The Night Before EIHL Christmas

with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore this Christmas Eve, here is Chasing Dragons’ version of the Night Before Christmas, for the EIHL and all its fans. Enjoy:

Twas the Night Before Christmas, & around the Elite League,
In Belfast they smiled, and in Sheffield they seethed,
For the Giants were top, the Steelers they weren’t,
While meanwhile in Coventry the Blaze did not burn,
But in Dundee Stars shone, much to Simmsey’s surprise
“3rd world teams beat US?! Can’t believe my eyes!”

Moray Hanson, meanwhile, was the discipline Grinch,
“Step out of line, and your team’ll feel the pinch!”
Derek Campbell, and Conboy, and Nickerson too
“Dirty players in the Elite League-he’s COMING FOR YOU.”

Flyers and Caps, those by the Forth say
are ready for war, on Hogmanay,
But in Fife they dislike more Chris Frank and the Clan,
When they met in Kirkcaldy, the Beard earned a ban.

But what of the Panthers? What did they have in store?
An autumn full of imports galore
Not eleven, not twelve, or thirteen, but more.
A whole team’s worth of imports
Through the NIC’s door

And Hull-the Stingrays-the “jellyfish” of yore
Doucet, Tendler and Lauzon, how often they score!
Ten past the Caps, 7 past Panthers too
Cloutier’s doing well, and he’ll do better yet, too.

In Sheffield, the Steelers are no expense spared
Christiansen’s “new systems” dance in player’s heads
But they’re currently proving what Simms says is lies
“Big budgets won’t guarantee you a prize”

“Statistics mean nothing”-in Coventry they say
But the numbers show different. Blaze are in disarray.
This Yuletide in Coventry, the fans ask for wins
Otherwise “Happy New Year” will more likely be grim.

In Belfast, there’s joy on the banks of the Lagan
The Giants are firing up the title bandwagon
They’ll be seven points clear, on this Christmas Day
There could be trophies again on the Giants Causeway

The Stars they are glowing, up north in Dundee
Bakala’s a gem, and so’s Sacchetti
They’re in the top four, but can they stay there?
If they all stay healthy, there’s success in the air.

In Cardiff it’s been an “interesting” year
Militias, confusion, & coaching unclear
But they’ve found a Kurka, in Tomas the Czech
And now there’s hope, of happiness yet

In Braehead the Clan, the pride of Glasgow
Champions in waiting? They might be, you know.
An army in purple, growing strong each year
They’re now a team for others to fear

And finally Edinburgh, home of “banter” that’s barmy.
Bawbags Of The Week, and Hartmann’s Euro Army
Consider this fact, as you munch your Yule Log
They’re the reason we all love the underdog.

But this year the league already got its best gift
Live games on TV, in a regular shift
Thanks to Aaron Murphy, coverage that’s Premier
(Let’s just hope that Benn Olson lets him live til New Year)

So as you open your presents, be you Star, Blaze or Clan,
Or Steeler, or Stingray, or even Panthers fan
Flyer, Capital, Devil, and of course Giant, too
Here’s a heartfelt message, from Chasing Dragons to you

Thanks for reading my words, and sharing these lines
May your skates be sharp, your shots find only twine
And wherever your team may have its home ice
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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Raging Dragons, Rusting Steel: Two Teams, Two Season’s Crossroads, Two Different Directions?

“It’s nice to play in a city that cares… & gets mad at you if you lose… as a professional athlete I think you need pressure to win”

Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings forward, World Champion and two-time Stanley Cup winner, on fan/media pressure.

Last week I wrote about the Coventry Blaze, and I wasn’t hugely nice about them. Although the sentiments I expressed in the blog were similar to those expressed by a large percentage of the fan-base, apparently actually coming out and saying it in public caused something of a stir…the reaction was notable not only for the number of Blaze fans who agreed with what I said, but the far more vitriolic reaction of those who, for whatever reason, didn’t.

I was accused of “negativity”, of “having an agenda”, and even, on one point, of “abusing the team’s trust” (no, I can’t work that one out either). Words like “witch-hunt”, “unfair” and “destructive to the team” were thrown around with careless abandon from that small but vocal section of the fanbase who seemed to take a commentator actually publicly criticizing the team he watches in a media article as an offence akin to taking a dump on the Blaze logo at centre ice while chatting up the players’ girlfriends one-by-one in the pregame warmup. God only knows how they’d react to columnists in a properly vicious hockey media town like, say, Toronto or Montreal.

