What A Difference A Player Makes: Gerome Giudice, Coventry and Sheffield

I”m not looking for the best players, Craig. I’m looking for the right ones.”

Herb Brooks: “Miracle”

Here’s a scenario for you to imagine this Monday afternoon.

A team that started the season with such promise is winless in the month of October, having conceded 30 goals in 6 games while only scoring 13, and have only won one of their eight games against Erhardt Conference opponents. Goals have been hard to come by all season if you’re not one of two players-as you go into a weekend against 2, these two have scored more goals between them (22) than the other 15 players in the team combined (18), and after a nightmare weekend against the equally beleaguered Cardiff Devils last weekend that saw the Blaze outscored 9-3 and put in a dismal performance on Sunday night in Cardiff that left coach Matty Soderstrom feeling “very disappointed”, the time, it appears, has come for the Blaze to make a change.

The problems have been many. Secondary scoring has failed to score, lines have rarely looked hugely settled and players that were heavily hyped before the start of the season have drawn fans’ ire for not being as impressive as they’d been told (or, perhaps, providing the blood-and-thunder style that Blaze fans seem to love so much).

But it seems that the fans, too, are picking the wrong targets. Despite being amongst the most hard-working forwards on the squad and having the same number of points as current fan favourite Cale Tanaka, Brian McMillin seems to be the current favourite target of the Skydome crowd’s ire, with forum posts saying amongst other things that McMillin is the “worst player ever seen in a Blaze jersey” (which aside from being totally wrong tells me that they managed to avoid the horrors of Corey LeClair, David Kaczowka or Peter Nylander).

And looming on the horizon are a nightmare pairing of games-Nottingham away (a team who’ve won 42 of 48 games in 2013) and big-budget Sheffield at home.

Clearly, something has to change. The fanbase is screaming for a top offensive defenceman. Or failing that, a scoring forward.

And so the team act-they bring in a player who rejoins the team after scoring 8 goals in 26 last season-a player who is greeted with a cautious but not overwhelming sense of optimism. And the fans wait, and watch, and hope.

This was the Blaze last week on the (re)signing of Gerome Giudice. A signing that was Matty Soderstrom trying to get his team back on track after a nightmarish October

This Monday, after two of the best performances of the season, Matty Soderstrom already looks vindicated. Giudice skated on a line with Ashley Tait and Adam Henrich throughout the weekend, and appeared to provide the team with a shot of pure adrenaline that was reflected in every shift both by the man himself and those around him. The Blaze looked more balanced than they have at any point this season, more committed, and a large part of this was down to the efforts of the man from Acton, Ontario. After stepping off the plane on Thursday Giudice had himself a dream return in Nottingham by getting an assist only eight minutes in and forming instant chemistry with his linemates as the Blaze pulled out a win on penalty shots.

On Sunday, though, Giudice shone-breaking the deadlock in a tight 0-0 game and being a key part of the Blaze’s high-pressure forecheck.

The key effect Giudice has had if this weekend is any indication, though, isn’t one on the scoresheet. With Mike Henrich moving back to defence the Blaze suddenly look a lot more balanced, and more to the point they appeared rejeuvenated and playing like a team that put the expensively-assembled Sheffield Steelers to shame on Sunday night.

This leads us to another point-Giudice is the first (and so far only) new arrival to Blaze since the start of the season. Sheffield, meanwhile, have already added four new players in Ilpo Salmivirta, Phil Hill, Nate DiCasmirro and Rob Sirianni and cut one in the shape of Rylan Galiardi, and as yet none of the four new additions have had a lasting effect (indeed Salmivirta has already departed, and while Sirianni and DiCasmirro have added to the offensive threat, they’ve seemingly done nothing to solve the main problem with the Steelers-their defensive porousness)

Granted, one weekend does not make a season, and nor is it an acceptable sample to say definitively that one recruitment strategy is “right” and one is “wrong”.

But what it does show already is that sometimes, you can have all the money in the league, and as many chances to recruit players as you can, but all you need is the “right” one.

On early evidence, Giudice may be the “right one” for Blaze. Sheffield, on the other hand, are still looking.

Breaking Down The Blaze: Belfast Giants 13/10/12

Each week, using the highlights of the week before, Chasing Dragons will attempt to break down what went wrong (or right) for the Blaze that home game, in an attempt to highlight factors and plays that a lot of fans may miss in the rough and tumble of the game. This week, we break down the key points of a 7-4 loss to the Belfast Giants. Thanks to Pete Ballinger of Clean Cut Sports for permission to cut, screenshot and edit the highlights as I needed.

The Blaze had a tough one this weekend, in a game that started like a dream with two goals in the first few minutes and ended like a nightmare against Belfast. Let’s take a look at some of the key moments of the game and try to highlight what went wrong (or right).

Blaze 1, Giants 0 (Kevin Harvey, 1-0)

After taking some stick from Blaze fans for his performance so far this season, Blaze forward Kevin Harvey was a force in this game, scoring twice and provoking the Giants at every turn. He had his first impact on the game early on, as he put home his own rebound to put the Blaze 1-0 up:

On the face of the video, this looks like a fairly routine Blaze goal, but if we look closely we can see that it’s thanks to some great play from Harvey to find space in front of the net that gets him there in the first place, along with some excellent vision from Mike Henrich.

As the puck comes out to Henrich, Harvey has seen that there’s a lot of space left by the Giants D in front of the net, and more to the point times his arrival to move into it just as Henrich looks up, so he’s providing a completely open option for a tip-in in front of the net just as Leigh Salters did so effectively for Nottingham last week-here’s a pic of the moment just as Henrich receives the puck-you can see Harvey (circled) is just crossing towards the front of the net and has been completely unnoticed by any Giants D:

Harvey Goal 1

This means that when the puck is passed to him, he’s got plenty of time to open up his body and redirect the puck just the way he wants completely unhindered by the defence:

Harvey Goal 2

As you see in the video, Murphy makes the first save, but Harvey does a good job of reacting quickest to force the puck into the unguarded net:

It would get better for the Blaze as Ryan Ginand and Adam Henrich combined beautifully for 2-0, but then the Giants began to come back into the game, and their first goal was a combination of some great play by Rob Sandrock and at the same time some painful Blaze defending. Let’s look at it now:

Blaze 2, Giants 1, (Peacock, from Sandrock)

Here we have a goal that’s a result of great work from Sandrock and a good finish from Craig Peacock, but it could have been stopped way before Peacock applies the coup-de-grace. Here’s the situation when Sandrock receives the puck:

Giiants 1st Goal (1)

Right now, Sandrock has the whole Blaze team between him and Zacharias’s net. The first man, Adam Henrich, though, elects to already be  turning away as Sandrock receives the puck-he’s perhaps worried that he’ll be easily beaten and then be badly out of position if he misses the pokecheck, so is turning to get back into the play confident that one of the five players behind him will do their job.

