being one of the top earners in the EPL-a league in which salaries for comparable British players are often even higher than they could get in the Elite League-and whilst Nell is a very good British player and offers scoring, Tait was one of the linchpins of Sheffield’s squad last season and his assistant-coach role too added a value that has been sacrificed on the altar of the return of the “Sheffield hometown hero” who was born nearly a hundred miles north of the Motorpoint Arena.

The fact is that so far-despite their “massive budgets”-when the Steelers have entered a bidding war for top players in the EIHL so far this season (rumour has it they went after Matt Myers on his departure from Nottingham, but he took a hometown discount to go to Cardiff instead. and the Steelers themselves have openly said they went for Keefe and Lloyd and the players elected to stay where they were settled rather than chase the money) they’ve lost, in a pattern that is repeating from last season (Mike Schutte turned down Sheffield to come to Coventry, for example).

Granted, it is still relatively early in the offseason, and we’re yet to see Christiansen’s team and recruiting strategy truly take shape. But if the early going is any judge, it’s that we’re seeing proof that there are a lot more factors in attracting players to a hockey team than merely salary, and whilst the Steelers and their fans will trumpet the return of Dowd and the acquisition of Nell as proof that Tony Smith’s much-publicised financial largesse will lead to an exciting and all-conquering off-season for the Steelers as they build themselves a team that’ll be the envy of the rest of the league, the evidence so far shows that despite Christiansen and Smith’s financial muscle and much-trumpeted aims of catching and overhauling the Nottingham Panthers by throwing £20 notes at the problem, money isn’t everything.

Judging on the evidence so far this off-season, South Yorkshire’s hockey fraternity will have plenty of opportunity to learn this as the season progresses.

Runners and Riders: Assessing Belfast’s Potential Coaching Options

Sneaking this in JUST before the new incumbent of the Belfast Giants’ head coaching job is announced, here’s a quick assessment of the men whose name is most likely to be called by Todd Kelman in an hour or two as he introduces the new Belfast coach to their fans live at an event in Belfast. 30 second pen pics here we come:

The Hot Tip: Paul Adey

The ex-Nottingham Panther has been named by the BBC as the most likely man to be announced this evening…if it is Adey he’ll be returning to British hockey for the first time since leaving Nottingham Panthers at the end of his contract in 2005-but he knows the game in this country having spent a storied career with the Panthers. Since his time in Britain Adey has coached in Italy and Switzerland, both excellent quality leagues-however he’s only managed to win one trophy (the Challenge Cup with Nottingham) in his 13-year coaching career. Having worked recently in leagues that traditionally provide a much higher budget than the EIHL, it’ll be interesting to see if Adey can adjust to the increasingly higher standard of both coaching and play in the UK game and the rumoured lower budget of Belfastshould he sign-it’s a very different league to the one he left.

The (Almost) Overseas Option: Paul Gardner

After being surprisingly relieved of his job in Braehead after turning a team performing far below expectations around upon coming in mid-season, Paul Gardner is still new enough to the British league to be an unknown quantity-this will be his first season recruiting a team in the EIHL if he gets the job. He is arguably the strongest candidate, with a career spent head-coaching mainly in the AHL, KHL, or DEL. Perhaps what stands out most on his resume though is his several years working under respected coach Barry Trotz for the NHL’s Nashville Predators as an assistant during the early 2000s-anyone who can get to that level is clearly a coach of some ability. Gardner quickly earned a reputation as a “player’s coach” in Braehead and now he’s familiarised himself with the league will likely relish the opportunity to recruit his own players and work with them from the start of the season. Probably the ideal option in covering all bases.

The Former Star: Steve Thornton

Steve Thornton is at home in Belfast-the experienced forward was Giants player-coach for two seasons as well as one of the legends at the Odyssey for his playing exploits-he also won the Challenge Cup in 2009 as Giants coach. A legend of British hockey from his time with Cardiff, London, Basingstoke and of course Belfast, Thornton would be a safe pair of hands and probably a fairly popular appointment with the Giants faithful as well as being well-known to his GM and former team-mate Todd Kelman. However, he hasn’t coached at a high level since he left the Giants,  and this may harm his pitch considerably.

The Player-Coach: Ashley Tait

One from out of left-field, this one, but the British star is 37 now and nearing the end of his illustrious playing career. He’s been released by Sheffield despite scoring 51 points and being assistant coach last season, and may be looking longingly at a player-coaching job. Belfast’s budget is reportedly not as big as it has been, and Tait could contribute well to the Giants both as a player and coach now he has experience under his belt. As someone well-known and respected in the EIHL and with the help of contacts from former coaches and team-mates to call on, he may be a very useful option if the Giants are looking to obtain someone who’ll be involved in the team both on the ice and from the bench.

