Tipping The Scales: How The Conference System Has Made The EIHL More Even

Ask any EIHL fan who the powerhouse teams are in the league, and it’s likely most will pick one of Nottingham, Sheffield or Belfast-these are the teams with the biggest budgets, the biggest arenas, and the ones perceived to have the most power in the EIHL organisational structure (although the last one is more a myth than based in any provable fact).

These teams all have one major thing in common-they’re placed in the Erhardt Conference. Back when the Conference system was brought in, it was considered by far the stronger, purely because it grouped all the “bigger budget” teams into one conference, which saw many predict that the EIHL was being arbitrarily divided into a two-tier league.

The first season of conference play seemed to bear out that argument, with the league split clearly among conference lines, the Erhardt occupying the top half and the Gardiner the bottom in the final standings. However, looking a little more closely, the Gardiner was by far the more competitive conference, with only four points separating top and bottom over a 32-game season (unlike the NHL, cross-conference games didn’t count within conference standings, only in final league positions).That enough was enough for EIHL top brass to claim the system a success, despite the ludicrous logic of not having the playoffs split by conference to ensure an equal representation at PO final weekend, instead going for a horrendous and confusing mish-mash of criteria which they haven’t yet abolished.

However, we’re now seeing the beginnings of the effects of a Conference system on the wider league that nobody may have anticipated but is incredibly welcome (unless, perhaps, you’re a fan of the traditionally powerhouse teams)…

Suddenly, after only one season, the considered “gap” between the two conferences has narrowed massively.

Look at the current EIHL table, and it might as well have been split perfectly. Aside from the mid-section, which has Coventry and Nottingham in fifth and sixth and Fife and Hull below, it alternates Erhardt-Gardiner all the way down the list. Dundee currently lie third and Braehead second, above the richest teams in the EIHL Sheffield and Nottingham and despite the Stars operating on a fraction of the budget of the East Midlands/South Yorkshire wealth axis. No Gardiner team has failed to beat an Erhardt squad this season, and Edinburgh’s two wins so far have come against Belfast and Nottingham after a horrendous start to the season.

The EIHL appears to be at the very beginning of a sea-change. More consistently competitive games brought in by the conference system have caused average attendances to rise across the league, and these rising attendances are beginning to show their dividends in giving the traditionally “smaller” clubs a little more financial muscle-the results of which we’re already beginning to see. Couple that with coaches like Jeff Hutchins gaining experience battling at the lower levels of budgeting and now beginning to use their increasing financial muscle well, and you get a narrowing gap between the traditional “haves” and “have nots”.

Of course, the flood of imports into Sheffield and Nottingham as injury cover we’ve seen this season so far is a luxury that these Gardiner teams may still not be able to avail themselves of, and so in the end, this season at least may not see any change in the title battle (although Braehead, the exception among Gardiner Conference teams budget-wise due to being a combination of being backed by Neil Black and attendances that are rivalling and even beating all but the “Big Three”, may well force themselves into contention). However, Dundee are showing no sign of dropping back off the pace and both they and Braehead are the standard-bearers in the Gardiner-led EIHL parity revolution, and if this season so far is any indication, they’re the first indicators of a trend toward an increase in parity between the two conferences that will only be self perpetuating as the system beds in and the financial effects of an increasingly competitive (on a national level) group of Scottish teams are felt.

Look out, Big Three. The Scottish teams are coming. And that wall of financial dominance that’s protected the Erhardt Conference teams from attack is crumbling.

And with every metaphorical brick that falls out of it, the EIHL gets stronger as a whole.

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Five Star: A Short Tribute To David Clarke

Today is a special day in Nottingham.

A great servant of Nottingham ice hockey and one of the best British hockey players of the modern era will be celebrated by Panthers fans tonight as David Clarke receives a well-deserved testimonial in his tenth season at the NIC.

The Peterborough-born 32-year old has already amassed a career that he can look back upon with pride, becoming the all-time highest points scorer in the EIHL last season and scoring of a rate at over a point a game-he’s currently on 488 points from 472 EIHL games, all with the Panthers, and has scored a total of 696 points in 738 games in UK hockey-an incredible statistic.

He’s won ten trophies in his time at the Panthers and worn a letter every year he’s played at the NIC, as well as being voted an EIHL All-Star, Best British Forward and many other individual awards during a career spent at Peterborough, Newcastle, London, Milton Keynes and Guildford and a brief spell in Italy as well as Nottingham.