Giants 1st goal (2)

By now, Sandrock has got up some speed and is crossing the red-line. He’s faced by Mike Henrich and Kenny Kallstrom-Henrich is going backwards so elects to simply provide a barrier-however, the Giants forward next to him is already flying by and with Adam Henrich (right) out of the play, Sandrock suddenly has a lot of space to skate into. It’s OK, though, as Kenny Kallstrom appears to have the situation well in hand and there’s still four Blaze players between Sandrock and the net.

Giants 1st goal (3)

Now things are beginning to get a little bit urgent. Sandrock has been allowed to skate into the zone and Kallstrom has let the Giant get inside him rather than forcing him out to the boards. James Griffin has to get a pokecheck in here or at least force Sandrock away from the net-however Ashley Tait is cutting off the pass to a lurking Craig Peacock. But now, with no Henrich to be seen, suddenly the Blaze D has to do something quickly.

Giants 1st goal 5

Griffin has managed to force Sandrock behind the net, but in the process has slightly lost his bearings and got tangled up with Zacharias. Meanwhile, Ash Tait has been caught puck-watching, allowing Craig Peacock to sneak in behind him. However, with 3 to 1 in numbers all it needs is Kenny Kallstrom to stop the pass….except he doesn’t. And just like that, thanks to Blaze being a little passive when the puck is down in the Giants end, little errors have snowballed to allow the Giants a gilt-edged scoring chance-which Craig Peacock takes. And the Giants are back in the game:

OK, so we’ve pointed out the Blaze’s faults. Let’s point out something they did well (with that man Harvey getting his 2nd goal)

Blaze 3 Giants 1 (Harvey, (Tanaka, Ginand)

This is just a nice play by the three Blaze forwards, passing perfectly in a triangle. I’m not sure Harvey is shooting (I think he’s trying to feed this back across to Tanaka) but his awareness of where the puck is to have another little jab at it and force it under Murphy is the mark of a good forward-also shows the reward that persistence and following your rebound can get you.

Giants 3, Blaze 2 (Brookwell)

This, on the other hand, isn’t so great.

The key here is that, once again, Blaze players all get sucked into a group together in front of Mike Zacharias. When Cody Brookwell hits his shot, this is the situation in front of net…

Giants 2nd goal

As you can see, in the ring there are three Blaze players and only one Giant, yet somehow that Giant has been allowed to get to and then stand in front of the Blaze goalie and block any vision he has of the puck, forcing him to stretch to see and leave a crowd for Brookwell to (quite correctly) fire the puck into hoping for a ricochet or for it to find its way in clean . It sneaks in low-down on the near post, but arguably if the Blaze (particularly the two on the right post) hadn’t bunched together and the Giant hadn’t been allowed to settle in front of the net and restricted Zacharias’ movement and vision, then the shot may have been saved. Instead:

Blaze 3 GIANTS 3 (Szwez, (Whitecotton).

Jeff Szwez will show as the scorer of this goal, but it’s a perfect example of why an assist gets the same number of points as a goal does, and is all down to Dustin Whitecotton’s play (and awkward play from Sean Erickson).

Here’s the situation as Whitecotton picks up the puck in his own zone and skates it down the right side:

Giants 3rd goal (1)

 

Here, with Ryan Ginand watching the play, Whitecotton has the choice of looking to skate hard into the white space along the boards or try to cut inside, while Erickson’s job is to stay between him and the centre and keep him skating down the boards into the corner by narrowing the angle…but not too much-because if he does, then the Giant can cut inside him and be away into the prime scoring territory in front of the net.
However, Whitecotton has other ideas:

Giants 3rd goal (2)

This pic is taken a second afterward. Erickson has found himself cutting the angle too sharply, and Whitecotton has timed his movement well (the arrow shows the direction the Giant is trying to go). Meanwhile, Ginand is still relatively serenely following the puck back, unaware of Jeff Szwez off-screen using his puck-watching to gleefully skate into the space behind him. But all is still rescuable as long as Erickson can hold up the Giant and let the puck run free:

giants 3rd goal (3)

Uh-oh. With Ginand now way behind the play and Jeff Szwez hammering into the slot off screen, Erickson has seen Whitecotton beat him all too easily, and now the puck is on the Giant’s stick with an option of either a shot (although Zacharias is committed to his near post) or, far better, a simple cross-ice pass to Szwez, who has the advantage both of speed and a supporting Blaze defenceman whose attention now HAS to be focused on Whitecotton. This is the play at full speed and, as you can see, it doesn’t end well for Blaze-all because Whitecotton beat Erickson one-on-one:

BLAZE 4, Giants 3 (Venus (McMillin))

This is a video clip of what otherwise might be a fairly run-of-the-mill Ross Venus strike, but it’s not him you need to watch-it’s Brian McMillin. McMillin’s got a fair bit of stick from Blaze fans almost consistently this season, but he’s a player who does the quiet things needed for others to score. Keep an eye on him in this clip and you’ll see that while Venus finishes, the goal comes from McMillin first forcing a turnover along the boards and then firing a great pass across the net for Venus to finish. This is the kind of thing that often gets forgotten in the lead-up to a goal, so we’re highlighting it here:

 

 

Blaze 4 GIANTS 4 (Sandrock)

The fourth Giants goal is another example of a moment’s mistake from a Blaze D-man costing the team dearly. Here’s the situation as the Giants enter the zone and Rob Sandrock lays a pass off having done so:

Giants 4th (1)

As the Giants come in, all five Blaze players are bunched together and in disarray trying to set up their defensive coverage. Rob Sandrock is looking to lay a pass back to Craig Peacock (71, but with the Blaze bunched in a line he has the whole of the shaded area and more to skate into if he gets a return pass…however, Mike Devin is aware of Sandrock and watching him-in fact he follows him some of the way back after the pass is made. The problem is, as Sandrock changes the angle of play just as Devin turns to follow him, the Blaze D-man now has a decision to make-does he cover the threat behind the net in his zone, or turn to pressure the puck?

