Trading Places: Why It’s Time For UK Hockey To Follow The NA Model-And Why It Won’t

This season, we’ve seen a fair bit of movement around the EIHL. The majority of players have been leaving for contracts in other European or North American leagues, but we’ve also seen a whole bunch of “internal” transfers too-mainly, it appears, between Cardiff and Sheffield, although it’s usual to see one or two players a season move within the EIHL.

Player movement is a regular part of the league, and nine times out of ten they pass without much comment. But the sheer volume of transfer gossip within the EIHL this season, coupled with lots of talk on how to improve the opportunities for young British players, has got me thinking.

Maybe it’s time for the Elite League to adopt a North American template for player movement-but more than that, time to turn the British hockey into a North American system.

To explain how this would work, we first need to look at the current EIHL internal system, which effectively stifles any chance of internal movement or teams being able to improve within a season without using other team’s “cast-offs”.
In order to do so, the transfer I’m going to focus on is an internal one-Chris Blight moving from Cardiff to Sheffield.

Now, the way that UK hockey works, there’s a “gentlemen’s agreement” in place that means clubs can’t approach players from other teams to sign, but in the EIHL there’s also the frankly crazy rule (or at least generally accepted convention) that a player can’t sign for another EIHL club if he leaves through his choice, but can if said player is “released” by a team. So, effectively, players can’t decide to leave one club for another to improve their career/look for more EIHL ice time, even if they’re British. Effectively, this leads to players mouldering away on EIHL benches or having to drop a level to find icetime if clubs want to monopolise UK talent. Which helps nobody.

However, if talk coming out of Cardiff is to be believed, the Devils wanted rid of Blight for several weeks despite him being the leader in assists, and were offering him around to other teams, without his knowledge.

However, under the gentleman’s agreement, no EIHL team would take him until he was released. Which meant that nothing could happen unless the Devils were effectively willing to throw away a player, or sign another, adding needless length to the whole process (and being a pretty crappy way to do business).

Then we have Sheffield, who for some reason thought that Hull wouldn’t say “go away” (or probably something a lot stronger) when approached and asked if their best player Jereme Tendler was available to sign. However, at the same time they had GB international Phil Hill and young talent Aaron Nell sat on the bench barely receiving ice time, to the point Nell left for the EPL, where he’s frankly overmatched to a lot of players and can score for fun, plateauing his improvement.

How many times have we seen a player (Brit or import) develop at a small club and then immediately be poached away by a bigger club the next season? Or British talent (with a few exceptions) being monopolised by the big-spending clubs and dropping to EPL (to be monopolised by the big spenders there) to avoid being reduced to relatively minor roles as the smaller teams struggle to put together enough Brits to compete?

This year we’ve seen imports like Jeff Legue, who many EIHL clubs would give their eye-teeth for, scratched as big clubs use their financial muscle to rotate, and despite the defenders of the EIHL pointing to “increased competitiveness” we’ve still heard talk of the same financial disparities meaning some clubs just can’t sign the players they want to as they’re snapped up to sit in the stands for bigger clubs.

But imagine if, in the Tendler situation above, Sheffield had approached Hull with an offer saying “listen, we want Tendler, Aaron Nell isn’t getting used much here so you can have him in exchange and we’ll also throw in our spare import (say Legue)”.

You’re telling me Hull don’t look at that incredibly seriously?
More to the point, you’re telling me an ability to trade one player for another doesn’t set all sorts of interesting scenarios off in GMs heads around the EIHL?

But let’s take this further. One of the main complaints from many around UK hockey is that even talented youngsters simply can’t get noticed by EIHL squads, and at the age of 18, a career simply stops.

Now imagine if EIHL clubs could have the pick of young talent each year, with the bottom clubs in the EIHL given first chance to pick the top 18-year-old players in Britain, rather than them simply hoping a local top club picks them up?

They have such a system in North America. It’s called “the draft.”

In the UK, this would work similarly. In June each year, the EIHL teams get to choose the top young players in Britain to take into the UK “pro” system. These players become the “property” of a club and are available to play for them if required as part of the EIHL roster. No room on the roster? They are sent on a two-way to play for an EIHL affiliate EPL team, developing in a competitive league and getting regular icetime. After all, the EPL is supposed to be a “development” league, right?

But even more importantly, if you have a “draft pick” you also have the right to trade it.

Now, imagine the following scenario from this season. Coventry are desperate for another x-factor of a player to help them in the playoffs. Edinburgh have nothing to play for, but then Coventry offer them the chance to have the third-best 18-year-old player in the country for next season and beyond, in exchange for the services of Curtis Leinweber for the rest of the season.