He’s represented his country 91 times, scoring 69 points in the process, too, and been league MVP twice.

But perhaps the most telling thing about Clarke’s career is that he’s almost universally viewed as one of the best British players of the modern era. Aside from one year in Alleghe in Italy, he’s been one of the first names on the Panthers team sheet for the past ten years, and consistently one of their most dangerous forwards.

Clarke is the kind of player you love to watch. He’s fast, skilled, hard-working and plays the game with just enough of an edge and needle that he attracts the ire of the opposition fans…but his true talents lie around the net. When David Clarke picks up the puck in space, he always provokes the same, contrasting reactions: if you’re a Panthers fan, you rise from your seat in anticipation. If you’re from the opposition, you panic. More often than not, the panic is justified as he’ll either create a scoring chance or finish one.

Clarke is one of those players who every opposition fan secretly wishes was on their squad. He’s one of the greatest British players of the modern era and has represented his club and country with pride, hard work and integrity for ten years.

Tonight, he gets a deserved “thank you”. A “thank you” that even we here in Coventry will echo, despite the fierce Nottingham/Coventry rivalry. Tonight at least, David Clarke deserves nothing less than your fulsome praise, whether you’re a Panthers fan or not.

Congratulations from Coventry on your testimonial, David. Well done, and enjoy the night. You’ve earned it.

 

 

 

Devils & Dust: The Slow Death of The Cardiff Devils

This article has been updated to take into account the events on Twitter last night, after it was written.

Times are not good in Cardiff.

After an off-season of promise, the Cardiff Devils fans have endured a truly painful start to the 2013/14 season, with injuries to a starting goalie not being an ideal way to start a season and a promising few games in the Challenge Cup, the fans in South Wales have seen their team suffer under a leadership regime that’s made increasingly bizarre decisions and backroom unrest that is threatening to tear the heart of of the dragon once and for all.

The hardest hit by this has been Gerad Adams, who has suffered the kind of treatment most hockey coaches and players wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies. In what appears to be a sustained attempt to force him out of the club in his testimonial year, the popular Canadian has seen his season riven by controversial player decisions that appear to have been made by owner Paul Ragan (such as the sacking of top Brit forward and staunch Adams supporter Phil Hill), a sidelining into a token “Head of Player Development” role after initially being moved from a coach to player-only role and a bizarre retirement saga-all of which have prompted former Devils such as Scott Matzka & Mike Prpich to be vociferously critical of the Devils treatment of Adams on Twitter.

Even more strangely, the Devils management and particularly owner Paul Ragan have released a series of ever-more confusing PR’s on Twitter which have further muddied the waters, including denying issuing an ultimatum to Adams while at the same time doing so back in late September and then moving Brent Pope in as “caretaker” coach while at the same time continuing to refer to him by the titles of his several other roles.

Unsurprisingly, Ragan’s actions have made him unpopular with a growing section of the Devils’ fanbase, and around the league the condemnation of the treatment of Gerad Adams has been loud and long, with Pope also taking a hammering, particularly from former Devil Mike Prpich, who has referred to the Devils GM amongst other things as a “snake”.

The treatment of Adams has looked like a more and more blatant attempt to force the coach to resign rather than be fired in his testimonial year, but in doing so and pursuing this course of action Ragan is slowly killing the Devils and doing irrepairable damage to the name of the franchise. Cardiff hockey fixture Neil Francis has already been driven out of the Bay, leaving Adams seemingly standing alone against what can only be described as a concerted campaign against his position-a campaign which appears to be built on little more than a personal vendetta and gets more and more catastrophic for the team and its relationship with the Devils’ fans as the weeks go by.

Speaking of ” irrepairable damage”, this week the Devils have made a public statement in support of Andrew Conboy in one of the most bizarre shows of loyalty we’ve seen in the EIHL- a show of loyalty that looks even more out of place given the following fact:

After his suspension of 12 games for an attempted eye gouge on Belfast’s Jeff Mason last week, Conboy will have been suspended for nearly double the amount of games he’ll have played for this season (19 to 10)

The Devils’ management protestations of “loyalty” ring even more hollow when viewed in the context of their behaviour towards Adams-the hypocrisy is plain for all to see and the Devils fans have been loud in their disapproval.