This is the decision Devin makes:

Giants 4th goal 2

However, in not waiting that extra half second to watch where Sandrock’s going after the initial pass, puck-watching and and making the decision to leave him be in favour of pursuing the pass, Devin has left one of the Giants’ most dangerous offensive players on his own deep in Blaze territory and with a clear path round the back of the net.

As a result, with the Blaze scrambling to get back into position, this happens:

Proof that when Sandrock is on the ice, you can’t lose sight of him for even a second, even if he appears to be out of the play.

Blaze 4 GIANTS 5, (Mason, Saurette, Peacock)

This, again, is an example of Blaze players all being drawn into the puck and allowing the opposition to exploit it. The puck is worked behind the net by the Giants, and eventually, as Jeff Mason pinches in from the point, both Mike Devin and Kenny Kallstrom are caught going for the same player behind the net, leaving the Blaze D turned around looking the other way and Giants top scorer Kevin Saurette all alone in front with a free shot off Peacock’s pass:

Giants 5th goal

This is what happens as a result:

It’s Mason who puts the puck home, but the Blaze D are once again all caught looking the wrong way at a crucial moment thanks to the Giants executing the “behind the net” system perfectly.

Finally, the moment the Blaze D might as well have been elsewhere.

Blaze 4 GIANTS 6 (Saurette, Peacock, Brookwell)

This one is just ugly. Watch the Giants break fast into the zone. Mike Henrich goes flying across the zone as he races back and tries to take a desperate whack at a puck, but with the Blaze desperately hunting for it without finding it as the defensive coverage breaks down in utter confusion and the Giants queue up to hit it, this one’s ugly. Especially as Saurette is again left all alone on the back post to tip the puck in…

The seventh was an empty-netter, so isn’t worth covering except to point out that Szwez won’t have many easier finishes.

This week’s game tape will make fun viewing for the Blaze for the first ten minutes or so, but with Matty Soderstrom himself saying that the Blaze breakdown was “horrendous” in the third, there’s once again a lot to work on for the Blaze squad this week. Unlike the Panthers game, though, there are a few more positives to take from this one, not least the play of Kevin Harvey.

With a double-header against a team in seeming disarray off the ice next week in Cardiff, this week would seem to be the ideal opportunity to get the Blaze set and ready. There’s still work to do…and Soderstrom and the team know it. But there are signs that effort is beginning to pay off again up front…it just needs to do so without the team pressing the self-destruct button defensively.

We shall see.

 

 

 

All Hell Let Loose: What’s Going On In Cardiff?

There is discontent rumbling in the Welsh valleys.

The Cardiff Devils, a team I picked (somewhat optimistically, it appears) to be league champions this season appear to be a team riven by infighting, disarray and confusion, at least looking at them from the outside.

Granted, the Welsh side haven’t had the easiest of starts to the season-the injury to starting goalie Dan LaCosta only a couple of games into preseason and the resulting uncertainty over who to replace him with (backup Joe Myers and emergency recruit from Hull Greg Blais shared the time in the end) can’t have helped Gerad Adams’ task in any way, shape or form.

But today sees the latest in a series of confusing announcements by the Devils, as British forward and local boy Phil Hill is, out of the blue, released.

On the face of it, this is one of the weirdest decisions of the EIHL season so far. Hill has played all but one of of his 13 career seasons in Cardiff, is one of the top British point scorers in the Elite League era and is close to a point-per-game pace in the Elite League, as well as being a man who bleeds Devils red having been born in the city. He’s also an established GB international-a British player most teams would kill to have on their roster, and has 9 points in 12 games. The announcement by Cardiff today will no doubt start a scramble for his services as it’s extremely rare that a Brit of his quality comes onto the playing market once the season has begun.

The reaction from both Devils fans and former team mates has been immediate. Sam Smith, Bari McKenzie, Mike Prpich and Alex Symonds to name but four (all former Devils) have expressed the opinion that Hill is the unlucky victim of a scapegoating session from those within the Devils, with some fans questioning whether the decision to release the Welshman was made at coach or management level.

Indeed, with even opposition players such as Sheffield’s Jason Hewitt denouncing Cardiff’s decision as “crazy” you have to wonder just what on earth has motivated it.

And then, you look at the rest of the Devils’ season so far and begin to wonder-at least from the outside looking in there appears to be some serious contradictory agenda-clashing going on within the depths of the Big Blue Tent, as Gerad Adams makes decisions that give the lie to his abilities as a coach that has taken the Devils to every playoff final weekend in the EIHL every year of his tenure.

This season we’ve seen Adams moving players to unfamiliar positions (moving one of the Devils’ top goal threats Max Birbraer back to defence, for example), and player decisions made very quickly indeed (Adam Ross, for example, was given only four games before being shipped back out of the door in favour of Jake Morrissette, and now Hill is gone with only nine games played).

But even more intriguing than the on-ice work from Adams this season (which so far hasn’t got anywhere near the Devils’ hopes with the Devils a lowly 7th in the league and only 5 wins in 12 games) is the seeming power-struggle or mind-games being played by Devils owner Paul Ragan.

The most obvious example of this is “The Ultimatum That Wasn’t”…an incident that saw WalesOnline’s sports reporter and respected journalist Terry Phillips report that Adams had been given a month to change the teams fortunes or he’d be sacked, claiming that Adams had been summoned to a crisis meeting with owner Paul Ragan and GM Brent Pope that week.

This was then followed by an angry reaction from the Devils chairman Ragan, who first castigated Wales Online for “publishing a story without authorisation” (which if nothing else shows an incredible lack of awareness about how news reporting works in this particular case) and then releasing a rambling statement which first claimed there was “no ultimatum” and that the “fourth by November” criteria was simply “a benchmark” and then firing out this quote a few lines later:

However, I will be clear, the On-Ice performance must improve, and it’s time for Gerad and Neil to prove why they warrant so much faith from me and the fans that they can and will deliver.”

