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.