Getting to the game on the Sunday, you’d have thought that there was some sort of prizefight being planned. Whilst I had a significant number of fans both on Twitter and in person come up and say that the article was a good one, there seemed to be a whole lot take malicious glee in informing me that apparently “the players were angry” and “they didn’t like what I’d written”. Apparently, criticism in the Coventry fanbase is a bad thing, even when it’s only saying a little bit more explicitly what the coach already had.

Interestingly, the game on Sunday was between two teams in a similar position. Both Blaze and their opponents, the Sheffield Steelers, are seen by many to be underachieving this season, both are receiving criticism from their respective fan-bases, and both came into this game off the back of a frustrating loss and under attack. But they came with a crucial difference.

Once the game began, the behaviour and differences in demeanour were noticeable. Sheffield, missing two of their most creative players in Jeff :Legue and Rob Dowd, looked lacklustre, out of ideas, and a team of individuals. Blaze, who’d had exactly the same criticisms levelled at them a week before, looked like they had a point to prove. They were buzzing around after every puck, landing hits and looking like a team deserving of a far higher position than sixt place. In short, they were responding like they had a point to prove.

In short, the two teams’ response to a bad game the week before were polar opposites. Sheffield sulked, drifting around the ice and trying to overcomplicate things. Key players like Rob Sirianni and Nate DiCasmirro were on the periphery of play, looking uninterested unless the puck came near them. In short, they did exactly what many of the Blaze had done in the third against Fife, and an increasingly frustrated Steelers fanbase let them know about it. However, it appeared to have little effect, beyond a series of increasingly petulant penalties that culminated in Jonathan Phillips’ frustrated mugging of Ryan Ginand and Tim Spencer unsuccessfully attempting to get Kevin Harvey to fight

These were two teams who couldn’t be more similar in terms of the position coming into the game-coaches under pressure, accusations of disinterest, and having themselves called into question by fans.

The Blaze, to their immense credit, responded perfectly to pressure. The Steelers, however, didn’t. And as a result the Blaze won convincingly on the night.

So-the question is…taking into context the thoughts of Henrik Zetterberg (one of the best players of the modern era and also one of the most respected and most successful) and the reaction of the Blaze-is a fanbase that will put pressure on its team as bad as some people in Britain seem to think? Certainly, in the past the Skydome crowd never accepted anything less than excellence from its players, and nor did the organisation or indeed the fanbase defend them with quite so much vigour.

Cotton-wool doesn’t win championships, and it doesn’t win games. Maybe, with the victory on Sunday, we’re seeing signs that finally this season’s Blaze team is beginning to hold itself accountable and the influence of leaders like Ashley Tait and Mike Egener is beginning to be felt.

Maybe the Fife game wasn’t, as I feared last week, the moment that could destroy the Blaze season. Maybe it and the negative reaction to it off the ice will come to be seen as the game that was the turning point.

The proof will come over the rest of the Christmas period. which starts with a weekend that has true Nightmare Before Christmas potential if Sunday’s improvement was only a blip of good form, as the Blaze take on league leaders Belfast away from home and then high-flying Braehead make their first visit to the Skydome on Sunday.

Judging by the evidence and contrast between the Blaze and the Steelers on Sunday night, the “rock bottom” moment may have come for the Blaze already, but that moment is still to come in Sheffield. The question is, how long before the pressure begins to build to the point of public callings-out by coaches there, too? And will it be enough to turn the tide of negativity in South Yorkshire?

This Christmas will be an interesting one.

Death Spiral:Why Blaze Have Run Out Of Excuses

Matty Soderstrom’s rookie coaching season in Coventry has been a baptism of fire.

Brought in with the thankless task of stepping into the shoes of one of the most successful coaches in British hockey, the affable Swede has been handed a gift which, after the initial optimism a new broom can bring, looks more and more like a poisoned chalice as the Blaze have failed to live up to preseason hopes, currently sitting sixth in the EIHL table and with the questions about Soderstrom’s position that had been voiced quietly in the offseason becoming clarion calls already for a new man to be given the job.

Last Sunday saw the fans finally lose patience with the team and the calls for drastic change begin, as an abject 3rd period capitulation saw the Blaze give up five goals in nine minutes at home to a rampant Fife Flyers squad and turn a 4-2 lead that was looking fairly comfortable to a 7-4 loss that one club figure described to me afterwards as “inexcusable”.