And this one-in which, incredibly, Ragan manages to contradict himself within two lines and issue what looks very like a “get better or go” ultimatum at the same time:

No, I do not want to make any coaching changes

Yes, I will make coaching changes if results don’t improve considerably.

Oh yes, and while we’re at it Ragan also takes a veiled pop at the Devils fans for seemingly not having enough ambition and being willing to accept mediocrity, unlike him:

It may be that some fans are content with not winning anything, finishing mid table and believing that there is some inbuilt “monkey-on-our-back” which makes it ok to accept the sympathy of “poor old Cardiff, coming up short again.” That mindset or approach is not for me fortunately and nor should it be from our fans if they truly care about what is good for their beloved Cardiff Devils.

(above italicised quotes all taken from the page “Official Statement – Devils Chairman” published on cardiffdevils.com on Oct 2nd 2013).

Right now the Devils are a club who seem to (at least to outsiders) have an unclear power structure, a coach unsure of his position and an owner willing to either stealthily and cunningly use the media to undermine his coach (if you take the harshest view of Ultimatumgate) or one lurching from one PR faux pas to another (even if the WalesOnline story was a misrepresentation of the Devils’ management beginning to put pressure on Adams, the statement that was supposed to deny the pressure was increasing actually all but confirmed it).

Now today we have one of the “faces” of the Devils, a top British player and one of the most popular amongst the fanbase released, in a decision which seems to have very little rhyme or reason to it, and a fanbase wondering just who is actually making the personnel decisions for the team right now-a question which, more and more so, is beginning to be asked outside the valleys too. Including by me.

These are confusing times in South Wales, where rumour and counter-rumour abound…Gerad Adams is battling an owner who seems all too willing to speak up in defence of his own work while simultaeneously passing blame for any failure on to the shoulders of a coach who is looking more and more beleaguered as time goes on. Already there is talk within Cardiff that the Phil Hill release is part of a campaign to force Adams out from person of persons unknown within the club…Paul Ragan himself is the name being mentioned by many.

Whatever the motivation, and whoever is responsible, after rumblings and the confusion of Ultimatumgate, the release of Phil Hill is the clearest signal yet that something, somewhere is very wrong in Cardiff this season. Whatever it is, they need to step up and sort it out quickly, or the Red Army may be torn apart by the actions of its leaders.

If something isn’t done soon, though, and any issues at the top sorted out, then whoever is leading them, the Devils faithful and Gerad Adams may be being led on a one-way trip to hell.

UK Hockey Fandom: Is It Really A “Man’s Game”?

So, the hockey forums have been buzzing over the past day or two as accusations and counter-accusations have flown back and forth, battle lines have been drawn, and stereotypes have been exploited to the full. The cause? An article on the Belfast fan site (and one of the biggest in the EIHL) “Kingdom of the Giants” by Laura Carland on the troubles of being a UK hockey fan who also happens to be a girl. It is an excellent article, and well worth a read.

Predictably, the moment this hit the hockey forums UK hockey fandom (both male and female) reacted quite strongly and…well, let’s just say that a significant number of responses proved Laura’s point-that girls will always struggle to be taken seriously in the eyes of a certain type of hockey fan, and that if the reactions on the UK’s biggest sport-wide discussion site The Hockey Forum are anything to go by, there are far more of that type of hockey fan out there in Britain than we liberal, intelligent and entirely inclusive group of British hockey lovers would like to admit.

Comments on THF, left predominantly by male posters, are mirroring the debate that ALWAYS seems to happen in sport when the topic of sexism is brought up…and in its enlightened state the beacon of British hockey fan forums has managed to tick most of the boxes: we have

– the “angry men” running around outraged that one of those ruddy women could even leave the kitchen to SAY such a thing, claiming that any attempt to say women have problems is “patronising feminist rubbish” and total denial, along with the particularly nasty subset that automatically assume said women MUST be homosexuals). These are the ones who you can imagine spluttering with outrage while looking up the correct responses to such nonsense in the Daily Mail Big Book Of Opinions.

– the “they’re only out to shag the players and this girl’s probably one of those who got turned down” crowd (hereafter known as the Morality Police/Team Mary Whitehouse )

– the “it doesn’t happen to me/I’ve never seen it so therefore I don’t see why people think it’s a problem” response (many of these are female themselves-to them I’d say “lucky you…but it’s not an argument”

– the “calm down love, you’ll hurt yourself” or “god, it’s women like you that give your sex a bad name” subset (these are the particularly patronising group.

And of course, those who think linking to Don Cherry’s opinion on ANYTHING non-hockey related is a legitimate response to an argument…for whom there’s probably no hope whatever their views.

In amongst these, there’s even been a few reasoned responses (mainly, it has to be said, from females) which, while they disagree at least acknowledge that there MAY be a problem-and of course expressions of support and agreement from both sexes.

Last time I checked, I wasn’t a girl-thus I can’t claim personal experience of being on the end of the kind of attitudes, stereotyping and disdain that Laura describes from some male hockey fans in the UK (bolded and italicked for emphasis because a surprisingly large number of THF posters seemed to miss it in the original article). But I can admit to both hearing and seeing them expressed on a surprisingly regular basis throughout my hockey-watching travels…and, deep in the distant past when I too was an idiotic hormonal teenager, expressing similar views myself.

However, it seems the difference between me and a small but significant proportion of male hockey fans, judging by THF, is that I grew up and saw these views for the idiocy they are.

Let’s be honest…if you spend any time around a hockey team, at some point you will come into contact with a girl (probably a good few) who likes the look of a player on the team. Some of them, being young, free and single, may even attempt to “get to know” said player better. And a minority of THAT group may try and do it quite often.

And of course, they’ll take advantage of those poor, naive, innocent hockey players on your team for their own, evil ends, apparently-as seen when an EIHL player’s “indiscretion” on his girlfriend came to light on Twitter recently and a prominent EIHL team fan forum account decided to a) claim that it was all the girl’s fault (that poor, naive hockey player, being led astray) and b) saw fit to actually express the opinion that “that bitch needs a slap” in a tweet which, until this debate broke yesterday, was still prominently visible in the timeline.