Such a trade happens in North America round about this time of year all the time. It’s called a “playoff rental” and it’s seen as a way of a top team getting stronger while giving a weaker team the chance to improve also…often a win-win situation.

Imagine the scrambling right around now if there were an EIHL trade deadline-more to the point, drafts, draft picks and the chance to trade them (couple with a ruling that EIHL teams must have at least 3 u20s in their “system” each season) would ensure that there’s far more focus placed by the EIHL and indeed GB hockey as a whole on a clear pathway for developing the best and brightest UK talent.

The trouble is-it won’t happen. For a system like this to truly work it requires a system which doesn’t put a “false” extra worth on experienced Brits and allows all players to be signed purely on ability (so, no import limit beyond the “five u20’s in the system” stipulation)-which means it’s going to meet resistance from the “more experienced” Brits who can currently leverage their nationality into a roster spot.

It also requires a change to the whole thinking of UK hockey owners and fans, who are notorious for wanting success NOW. North American hockey fandom accepts the concept of a “rebuild” and building young talent through a cohesive and nurturing system because that’s the way they’ve done it. British hockey is tradiotionally the exact opposite-richest team throws money at best players each year and wins.

It would also require a whole change in the notion of contracts. In UK hockey multi-year contracts are rare. For young players they’re non-existent. For the draft to work, “entry-level contracts” have to be introduced (in the NHL they’re usually 3 years long) to enable teams to commit to a player’s development.

Financially, it would require investment many teams don’t have-although perhaps a “central contracts” system similar to that in cricket, but applied only to 18-21 year-olds with players “rights” being held by teams is the way forward. We’re constantly being told UK hockey is getting stronger and stronger financially-why not see teams contribute a fixed amount (say 5% of yearly income) into a Contracts Fund to make this possible?

Would EIHL teams do that? Are there any EIHL owners with the vision or committed enough to the long-term of the sport to push these changes through? Or come to that anyone in the higher echelons of UK hockey full stop who can drive such a revolutionary programme?

The North American system of drafts and trades is battle-tested and has worked to ensure both parity and the path of juniors in the leagues it’s used in in a way few can match. North American hockey players in particular accept it as a part of life-given the right conditions, it could work in Britain too, adding fan excitement, variety and a genuine new element both to UK hockey itself and the chance for youngsters to truly see a supported route to the top of UK hockey, competing with the best they can.

The problem is, it requires a bold vision and decisiveness to initiate the change.

The question is, would British hockey ever be brave enough to try it, or would any attempt to do so die like so many otherto improve the UK game have, in a swamp of self interest, inter-league wrangling and lack of committed action?

Sadly, right now, the answer to those two questions is probably “no” and “yes”.


Educating Simmsey: Women’s Hockey, The Olympics and Why UK Views Need To Change

As the Winter Olympics rumbles on, many in the UK, like everywhere else in the world, have been glued to the coverage of hockey-and amongst them many more are discovering the wonders of women’s hockey, and being seduced into looking at hockey in a new way by the skill, speed and passion of players like the US’s Amanda Kessel, the deadly scoring of Canada’s Meghan Agosta and the sheer bloody magnificence of Finland’s incomparable netminder Noora Raty.

Women’s hockey at the top level is one of the sports best-kept secrets. Blighted in the past by a perceived lack of competitiveness (it’s dominated, as one would expect, by the US and Canada, although European nations are slowly closing the gap year-on-year) and plain old-fashioned sexist views, it’s struggled to gain an audience in a male-dominated sport. Even at these Olympics, some are saying that women’s hockey “doesn’t deserve” its place.

Those views, sadly, were echoed last night in Britain by prominent UK hockey voice Dave Simms, who roused the ire of…well, just about everybody by telling the UK hockey world world that “women’s hockey doesn’t count”, before deciding to respond to the storm by comparing Olympic women’s hockey to rec hockey and saying he’d prefer to concentrate on Britain producing (presumably male) professionals.

Predictably, the response on Twitter was both instant and hilarious. Firstly, Finland goalie, Olympian and possibly best female player in the world Noora Raty came up with this stinging putdown, after being asked what she thought by Bristol Pitbulls player and proud Finn Janne Virtanen:

Janne Virtanen     ‏@Amateur_hockey                       19h

I’d like to know what someone like @Nooraty41 would say if someone said to her “women’s hockey doesn’t count” @Simmsey

 Noora Räty     ‏@Nooraty41                       19h 

This was then followed by an absolute masterpiece of quiet fury from Canada’s “First Lady of the EIHL” Ashley March, which you can read here.