However, stepping into one of the top teams in the league may be tricky as a first coaching job, and would be seen by many as a brave gamble by the Giants new management. However, it’s one that could pay off handsomely, and with Kelman more than active in retaining last seasons key players for the Giants already, there is a foundation for Tait to build on-he won’t be coming in cold by any means.

And, after all, as a player coach his scoring ability even at the age of 37 and status (still) as one of the top British forwards in the league can’t be sniffed at.

The Newbie: Someone New to the EIHL

This one, obviously, is the most intriguing option. Todd Kelman has said he’s received a large number of high quality applications for the job of Giants coach, and with the EIHL coaching hot seats seemingly being passed between those within the league, maybe it’s time for an injection of new blood, maybe even from Eastern Europe…after all, Edinburgh have tried it with Richard Hartmann and the experiment now seems to be beginning to pay off handsomely. Certainly the Giants job is arguably one with far more pressure attached than Edinburgh, but it’s one that any coach looking to make the step up and possibly be noticed by the big European leagues and North America would quite fancy, certainly. It’s certainly something worth considering for the Giants, especially as they move into a new era of ownership.

There you are then-there’s the five men who I think are most likely to be behind the Belfast bench this coming season. However, Todd Kelman has said he’s received more than 30 applications from all around the hockey world, so while we can speculate all we like, we’ll only know when he steps up to the podium later tonight to announce the Giants’ new coach and potentially some new signings too.

Either way, the eyes of the EIHL are currently trained on the Odyssey. Let’s see what they come up with.



Wasted Potential: On Brit Players And Comfort Zones

With the signing (the return, in fact) of Rob Dowd to Sheffield today, a lot is being made in Sheffield of the “massive coup” they’ve pulled off in getting arguably the best currently active British player to return from what is undoubtedly a higher standard league in Sweden. Dave Simms has of course been using this to shout praise of Sheffield (and Dowd himself, the liking of whom Simms makes absolutely no secret of) from the rooftops. The Sheffield PR machine has been churning all day in an attempt to turn the return of Dowd into a vindication of the EIHL, the signing of Christiansen as coach and the rising standard of the league in general.

However, there is another view that I subscribe to, which is excellently summed up by Freddie Black in his blog here-that Rob Dowd returning to Sheffield is just the latest example of a British player showing a lack of ambition and preferring to remain a big fish in a small pond rather than genuinely trying to advance their career when given the chance.

The argument that British hockey players are seemingly uncomfortable testing themselves outside of their comfort zone is a persuasive one. If we look at the players from the UK who have moved abroad after establising themselves in the British leagues, going back to Tony Hand turning down a chance to play in the NHL because of homesickness back in the mists of time.

In the past 15 years or so, only Colin Shields (and recently Ben O’Connor) have really managed to make any kind of impact abroad, Shields after being drafted by Philadelphia Flyers and spending time in the ECHL, and O’Connor recently in the Kazakh league.

Don’t get me wrong here-I’m not saying British players haven’t tried their luck abroad-Stephen Murphy spent time in Norway, Stevie Lyleand Shields again in France and last season Dowd himself in Sweden.are some of the most notable. But almost without exception, these players have spent one season away in a higher-standard league (or maybe two) and then come trailing back to the UK with their tails between their legs.

Matt Myers (ECHL) and Joe Watkins (both with the Bakersfield Condors) Davey Phillips (with a myriad of AHL/ECHL teams) David Longstaff in Sweden and (briefly) Switzerland, and Lyle and Shields (again) in France are some of the top British players to play the sport over the past 15 years or so. But look at their career statistics and the pattern is always the same-a meteoric rise to the top of the British game, followed by the chance to test themselves in higher leagues, followed by an almost immediate move back to (usually) one of the big teams in the UK.

It’s easy to say that this is down to the standard of UK players not being high enough to compete in these “better” leagues-and ten years ago that might have been the case, but possibly not even then (for example Longstaff was a consistent if not spectacular scorer during his time in the Swedish Elite League, one of the best in the world, and Dowd earned rave reviews for his time in Troja-yet both chose to return to their comfort zones in the UK rather than continue to acvance their careers abroad_). The problem with the British players seems to be drive-even those who could make it in a higher league for better wages seem perfectly content to play beneath themselves in the EIHL.

This attitude of “big fish, small pond” appears to be one that goes right through the British game-look at the players in the EPL who are perfectly happy earning a decent chunk of money and scoring hatfuls at EPL level rather than taking the step up to EIHL in a move that might further their career but involve a few sacrifices along the way. It’s an attitude that I struggle to comprehend. For ecample-I like calling EIHL games as a commentator, but my ambition is to reach a level where I’m commentating on the NHL-a move to North America to call (say) ECHL games would involve sacrifices and probably taking myself out of my comfort zone, but I’d make it in seconds because it’s an upward step in my career. Having got to North America, I’d be reluctant to come back while their was still a chance of climbing higher. But British players, it seems, are perfectly happy to take the same money or even a pay cut to play at a lower level than their hard-earned skills deserve for the sake of familiarity, perhaps damaging both their own personal career development and the development of the GB team as a result. But why?