Now, as a comparable: here is one of the best female hockey players in the world. Her name is Meghan Agosta (actually Agosta-Marciano since her marriage), she plays forward for Team Canada, and she’s won two Olympic golds and four world championships to date:

She is, in my opinion, a very attractive lady indeed. But the reason I enjoy watching her so much, and the justification if I were ever to buy a Team Canada jersey with her name on the back, would both be “because she can do stuff like this in World Championships”:

You can be fairly sure that as a bloke I’d never have to face comments of “I bet you bought that jersey cause you fancy the player” (in fact, with the attitude most UK hockey fans have to women’s hockey even at the highest level I’d far more likely get either “who’s that” or “why are you watching girls play hockey so much-just stick to the EIHL” but that’s an entirely different discussion).

However, if a girl gets a jersey? They have to spend a lot of time saying the phrase “I don’t fancy him, I just like the player”.

(Again, I have no doubt that there ARE girls who buy a jersey based on the fact that they fancy a player…certainly there were a LOT of girls at the Skydome wearing Shea Guthrie jerseys the past two seasons, and given that a lot of them were quite vocal about his attractiveness it’s fairly safe to assume his looks were an influence in selling a jersey or two in the pre-teen market) but the issue here isn’t that girls do it, but that the fact that there are some men who still think the “I bet you got it cause you fancy him” quote is even a thing).

Then, of course, there’s the “hockey knowledge” thing. Look at the UK hockey media…it’s overwhelmingly male, even though some of the most popular, well known and knowledgeable UK hockey fans (I’m thinking particularly of Fife’s Laura Duff and UKAmerican Sports Fans Katy Parles here) happen to be female (and it seems the writer of the original article, Laura Carland, is also in that company). Yet there’s there’s that instant tendency whenever hockey arguments happen for some men to drop into the “do you know what you’re talking about, woman” defence-second only to the “you don’t know cause you don’t play” defence used by some players as the most ridiculous argument ever used in a rink-mainly heard in rinks rather than on the Internet, luckily.

We can see the fruits of giving female hockey fans a platform already in the NHL-there are hundreds of excellent female hockey and sports bloggers and reporters out there in North America: in fact, they’re some of the top North American writers/bloggers I follow-the list is long but to pick out a few, names like ESPN’s Katie Baker, Laura (@theactivestick) of Montreal’s Habs Eye on the Prize blog, Sarah Connors of Boston’s Stanley Cup Of Chowder and Ashley March of March Hockey (even if she is a Philly fan).

Watching their work on Twitter often shows just how bad females get it in hockey media and would probably provide one hell of a lightbulb moments for the THF commentariat mentioned above…if you need an insight into how rampant sexist attitudes still are among North American hockey fans, all you need to do is read the comments below any of Sarah C’s articles…particularly those from opposition fans-there’s always some idiot willing to pipe up with “get back in the kitchen”.

In the UK, with the sport being nowhere near as big, females who speak up about sexism or indeed even try and write about the sport aren’t subject to anywhere near the same level of abuse…but judging by the response to Laura’s article today, it seems that we can’t claim to be whiter-than-white on this side of the pond, either-it’s just that nobody wants to admit that in a sport that UK fans like to claim as being of a completely different fan culture to the traditionally misogynistic and violent “man’s games” like football from the off, there is still a layer of casual sexism that runs quite deeply in some UK hockey fans.

And it’s through articles like Laura’s and consciously avoiding any glimpse of the “woman can’t play/understand hockey” attitudes or the dismissive responses like those on THF that we’ll actually address the problem, not by pretending it doesn’t happen.

But right now, I’m off to mixed hockey practice, to try and replicate that Meghan Agosta penalty shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Sickness: British Players And Their Lack Of Ambition

In returning to Belfast Giants yesterday, Craig Peacock becomes the latest top British player to come back to the familiar confines of the EIHL with his tail between his legs, being released from his Danish team “by mutual consent” after remaining pointless in the opening five games for Frederikshavn. Danish fans talk of him being “too slow” or “unmotivated” or “not good enough” for the Danish league-yet this is a league which has seen heavy movement of import skaters both to and from the EIHL over the past couple of seasons-a league which many consider to be of a slightly higher standard but not hugely so. Peacock himself is widely seen as one of the top British players out there-facts ably backed up by his statistics of nearly a point-per-game in the EIHL over the past four seasons with Belfast.

He follows the player some in Sheffield like to call the “Golden Child” Rob Dowd returning from Sweden in the summer to take a big paycheck in Sheffield and be near his family rather than spend another season with Troja-Ljungby in the Allsvenskan, despite more than creditable numbers in a higher-standard league that could have seen him make the step to the Swedish Elite League, one of the top leagues in the world. Dowd is unquestionably one of the top British players currently out there, if not the best British forward, and could likely have made it higher, as could Peacock given the chance.

Right now, though, the only British senior players playing outside the UK are Ben O’Connor, who is entering his fourth season abroad on the bounce and third in Kazakhstan for Arlan Kokshetau, and Rob Farmer, who is trying his luck with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces. There is a whole generation of young British players in their mid-to-late-twenties who’ve had the opportunity to move on to bigger and better things than the EIHL, and for whatever reason have, in the vast majority, elected to stay at home and take the (relatively) easy money or even come back to the UK to do so (Dowd and Peacock being glaring examples of the last two)

Before we carry on, though, let’s take a look at every British player that’s played pro hockey abroad (Jonathan Weaver just misses the cut, as he played for Mississippi in the ECHL in 99/00) that was on the team GB roster for Olympic qualifying last season, where they played, and the number of seasons they did so to date (thus including those playing abroad at the moment). Also, which league they were playing in at the time

Colin Shields (ECHL, France, 3 seasons, UK 2012/13

Stephen Murphy 3 seasons (Sweden (Div 1/Allsvenskan), Norway, UK 2012/13

Matt Myers (ECHL, 1 season, UK 2012/13

David Phillips (AHL/ECHL, 2 seasons, Denmark, 18 games, UK 2012/13

Ashley Tait (Italy, one season), UK 2012/13

Rob Dowd (Sweden (Allsvenskan, Sweden 2012/13

Craig Peacock (Denmark, 5 games)

Rob Farmer (Ottawa 67’s, 1 game, UK 2012/13)

Ben O’Connor (France, Kazakhstan, 4 seasons)

Of these players, most went abroad in the prime of their hockey careers or just before them (the exception was Ashley Tait, who left for Italy at the age of 33)-and the vast majorite headed to leagues similar to the UK and spent a relatively short time there before returning. If we look in the last five years and discount Tait, we see some of the brightest young stars in UK hockey, and we see them all go abroad and then return with the exception of Ben O’Connor-even David Phillips, with good reviews in the AHL and a solid ECHL spot elected to return…as did the “top player in British hockey” Rob Dowd. Peacock has even said in his press release that one of the reasons he left Denmark was because he wanted to return to the UK.