Soderstrom himself cut a haunted, disconsolate figure in the bar after the game-his team’s performance had seemingly clearly angered him, although he kept his thoughts to himself.

Other Blaze players weren’t so discreet-one player in particular repeating a mistake of last year and becoming involved in an ugly exchange of threats, insults and offers of a fight with a Blaze fan in response to criticism of his play on social media, possibly the worst thing you can do when you’ve been part of an epic collapse in the third period short of just openly “doing a Suderman” and publicly ripping your fanbase.

It’s made even worse when you bear in mind that the player concerned complained about private messaging from fans, while conveniently forgetting he did exactly the same thing (direct-messaging a fan with threats) last season.

These are volatile times for the Blaze organisation. After several seasons of dissatisfaction from the fanbase at many aspects of the club, the departure of Paul Thompson was supposed to signal a clean sweep, with Soderstrom finally getting his chance. PR in the off -season focused on the quality of the new players arriving and players spoke of their belief that this roster could “challenge for a championship, and play exciting, physical, committed hockey.

However, an off-season that saw two key players fail to start the season after already signing (in Mike Egener and Mike Schutte) wasn’t the best preparation and saw Soderstrom have to rejig his plans. The Swede was also fighting against constant claims that the team wasn’t his own…hardly the best start to the season. However, the PR remained relentlessly upbeat, as one would expect-and some Blaze fans even seemed to fall for the hype, particularly after a thumping 5-0 win away in Belfast.

Since winning 5 games to start off the season in September, though, the Blaze have lost 14 and only won seven, conceding 80 goals while only scoring 58 in the process. They’ve made an ignominious exit from the Challenge Cup group stages, being one of only two teams NOT to make the quarter finals, and have dropped to sixth in the league, ten points off the top and dropping, currently mired in a loss of form that has only seen them win one of their last six games and not win at home in a month.

During this time, we’ve only seen rare glimpses of a potentially excellent team mired in a mix of seeming self doubt, injuries and occasionally, as on Sunday, just straight under-performance, particularly from several of the most-heralded players.

Of course, there have been endless ways to justify the losses-the Blaze have suffered more than their fair share of injuries to key players early in the season, after all.

However, these excuses of “injury problems” and “not having the luxuries of arena teams” are ringing increasingly hollow with the returns of Mike Egener and Shea Guthrie and the seemingly desperate return signing of Gerome Giudice. Clearly, whatever issues are holding the Blaze back, it can’t be said that the owners haven’t at least tried to change things and offered financial help
However, with the cutting of the Blaze’s best defensive forward in Brian McMillin in favour of a Giudice who hasn’t exactly set the Skydome alight on his return and suffered two concussion injuries already, coupled with the form of the team being inconsistent even at “full strength”, is it a case of “needing reinforcements” by itself that’s causing the problem, or something more?

In fact, there should only be one thought driven into his players’ heads by Matt Soderstrom, over and over again until they’re saying it in their sleep.

There are no more excuses left.

This is a Blaze team that, on paper anyway, should be far better than it is. With the otherworldly scoring talents of Ryan Ginand already providing a stream of goals and that now reinforced by the talents of Shea Guthrie, coupled with Ashley Tait’s Indian summer of a season, this team should not be struggling as much as it is.

It’s plain for all to see, however, that there is something not right in the Blaze at the moment. Whether it’s the wrong fuel or the desire simply not burning hot enough, the team aren’t performing near to their full potential. Fans are picking on the lack of secondary scoring, but does this hold water? Brian McMillin received endless criticism for his slow scoring rate, but his “replacement” and fan favourite with many Giudice (who was supposed to be more dangerous offensively, we were told) is scoring slower still. (2 points in 9 games = 0.22 PPG, McMillin’s 8 in 24 = 0.33 PPG, with arguably much better defensive upside) and another big-name signing, Mike Henrich, has put up points but has been criticised for effort this season.

Fans are already beginning to turn on this season’s team and singling out Soderstrom for their ire, with a poll on Fire and Ice Forum saying that 37% of fans want him sacked already.

Couple that with the far more potentially serious problem of fans simply saying they’re not bothering to turn up to games in increasing numbers and the Blaze moving toward a tough home schedule that sees them play Sheffield, Braehead, Cardiff and Nottingham in the next four games and clearly the slump needs to be stopped now before the Blaze play themselves into real trouble both on and off the ice.