Perhaps this is partly the league’s fault. Elite Brits can command stupidly high salaries in the EIHL that are often out of all proportion to what they’d be paid in an “open” system due to the inordinate value placed on a skilled Brit by the import limit. And thus we come to another question-far from “promoting” the development and ambitions of the British game, is the import quota not only holding GB hockey back not only at a league level because of the fact that the best UK players tend to all end up at the richer clubs, but also at an international level because, far from giving British players an incentive to push harder to reach the top of their careers by showing them a valid path tot the top of the UK leagues, it actually makes them feel far too comfortable in the UK to test themselves in better, more competitive leagues?

Are the import limits effectively making sure more British players are involved in the game at the expense of actually encouraging them to better their careers beyond the (limited) ambitions of the EIHL?

It’s a problem that needs to be looked at-perhaps by imposing a wage cap not on the league as a whole, but just on the salaries of top British players-effectively positively discriminating in favour of imports in order to encourage the best British players to seek jobs in better leagues and develop their games to benefit the GB squad at international level.

I’m sure the above solution will not be popular with the “protectionists” who want to see the best British talent playing in Britain even if it means they effectively place a ceiling on those same “top Brits” development, and by extension on that of the national team.

But Rob Dowd, as Freddie Black says, is just the latest in a long line of British talent who have seemingly placed a comfortable, easy life over potentially blazing a trail for the talented Beitish hockey players of today to follow.

And that, far from something to be celebrated, is something that should cause British hockey to be asking itself some more uncomfortable questions about its level of ambition.

How To Write An EIHL Signing Press Release

We’re all about helping hockey grow here at Chasing Dragons. We know that EIHL hockey clubs have a lot to deal with over the summer months, what with departing players, organising sponsors, planning budgets and negotiation with new players. Oh, and scouting, too.

Obviously, one of the most important things they have to do is announce the signing of new and returning players. But we fans know it can be hard finding new and interesting ways to hype a player returning or signing when the Internet means most people already know who you’re going to be announcing a month in advance because it’s an open secret/the players’ girlfriend reveals it/some idiot has already told everyone on a forum/his sponsor couldn’t keep their ruddy mouths shut for ONE MORE DAY and had to boast about it. Plus all that coming up with quotes etc takes time. Time you could be using far better elsewhere in a packed off-season.

Chasing Dragons is here to help. Below is the only guide clubs will ever need to announce a new or returning signing, from your 17-year-old backup goalie to your star import. Just copy and paste it into a Word document, delete as applicable where you’re given options, fill in the gaps as suggested, and away you go. Then, you’ll have more time to come up with important issues, like a points system that people can understand, or a replacement for the Challenge Cup.

You’re welcome.


(Club) sign (player) (new signing) or (player) returns to (club)*

The (club) are pleased to announce the (signing/return) of (player) for the (season) season. (position) (player) joins from the (previous club) of the (league), where he (insert brief facts about how many points he scored/what titles he won/how many bar owners he kept in business) last season.

The (height/weight) (age) (player) has spent his career in the (list leagues) and has become well-known for his (goalscoring/playmaking/being an excellent two-way player/defensive play/being a complete dick to anyone not on his own team).


(insert brief ramble about what a great guy he is, or how he’s expected to become one of the top players in the league this season. If it’s a young Brit, talk about how they’re going to “continue their development and become a key player, if it’s a good Brit, ALWAYS use the phrase “top British (position)” and if it’s an import, talk about how he had offers for more money elsewhere and was in demand. NEVER mention that he accepted the contract with “well, I guess I’m not going to get anything better”-fans don’t like that even if it’s obvious)


I’ve heard nothing but good things about the organisation, the coach and the fans.” (IMPORTANT: THIS PHRASE MUST BE INCLUDED WHETHER THE PLAYER SAID IT OR NOT, BY EIHL LEAGUE MANDATE. FINES WILL BE APPLIED IF NOT USED.

(some stuff about how player spoke to a mate in the league. Name-drop if necessary. If you’re a young Brit, talk about how you’re looking forward to growing and how the coach is great. If an import, praise the city and fans, and talk about what a great-organised setup the EIHL is. (you’ll find out soon enough)

Bonus points for using the phrase “best fans/rink in the league, even if you’re talking about a fanbase that has a proven ability to turn on its team in the space of a shift, or the rink you’re talking about happens to be the soulless pit of death and broken dreams that mere mortals call “Sheffield Arena”.

Finish off by listing the players signed and one last attempt to sell season tickets/tickets for the next game (which is ALWAYS “the most important of the season”, and you’re done.

With these tips, you should be able to quickly create a PR which continues the tradition of reading like every other one ever written, only now you won’t have to take as much time typing it out each time, thus allowing you to get on with the more important tasks of an EIHL PR department.