This is something we’re simply not seeing from other equivalent hockey nations. For a relatively fair comparison, let’s look at the French roster last season, for example, as the Ligue Magnus is generally considered to be of a similar standard to the EIHL and France a team on a fairly similar level of domestic hockey…and compare who on their roster had left France and…more to the point, where they were in 2012/13:

Yohann Auvitu (JYP, Finland)

Antonin Manavian (Innsbruck, Austria)

Yorick Treille (Chomutov, Czech Rep)

Damien Fleury (Sodertalje, Sweden)

Laurent Meunier (Straubing, Germany)

Charles Bertrand (Lukko Rauma, Finland)

Pierre Edouard Bellemare (Skelleftea, Sweden)

Sacha Treille (Sparta Prague, Czech Rep)

Johann Morant (Lugano, Switzerland)

Kevin Hecquefeuille (Karlskrona, Sweden)

Maxime Moisand (Odense, Denmark)

Since then, Yorick Treille has returned to his home country to play-but so has Rob Dowd…of the French roster that faced team GB last season-ten of them are still playing outside France, while only one of the British players who was outside the UK last year still is.

And there’s no age difference, either-the majority of the players listed above for France are in their mid-to-late 20s (only Treille and Meunier are older) and have already spent significant time outside their home country.

On the French roster that faced the UK last year, ten players had spent multi-year periods outside of France and weren’t playing in the domestic system, including a multitude of players playing in Scandinavia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland-the French were even missing Antoine Roussel and Stephane Da Costa, both of who have spent significant time in the AHL. Even allowing for Treille’s return and the age differences of Treille and Meunier, that that still leaves an impressive number of players in the prime of their careers still looking to better themselves, still looking to make a living out of hockey.

Compare that to Britain’s best and brightest-the likes of Dave Phillips, Dowd and now Peacock managing to get noticed by teams in a better league than the UK, taking a season or two and then, seemingly, deciding “actually, I’d rather come back and take the (relatively) easy money. Peacock, one of the top stars in UK hockey, decided after 5 games in Denmark that actually he’d rather return to being a big fish in a small pond than battle in an even slightly higher league-at least Dowd went for a season before deciding to come back to Sheffield.

I can hear the responses now of “oh, but they must be doing it for family reasons”. I’d imagine that the French players have families and loved ones in France, too…and yet they’re still willing to travel hundreds of miles to graft away in a far better league rather than return to their domestic league despite being almost guaranteed to become the highest earners and top stars in that league.

In short, the French players are, seemingly, far more ambitious and not willing to settle for merely being the biggest fish in a relatively small pond. So why aren’t the Brits?

It can’t be due to the wages dropping from an import limit-the French league is even more strict on imports than the British, and so top French players are paid like superstars, considered difference makers and feted just like top imports and Brits are in the UK, perhaps more so. The schedule in France, too, is far lighter than most Euro leagues, even the EIHL.

Language problems? I’d imagine it’s a lot easier to leave England and find someone who speaks English than leave France and find someone who speaks French. Besides, Ben O’Connor seems to manage to overcome his fine.

Standards? That can’t be right…the Ligue Magnus is the same level as the EIHL and yet French players still seem much more motivated by the prospect of playing at a higher level and making a true career out of hockey than do most British stars right now.

Simply put, looking at the efforts of our cousins across the Channel shames the likes of Dowd and Peacock in their ambition…these French players are willing to make the most of their talents and see just how far they can take them.

British stars, on the other hand? Let them earn relatively easy money in the EIHL and given a chance to rack up the points every season, and the prevailing opinion seems to be “why should we bother trying harder-we’ve got the majority of it on a plate here if we want it due to the import limits and demand for British players of real talent”.

It’s a lack of ambition, manifested in the fact that even when the new generation of top British player has gone abroad to try to make his fortune in the past few years, they’ve always come back knowing that there’s a comfortable safety net in the UK.

While that life may be suiting their aspirations just fine, and it can’t be doubt that the players still put a ton of effort into their physical training, the fact still remains that there seems to be a lack of will to push a career beyond a certain point for many players once they’ve reached the top of the domestic game-the drive evident in European and North Americans to constantly climb the hockey ladder just seems to be missing or fade away in the current generation of UK stars once they reach “top Brit” status.
Such a laissez-faire, unambitious outlook will be the one that continues to ensure that British hockey stays a relative backwater, as native-born players reach a certain point and then stop, content to reap the relatively minor rewards in the UK rather than compete and make the most of their talents by moving abroad. While that happens, the GB team will not have a hope of competing on the national stage even if they sign the greatest tactician on earth.

And more to the point, these players will continue to be the ones cheating themselves as well as their country as they throw away opportunities many young players in other, similar-level hockey countries would kill for.

If returns like Dowd’s and Peacock’s continue to be the norm and players like Ben O’Connor continue to be the exception, then GB hockey has already gone as far as it can go, and all that this attitude will give rise to in the eyes of many is dreams of what might have been for the national team, time after time.

And the fact that it could have been avoided had some of the stars of UK hockey truly made the most of their talents will only make it more tragic still.

How Derek Campbell’s Ban May Change The Whole EIHL For Better-If They Don’t Still Mess It Up

Fifteen games for “off ice fighting”, 12 for “eye gouging” and ten each for “kneeing to the head” and “excessive roughness (driving opponent’s head into the ice).