There is probably nobody out there who realizes this more than the players, but the game against Sheffield is now a game where excuses simply do not apply, whatever they are. Any more performances close to that of the third period vs Fife, and the team run the risk of losing their fans support and, eventually, their coach his job. And doing so sooner rather than later.

Not only that, they risk driving away the very fans they claim to need, through their own fault.

Granted, the club and players can point to injuries, playing with imports short, and even perhaps uncertainty over roster changes. But now, with 11 fit imports, the team have their full quota and can ice a roster that on paper can compete with other EIHL squads, even the top teams. It’s already proven that.

No excuses, Blaze. Time to stop looking for words to defend sloppy losses and bad play-because now, with the majority of players back from injuries, reinforcements brought in on forward and defence and competition to stay in the side once Adam Henrich returns as (what should be) a key motivating factor to play well this month as well as a management who’ve already shown the willing to make changes, there aren’t any left.

From now on, it’s time to stand up and be counted. Nothing else will do.

Otherwise, the Blaze dragon may already see its 2013/14 season and more seriously fan engagement with the team fall into a death spiral.

Saving Suderman-Why Matt Suderman’s Only Saying What Others Think

Former Hull Stingrays captain Matt Suderman isn’t happy.

The Canadian left Hull on Sunday night after their game against Braehead, and hasn’t exactly held back in telling us why.

Criticising the officials of the league was guaranteed to gain him sympathy in EIHL fandom (after all, fans of teams all around the league have been saying that officials are inconsistent, the standard of calls varies widely and all is not well in the EIHL stripeyland) but following up by saying that the Stingrays’ fanbase was one of the major reasons for him leaving is one heck of a parting shot which has caused the odd discussion on Twitter, predictably divided along the “we pay your wages, stop moaning” brigade and those who think he might actually have a case.

The fans think they know hockey, but they don’t” is one hell of a line by itself, but following it up with claims of fans messaging him off the ice or going after him during games from the stands in a fashion beyond the odd yell has, predictably, caused accusations of Suderman being a softy who should just accept it because he’s a pro sportsman.

The fact is, though, that much-maligned Matt is probably only expressing the views of many players in the EIHL, including those of your favourite club.

I’ve personally had players (and owners) of several clubs rip into their own fanbases repeatedly, violently and often profanely. The simple fact is that all the “best fans in the league” stuff players come out with is often nothing more than manufactured PR fluff.

Some fans in the EIHL seem to think that players are somehow “their” property, and that merely happening to pull on a jersey opens them up to public consumption, obligates them to spend any amount of time having conversations with fans and completely negates any right they have to get away from being a hockey player, being offended by criticism or maybe being a bit peeved when the people they’re risking serious injury every night to entertain decide to hurl abuse at them on social media.

You see it in bars around the country…groups of players huddled in the corner trying to gut their way through another night out while the same, small group of kids and (creepily) middle-aged men try to act like their best friends in some sort of forced social interaction.

Naturally, there are a lot of players who aren’t really happy about this, but they mainly manage to keep themselves going without causing any problem.

However, that surely doesn’t mean that when one player does finally let rip after (by his own account) suffering some pretty horrendous stick from his own fanbase, he should be told to “man up” and “it’s part of the job” by those same fans (who, let’s face it, would probably go absolutely postal if someone turned up and criticised them at their jobs or then decided to follow them away from the ice and send personal messages to be sure the player knew their highly-educated opinion that they were “****”, and then defend it because they “pay their wages” by buying their product.

There’s a line, and in the EIHL and indeed most minor-league hockey it’s crossed increasingly often by fans under the guise of “entitlement”. Suderman’s comments on his fanbase are simply him expressing publicly what players and indeed pretty much anyone else feels-that anyone who feels entitled to send them personal abuse away from the rink is something of an arsehole, and when they’re making a job climate intolerable, eventually there comes a point where you’ve had enough and want to leave that job-a point Suderman (a player, let’s not forget, who’s battled back from illness to play for the Stingrays) clearly reached with the EIHL and its fandom. His comments stating that fact are thus not “moaning”. That’s just a hockey player being human-and is a rare glimpse behind the carefully-managed PR curtain that’s even put up by minor-league hockey players nowadays. Granted, with his subsequent signing for the CHL’s Brampton Beast, he’s potentially weakened his case on the “may retire from hockey” comments he also made to Hull, and the Stingrays management will have a right to feel a little aggrieved.

But as for his comments on the EIHL-he’s only saying in public the frustrations felt by many players about the EIHL and its fanbase. Such frankness shouldn’t be mocked-it should be praised.