Dave Simms often tells people that as a (now former) TV pundit and “voice of the sport” he knows more than us in the UK. Indeed, he makes a big thing of “educating” fans. So, in the spirit of the thing, Chasing Dragons thought we’d educate him on why the views he and those of his ilk holds are spectacularly wrong, both for women’s hockey in general and, more importantly, that in the UK.

Let’s start with Olympic hockey. And indeed with Noora Raty herself-a 24-year-old who currently holds all sorts of records, including gaining 17 shutouts in 38 games and finishing a season with a GAA of less than one (0.96)  in her final NCAA season. (for comparison, the best GAA in the EIHL this season is 2.31).

Then, of course, she can do things like this…

For those of you (remaining nameless) who may not be sure what you’re watching-as excellent women’s hockey blog The Pink Puck points out in this superb profile of Raty, this save is effectively not one, but two-Raty’s taken the fake and is expecting a shot high glove-side, yet STILL  has enough control over her body while sliding to make a pad save on the opposite side. SHE’S LOOKING THE WRONG WAY AS SHE STOPS IT. That is an ability most NHL goalies would kill for, never mind those in the UK leagues. And this is the kind of thing she does all the time.

(oh, by the way, Dave and others of your ilk, Raty is without a club next year. Tell me you wouldn’t want a goalie who can make saves like that in net for you because “her saves don’t count because girls are shooting” and I’ll tell you you’re lying).

Combine that with the incredible skill being shown by the likes of Kessel, Agosta and Swiss goalie Florence Schelling to name but three, and watch the footage of the several USA/Canada bench brawls over the past few months, and tomorrow’s gold-medal and bronze-medal games are appointment viewing. Then remember they’re doing this on no money, even in the “pro leagues” in North America, despite training just as hard as the “male pros” Simms so desperately wants to develop.

Speaking of appointments-Britain will have a representative at tomorrow’s Olympic final. Joy Johnston, a British official who has spent many years officiating as both linesman and referee in the British league as well as women’s world championships, has been given the honour of holding the whistle for the Olympic final. In the world of officiating, you probably can’t get any higher. This is a tremendous tribute to Joy and her work. But apparently, because it’s women’s hockey, the achievement of a British official who has worked incredibly hard in her spare time for years to become the best of her kind in the world “doesn’t count”, according to Dave and those who share his view. That’s more than just uneducated-it’s insulting.

But there’s more, Dave. I’ve not even begun. Let’s talk about British hockey, shall we-that hockey you claim to be so educated on?

Currently, the IIHF rankings have British women ranked four places higher than the men (18 as opposed to 22nd). Despite there being four male players for every girl in the UK, the women are competing only one division below the equivalent men, and in terms of ranking, the women are outperforming the men at every equivalent level.

Over the past six years, the GB senior women have finished higher than the men in their respective World Championship ranking every season-an average of three or four places higher, in fact. Currently, the U18 women are playing in a higher division than their male counterparts.

And they’re doing all of this on even less funding than GB men, training at midnight and travelling all over the country (the GB U18’s train at midnight in Coventry, with many of them making three or four hour trips).

Women’s hockey is neither as glitzy, well-funded or indeed popular as men’s. It faces a constant uphill fight for credibility. Comments like “women’s hockey doesn’t count” from those who are considered influential by many in the UK echo those made by some in North America-they simply show just what a battle it faces for acceptance.

But when you put comments like that up against the sight of Noora Raty stopping all comers in an Olympic tournament, the blinding displays of skill and speed by the likes of US and Canada, and even simple facts like those mentioned above, comments like Simms’ last night are shown up for the outdated, outmoded rubbish they truly are, even in this relatively minor hockey nation. And the response from UK hockey fans last night shows that the fans’ views have been and are continuing to be changed by the incredible spectacle of women’s Olympic hockey.

The women who play hockey deserve to be recognised for the stars they are. And some need to learn that it’s not gender that determines whether a sport “counts”-it’s the effort of the people who play it.

In that respect, as anyone who’s watched a single second of the Olympics will tell Dave Simms and his fellow women’s hockey bashers, the women’s game “counts” for everything.

It’s time to embrace the revolution.

Fallen Idol: Big Doug Gets Dumped In Sheffield

This is not a good week if you’re an EIHL coach.
After Coventry cut the strings on Matt Soderstrom’s time in Coventry, it didn’t seem like there’d be much to match that in the EIHL news stakes this week.
But, never ones to shun the limelight, the Sheffield Steelers have turned this week into full-scale coach carnage in the EIHL, summarily sacking Doug Christiansen after his Steelers team suffered a 5-3 defeat to bitter rivals Nottingham last night in the first leg of the Challenge Cup semi-final.