That’s the rap sheet of Hull’s Derek Campbell this morning as he begins one of the longest suspensions ever handed out by a British hockey governing body, certainly the longest ever handed out in the EIHL. In case you’re still wondering what on earth he did to deserve not so much being hit with the banning hammer as having his career beaten to an early death with it, here’s the video of Campbell’s offences vs Dundee:

Leaving aside any discussion of the initial hit from Nico Sacchetti (which in my opinion is hard but relatively clean-we see four or five of those a game along the boards in the EIHL but most of the time the player stays on their feet), what Derek Campbell does goes way beyond anything you could term “acceptable” retribution even before he leaves the ice and then comes halfway across the rink to attack a player off the ice, and he well deserves his ban.

But more importantly, the Derek Campbell suspension will (hopefully) be remembered as something of a turning point for the EIHL. Moray Hanson is the disciplinary head this year, and to be frank, he inherited a system that was considered something of a joke. The early season did nothing to remove that view, as a head-butt was somehow only considered to be one game, a blatant sucker punch was (again) allowed to pass with only one game, while two wildly differing checks to the head were given three and four games respectively, with a check from behind three and a stumble into a referee six. It got to the point where the EIHL disciplinary system, or at least the ban length allocation, could easily have been decided by a blind block chucking half a brick at a hopscotch board in a car park for all we knew.

With Campbell’s suspension and actions being hit fast and hard by Moray Hanson, though, the EIHL disciplinary pussycat has finally, it appears, discovered that it can actually use those sharp things on its feet and more to the point use them to allocate justice in a solid fashion.

To put it simply, Moray Hanson is not mucking around any more.

There remains a cloud on the horizon-the EIHL, in a ludicrous situation, have yet to decide whether or not they’re going to make Hull play 46 games with one import player sitting out “in order to ensure the ban is served” despite the team acting in the only way they possibly could in response to Campbell’s conduct and terminating his contract. If they do, then frankly it’s ridiculous-in no other hockey league in the world (unless specifically stated) is a ban allocated to a player imposed on a team even after that team has cut a player, and it’s very rare if at all that said sanction has ever been applied in UK hockey. To apply it now would be an unjust punishment on the remaining Hull Stingrays and go beyond the strict to the needlessly vindictive.

There has been all sorts of hand-wringing (mostly from fans of opposition teams) about how allowing Hull to replace Campbell would “set some sort of precedent”. One can only assume, then, that they’d rather set a precedent where their team, too, could have its season ruined by the actions of one idiot wearing their jersey. I highly doubt, however, that there would be such vocal calls to “do the right thing” and “make sure justice was done” from these objectors had Campbell been wearing their jersey when he tried to do Sacchetti some serious physical harm on Saturday night…in fact, they would no doubt flop faster than Sacchetti does with the weight of two Stingrays on his back.

The EIHL has that most valuable of opportunities here-a chance to set a precedent.

I realise that that’s an ominous prospect given that all previous evidence shows that they haven’t exactly embraced the opportunity with open arms (one game for a sucker punch, anyone), but if the EIHL decides in favour of Hull being punished (even if only a proportion of the ban is served as many are arguing, say ten games) then they are effectively saying that players have no individual responsibility and that teams must suffer for ALL the player’s sins, even those of little control.

They’re also setting a dangerous precedent indeed-if they apply the “team fault” logic to Campbell’s ban, then it has to get applied equally-and in the past the EIHL have shown themselves a notorious precedent for punishing some teams more than others…would Dave Simms be so cavalier in talking about Hull having to “play without an import” if it were Sheffield being affected, for example?

The EIHL have a chance here to confirm, as with the other bans, that they apply to players only, not teams. Those who say that Cardiff, Fife, Coventry etc had to play short for several games and thus Hull shouldn’t be able to avoid it forget that the vast majority of teams will not release a player to avoid a ban except in the case of an exceptional situation such as this one-the worry that this will open a flood of teams exploiting the system to injure opponents is not only wildly misplaced but verging on scaremongering.

Speaking of precedents-by setting tariffs within the ban and breaking it down into sections, Moray Hanson has begun to finally give EIHL fans what they’ve been crying out for-some transparency in the disciplinary process. The key now is to stick to it…for ANY situation in which a player’s head is driven into the ice and a penalty called, giving ten game ban, for example. In fact, I’d go further and argue that this is an ideal opportunity for the EIHL system to bring in minimum “tariffs” for bans-if Moray Hanson is going to begin breaking down such bans, the next logical step, surely, is to publish an automatic tariff from now on, and stick to it…bans will be a MINIMUM, and can only be added to.

For example-cross-checking is a minimum three, check-to-head is a minimum five, and so on.

Not only would this bring a whole lot of transparency towards the system, but it removes any room for manoeuvre or any likelihood of the silliness we’ve seen in early season. Both players and coaches will be working in a far more transparent system, as will the fans, while the system still takes into account severity of offences by allowing for an increase on the minimum tariff.

The EIHL and Moray Hanson have finally shown that they’re willing to take discipline seriously and show a genuine willingness to be open, albeit forced to be so by an extraordinary event. Now, they have the chance to take the next step and arguably solve the issues with the EIHL disciplinary process once and for all-if they’re willing to take it.

 

Action Replay: Breaking Down The Blaze, 07/10/13

This is the first in a (potentially) new feature aiming to break down some of the action from the Blaze games at the weekend, using the help of the Blaze webcast highlights. Today, we look at the Blaze’s 6-1 loss to Nottingham and consider the defensive lapses that led to several Nottingham goals. Apologies for black border around pics-due to speed the majority of the screenshots are from a fullscreen vid on an Iphone in this first week)

With the benefit of video replays you can tell a lot about a team, especially where they went wrong (or right). Occasionally (depending on time, inclination and the speed of the posting of the Blaze web highlights) this feature will take a look at key moments and attempt to explain what went wrong or right from the Blaze’s perspective, in the hope of possibly making clearer some of the factors that many fans often miss when talking about a game. We’ll start with Coventry’s 6-1 loss to Nottingham…a loss in which several of the Nottingham goals came about by the Panthers exploiting mistakes in the Blaze defence. First of all, here’s the full highlights of the game, at full speed, here (you’ll need to click on the “Watch On Youtube” link to see them, as embedding is disabled)