But in the big picture. the Devil’s treatment of the Andrew Conboy situation appears to be the same as their treatment as Gerad Adams-in the sense it’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from an organisation that wasn’t confused, unsure of direction and seemingly a decision made by a management willing to destroy itself from the inside in order to make a point.

Last night, we saw the latest example of confusing and downright bad management from the Devils ownership. Round about 9pm, tweets started appearing on the Devils official Twitter account @cardiffdevils tagged with the line “FACTS” and discussing players the Devils had tried to sign. One in particular caught people’s eyes with its specific details:

FACTS – NHL 2nd round draft choice in 2005 to Boston Bruins cited family issues as why they couldn’t leave their home country #NHLexperience

Naturally, I looked this up. The 2nd round draft choice to Boston in 2005 was Czech forward Petr Kalus. He’s currently playing in Djurgarden in Sweden. Here’s the press release announcing his signing there last Thursday (in Swedish), in which he leaves Czech team Mlada Boleslav.

So-basically the Devils are claiming they couldn’t sign a player because “he wouldn’t leave his own country” when said player has already signed with a club outside of his own country.

FACT.

I questioned the Devils on these inconsistencies, as have other Devils fans. As of now, no response, beyond a few obviously pro-ownership fans saying that I shouldn’t be bothering with their announcement. Although fairly sure that a team appearing to lie on its public Twitter account about signings (and more to the point not bothering with the simple get outs of either “we got the year wrong, here’s the player” or “we approached him a couple of weeks ago, he’s signed elsewhere since” is a story that most people in the EIHL would find interesting. Certainly it casts doubts on the other assertions on “prospective signings” tweeted on the same account.

It gets worse, though. Devils owner Paul Ragan posted this tweet around 10pm:

Wow few Devils “Militia” active tonight, sure your not steelers fans in disguise! Devils staff, players & true fans stand strong #bigfuture

What we have here, unbelievably, is an Elite League team owner publicly firing back at HIS OWN FANBASE and trying to divide it with divisive rhetoric such as the use of the words “true” fans. Oh yes, and he’s also insulted his former team’s fans in Sheffield (a team he left under less than perfect condition) while he’s at it and accused anyone who questions him of not supporting the club. It’s PR napalm, condensed into a concentrated 140 character burst.

This is the kind of social media faux-pas that can destroy a brand if it continues-and they’re running unchecked, to the point where the fans are showing their support for Gerad Adams by chanting his name in the 55th (his jersey number) minute of every game, home or away. It’s the sign of an owner who may have already lost any grip on good sense.

This is how clubs die.

Right now, whoever in the organisation is driving it, the Devils are on a path that will, as the old saying goes, go to hell in a handcart for no other reason than someone inside the organisation (theories differ on who) is more interested in their own agenda that that of the team’s.

In doing so, they’re treating Gerad Adams in a fashion no coach should ever have to be treated and may well end up tearing apart one of the most successful and long-lived clubs in UK hockey for years to come. They’ve already made it a laughing stock in the eyes of many.

The Devils and their fans deserve far better than that. Whatever is going on behind the scenes in Cardiff, it needs to stop now.

Otherwise, the political maneuvering of current Devils management may well have the destruction of the team on their conscience sooner rather than later.

Fighting Against Progress: Why Hockey Doesn’t Need It

Fighting.
It’s the issue that divides hockey fans, has caused more bitter arguments than your average bad marriage and is the elephant in the corner of hockey’s living room that’s growing bigger and bigger with every assault, every act of idiocy, every sucker punch and every bad hit.

Does hockey really need it?

The issue has been brought into sharp focus again this week with incidents in both the NHL and EIHL. In the NHL, Philadelphia’s Ray Emery managed to somehow get the 3rd star in a 7-0 loss for skating 200ft to give his opposite number Braden Holtby a beating that may have left him concussed. And last night in the EIHL Cardiff’s Andrew Conboy was caught on camera trying to remove Belfast’s Jeff Mason’s eye with his index finger.

Both incidents, in their own way, add further fuel to the growing opinion that say the only non-combat sport on the planet to tacitly allow open fighting during a game should finally, finally, move with the times-and force it out.