The sacking comes only nine months into a two year contract, with the Steelers sitting third in the EIHL, still with a chance of two trophies and with a legitimate chance of second…

It also comes in the wake of a preseason hype machine that boasted of the Steelers having all the resources they needed, “the best coach in the EIHL” and a plan to overturn the rest of the league.

Christiansen was under pressure from the start as a result of the hype on his signing, but his team of expensively-assembled players, while obtaining wins against all teams this season, just hasn’t been as consistent as the all-conquering Belfast Giants.

While Christiansen has been criticised for his defensive, rigidly system-oriented approach which has seen many wonder if his players are being utilised properly, he has been placed in a situation where there was truly no room for error.

From the start of the season, the high expectations, high budget and occasional ill-judged pronouncement of the Sheffield management have been hanging over him like British hockey’s version of the sword of Damocles by the thread of fan/owner opinion, ready to fall and sever the kill him off at a moment’s notice.

On Thursday, that thread finally broke.

I referred to the Coventry coaching job as a “poisoned chalice” when Matt Soderstrom was fired. Working in Sheffield, it appears, is the hockey equivalent of bomb disposal. Do well, and you’re a hero feted by all. Do badly, make the slightest wrong move (or in the case of Ryan Finnerty cut the wrong player) and you’re destroyed in an eyeblink.

However, the “spin” has already begun in Sheffield, with the Sheffield Star hinting that players were “unhappy with the coaches style” & “wanted a little more freedom”. Owner Tony Smith said in an interview on BBC Sheffield last night that “this is a results driven business”-a curious justification given that Sheffield are third in the table and still in with a chance of two trophies. Interestingly, in his interview Smith made great reference to the fans of Sheffield and the “Sheffield way” of playing, implying that Christiansen was a thinker more than the kind of blood-and-thunder coach that Sheffield fans liked to see.

Certainly this is a comment that has been repeated often on Sheffield fan forums throughout the season, but it is interesting to compare the Steelers with their rivals from Nottingham in this respect. Nottingham coach Corey Neilson suffered many of the same criticisms in his first season as Christiansen did as he tried to bring a new style to the club, with many fans calling for his head. The Panthers ownership persevered with him for three seasons with no trophies-and have been rewarded with eight in the last three as a result.

Sheffield, meanwhile, have pulled the trigger on three coaches in four years. In the same span, they’ve won only one title (the league in 2010/11) and nothing in the last three. Tony Smith has made several pronouncements this season that have come back to bite him, both in the preseason hype and in predicting (when the Giants were a mere ten points ahead in the league standings, not twenty-three) that the Giants “weren’t mentally strong enough” to stay ahead of the Steelers.

Tony Smith has been saying that this is “not a knee jerk reaction” and he’s been unhappy with the team’s performance for some time-which might also have some relevance in Marc Lefebvre leaving for Coventry-did the Ontarian jump from a sinking ship?

Either way, the Steelers now have captain Steven Goertzen in the hot seat for the remainder of the season, which is a very good interim appointment-Goertzen is respected by both players and fans and is a safe pair of hands to steady this ship.

With the league title all but gone, though, it will be a tricky task for Goertzen-especially as the expectations of the owner no doubt remain high. Another trophyless season for Sheffield will not be taken well in South Yorkshire, and whoever comes in will have to have a broad back-there will be a whole lot of pressure put upon it from the off.

Passing The Poisoned Chalice: Blaze Make Coaching Changes

“The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
Frederic Bastiat

“”Compromise”? The damned use that word in hell”

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, s.II

Today the Matty Soderstrom Era in Coventry, which started with a mix of optimism and confusion, ends in acrimony and disappointment. The Blaze announced this morning that they’ve relieved the Swede of his duties, to be replaced by Sheffield Steelers assistant coach (and former Blaze player) Marc Lefebvre.

Blaze chairman Andy Buxton says in the release that this was a “necessary change” and that “The players all have to take a good look at themselves now as they will all be playing not only for potential contracts next season but also keeping their contracts until the end of this season. It’s up to them because we will be backing the new coach.”

While it can’t be denied that Blaze have made every effort to back Soderstrom this season on the playing side of things, and his team have not performed to the expectations that either he, the Blaze ownership or indeed the players themselves would have had at the start of the season, you have to feel sorry for the departing coach.