Now-let’s take a look at the Panthers first goal (0:00-0:24). At first sight it’s a great tip by Leigh Salters in front of the net on the powerplay. However, the fact that he was able to tip it in the first place is at least partly due to the Blaze defence not doing their job quite perfectly. First of all the puck isn’t cleared round the boards by the d-man off the faceoff win (a win whose impact is also negated well by Panthers C Lynn Loyns tying up his Blaze opposite number). However, as Chris Murray fires the puck we can see the Blaze are well into a diamond (1-2-1) PK formation in the pic below:

20131007-224700.jpgTrrrrrr

The problem is, they’ve moved too far away from the net, and in an effort to give Mike Zacharias room in net to see the puck, Michael Devin, the “rear point” of the diamond, has moved a long way out and left all the room in the world for Salters to park himself completely unmolested right in front of the net as the shot comes through-as we see from the screengrab below.

20131007-224726.jpg

Give a forward like Salters the space and time to set for a deflection like that, and as long as the shot gets through (which it has to, the shot ideally low and hard-excellent work by Murray) there’s a good chance of a goal. And so it proved.

Now for the second goal. (0:24) The seeds are sown early on in the play, as Lynn Loyns (again) goes behind the net and is tripped by Ryan Ginand, taking out a Blaze D-man in the process.
The key breakdown moment here is that the Blaze players HAVE to get up quickly and get back into the play to avoid the Panthers having a numbers advantage…however, at least one doesn’t, while Loyns (who is Ginand’s defensive responsibility as the opposing centre) is very quick to pick himself up, get back in front of the net and suddenly, as the puck is worked to the point and Jonathan Weaver’s shot comes through, Panthers have the Blaze outnumbered 3 to 1 in front of the net with a Blaze defender not even up off his knees behind it and Ginand himself having charged out to the point to block the shot, losing Loyns completely and giving him a ton of space and time to control the puck and shoot:

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Bang. Two nothing.

It gets worse merely two minutes later though, as Loyns picks the puck up on the blue-line and is faced with this situation as he crosses it:

20131007-224804.jpg

Look at all that white space in front of the Panthers forward on the right side-he has a clear route to the net, with a fellow Panther to his left who will head for the net having beaten his desperately-back-covering Blaze player, and only James Griffin to stem the race. This is a defensive breakdown of the worst kind for the Blaze, as three of the five outskaters have been caught up ice, two of those three are turning to get back at the play, and the two defenders are caught going backwards with attackers breaking in on them at speed-a nightmare situation for a defending team. As Loyns comes into the zone, Griffin can’t come and challenge him as the smart play is to let Mike Zacharias deal with the immediate threat of a speculative shot, try and cut off the middle and force Loyns to go wide, and take away any option of a centering pass, which Griff does his best to do against the odds…however Loyns uses this space perfectly and dekes Zacharias beautifully for 3-0.

Speaking of breakouts-the fourth Panthers goal (2:30) is arguably the worst Blaze moment of the night defensively. Blaze’s Mike Devin has pinched forward and carried the puck into a traffic-jam on the left boards after being forced across by a defending Panther, laid it off to Tanaka on the boards and continued to head for the net expecting a return pass which never came, and is now well out of position over on the right wing as Panthers’ Nick Anderson robs Cale Tanaka:

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Meanwhile, Panthers’ Rob Lachowicz has seen Devin charging forward without a forward dropping back to cover his defensive responsibility, and delayed his skate back to stay high up the ice in the space left behind Devin and gamble on Panthers winning the puck quickly, Anderson sees this and fires a pass into that gap for Lachowicz to curl onto.
Meanwhile, because of Devin’s raid and the logjam on the left boards, the two Blaze players furthest back are forwards in Russ Cowley and Tait, and both have also been sucked into the play on the left side rather than keeping any sort of shape, leaving the whole ice for Lachowicz to exploit in the Blaze half-so he receives the pass on the blue line in this situation:

20131007-225125.jpg

A clearer breakaway you may not see this year-Lachowicz takes full advantage and has all the time in the world to skate in and beat the despairing Zacharias despite Cowley’s best efforts on the backcheck.

That’s four Panthers goals, and four goals that have been massively contributed to by Blaze errors of one kind or another.

We can’t really pick any fault with the Blaze for Panthers’ fifth, as it’s scored 5-on-3 and frankly if a team isn’t scoring 5-on-3 then it’s due to a superb penalty killing effort.

But we can pick fault with Blaze for Panthers’ sixth (6:55): Michael Devin (again) chases the puck into the corner as it’s carried there by Panthers, and eventually Matt Francis works his way past Kenny Kallstrom and Adam Henrich back to the blue line. All of a sudden (on a PK) there are three of four Blaze players pressuring the puck, pulled all out of shape from their PK system and, again, sucked into the puck with one forward not even pressuring on the backcheck and leaving the whole ice open as Francis looks up:

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Unfortunately for the Blaze, if three of their players are in a square of ten feet or so this means Panthers Nick Anderson has a LOT of space to step into as he comes up to support. Francis sees him making the rush and finds him through the large gap between two of the Blaze players. As he shapes to shoot, no Blaze player is near him once again and Devin and Henrich have no chance of getting near it:

20131007-224913.jpg

Anderson takes this chance gleefully (even though Zacharias is set for the shot he’s beaten by an excellent finish) and turns the game from a loss to a rout in the process.

So, of six goals scored by the Panthers, five can be (at least in some small part) put down to Blaze errors allowing the chance in the first place. Give five errors up against a team as good as Nottingham, and they’ll gleefully take them.

With Belfast coming to the Skydome next week and Nottingham away in the bigger ice of the NIC before that, these errors are the kind of things that will kill the Blaze off even before the other teams do. More to the point, they’re the kind of errors that a team simply can’t afford to make when faced with the firepower of a team like Nottingham-to some degree, they’re evidence of the Blaze contributing to their own downfall.

This week’s game tape may not make comfortable viewing for Matty Soderstrom or his team, but they’ll already be working on ways to make sure such errors as these don’t happen next week. We’ll see how successful they’ve been so far at the weekend