Listen-before the pro-fight lobby pile in with their knee-jerk reactions of “GO AND WATCH FIGURE SKATING! and IT’S A CONTACT SPORT!, I’m not some kum-by-yah-singing pacifist moralising who’s never set foot on a rink. I’ve played the game myself for thirteen years, and been involved in a scrum or two myself. I know all the arguments that say that when you have a lot of men flying around a confined space swinging sticks at each other with blades on their feet, occasionally it gets a little heated. Fighting will never be fully eliminated from a game in the same way it’ll never be eliminated from any other sport.

But all the arguments that the pro-fighting lobby use as justification, including those from the players themselves, are being weakened bit by bit to the point where the hockey world has to change-and the Ray Emery & Andrew Conboy incidents are only further examples of this happening.

Firstly-the Emery fight happened and was indeed praised by the commentators on the night as being part of a team “sending a message”. Often in hockey blowouts or when a team is losing you’ll hear talk of teams “making a point” by randomly deciding to drop the gloves, when all it actually is is a bunch of angry sportsmen using a fighting rule and a lack of consequences to take out their frustration at losing by getting a thump in at the opposition. While fighting is still tacitly allowed and the only penalty is likely to be a five minute sit in the box or at most a player missing the rest of a game that’s already lost, the temptation to exact some physical revenge on an opponent for no other reason than some vaguely defended notion of “sending a message” then needless fight will always be at least equal to “defensible” fights.

“But wait!” say the pro-fighting lobby. “if we accept that the “sending a message” reason for fighting is often so much flimsy posturing and can go, we still have the fact that the fact fighting exists stops dirty play, right?”

Let’s look at the UK so far this season. In a league where fighting is supposedly a factor in keeping agitators etc in line, we’ve had suspensions so far for:
Headbutting
Eye gouging
Hits from behind
Hits to the head
Sucker punching
Excessive roughness
Slashing (that removed the top of a player’s finger THROUGH A GLOVE.

This weekend alone we’ve had a racism row in the EPL and Andrew Conboy caught on camera trying to start the process of turning Jeff Mason into a pirate with the removal of an eye (an act which by the way didn’t see a Giants player jump in to exact justice in exactly the way we’re told fighting works).

The facts say that fighting as a deterrent simply doesn’t deter enough. The very culture that emphasises responsibility and frontier justice in hockey is making fighting meaningless.

Toronto and former team USA GM Brian Burke defends fighting by claiming that players know what they sign up for and players know that they will be held accountable for on-ice actions and that dirty play likely means physical retribution, and that keeps them in line. But the fact is that most of those who land the dirty hits, swing their sticks etc also know what they’re risking and taking responsibility for-and they don’t care. They’ll take a punch in the face to win a game, no question.

The logic of saying fighting stops these acts is exactly the same as saying “by allowing the odd murder we’ll stop a lot more people being killed”. It’s fallacious. Ken Dryden, one of the most decorated players in the game and also one of its most eloquent and thoughtful writers, makes the point beautifully here, while also pointing out that had hockey held the same backward notice and stubborn resistance to change throughout its history as it does to the fighting culture, we wouldn’t have seen some of the greatest players in history ply their trade.

Oh yeah-and that “fighting is necessary deterrent” argument again…if that’s truly a case then why do the number of fights DROP sharply as the games get more important and why do we see those players who fight the most scratched or given reduced roles in the playoffs, Olympics and World Championships without a corresponding rise in dirty play, bad hits etc-and why are we still seeing incidents like that of Andrew Conboy’s gouge on Sunday even with fighting possible?

It’s because despite the claims of those who have built their careers on it and those unwilling to embrace change, hockey is changing. As Ken Dryden says, the case for people having fights is getting weaker and weaker. With stronger discipline, less ability for “dirty” players to hide with TV coverage everywhere and coaches realising that they’d rather have players who can contribute with their gloves on first rather than off, there has never been a better time to relegate fighting to the marginal status it deserves. I accept that you’ll never eliminate it completely, but let’s make it a minimum of a 5+game penalty in the EIHL as many Euro, junior and NCAA leagues already have. Hockey players just don’t grow up with fighting being as acceptable as it was any more.

If the EIHL follows the lead of Europe and makes fighting a game penalty, the league won’t suffer. It’ll get better.

And anyone who says otherwise is only dropping the gloves with progress, in a fight they’ll hopefully lose.