Soderstrom was handed a poisoned chalice from the start for his first head-coaching job…coming in to follow a team fallen on relatively lean times as a legendary coach finally cut ties and made the move on to new challenges three seasons after his last trophy, and then left to labour in the massive shadow of Paul Thompson. From the earliest press release, where it was made clear that the departing coach would “advise on recruitment” Soderstrom had to somehow stamp his own identity on the team under the perception in the fanbase (justified or not) that he was a compromise appointment, only keeping the seat warm for a possible Paul Thompson return. He also had to fight against a fanbase angry that the opportunity for a break away from the “country club” atmosphere many had criticised and the arrival of fresh ideas from a coach new to the club and the EIHL had not been taken, in favour of the “safe” view.

A nightmarish offseason that saw Blaze’s projected number-one D Mike Schutte pull out of a contract after being offered opportunities off-ice and the (thankfully now beaten) health problems of projected captain Mike Egener didn’t help matters, but despite this the first month of the season went well for the Blaze-there was optimism around the Skydome.

Then, the rot set in. Injuries began to bite, but even the healthy players weren’t playing quite as they were expected to. Big name signings brought in over the summer were put to shame by those playing through injury and still trying to play the same game they were used to despite the physical risk.

Week after week we saw Soderstrom quietly trying to change things on the bench, while stronger personalities appeared to take the lead and the dissatisfaction of the fans grew louder and louder. Promises were made by both coach and player after player that “it was time for accountability” and “time to build some momentum” after each win, but it never really happened.

Soderstrom looked like a haunted man, under pressure and marginalised by his team on the bench and with a group of players who seemed either not to be being coached or, if they were, who appeared to be simply unable or unwilling to put that coaching into practice at times.

The defining games of Soderstrom’s reign all came at the Skydome-firstly a third-period capitulation against Fife which saw the Flyers gleefully rip a lazy and uninterested opposition to shreds and score five unanswered goals to turn a 4-2 deficit into a 7-4 win. The second was more of the same-a 3-0 lead against Nottingham became a 5-3 loss as the Panthers simply stepped up a gear or two and the Blaze, for whatever reason, waved them by like a Model T being overtaken by a Ferrari. And finally, the horrendous first twenty minutes and nineteen seconds of Sheffield’s last visit tot the Skydome, which saw the Steelers rattle in six unanswered goals. To give credit to Blaze, they fought back hard in that one, scoring four, but as with many games this season, by the time the Blaze team turned up as a whole, the game was lost.

Sunday’s 5-1 thumping by Sheffield was seemingly the final straw, in a performance called “listless, uninterested, and unworthy of the jersey” by fans who made the trip.

Granted, as a rookie coach, Soderstrom made mistakes. But the Blaze players will have looked in the mirror this morning as they prepared for the first practice without him and several will doubtless have thought “there but for the grace of God go I”-as their failure to perform on the ice has finally cost their coach his job.

And so we move to the Marc Lefebvre era. “Furby” comes to the Blaze with a little more coaching experience than his predecessor-he was an All-Star coach in the Federal Hockey League (a league at the third-tier of North American pro-hockey, based in the Northeastern US and currently with four teams) and a half-season as assistant coach of the Sheffield Steelers. It’s not much of a résumé compared to some other EIHL coaches, but it’s experience that will likely stand him in good stead in his new role.

Lefebvre is already saying all the right things after his first practice today, saying that “players have to earn the right to be here. If they don’t perform, they’re out”. With knowledge of the league and a contract which (for now) only runs until the end of the season, the 31-year-old from Kanata, Ontario is, right now, a safe pair of hands from now until April, with the added motivation of going after his own contract for next season. This, for him, is a massive chance.

However, it’s also a massive challenge. Lefebvre comes into a team who appear to have lost confidence in themselves and their previous coach. Off ice, he’ll have to cope with winning over a disillusioned fanbase and struggling for league position, with players that aren’t his own. He will realise that he has to put his stamp on the team quickly and make any tactical changes even quicker. Lefebvre’s first game on Thursday against a team who have won seven on the bounce and look a different group since bringing in Dave Whistle as interim coach.

More to the point, if the new coach does want to make changes he doesn’t have long to do it, with the IIHF signing deadline only a week or two away, 15 games remaining in the season, and pressure growing on the Blaze both internally (from the fanbase) and externally (with Fife desperately trying to sneak that last playoff spot).

It’s a big ask for an experienced coach, never mind someone in only his third season of coaching and stepping up a level as he tries to earn himself a role beyond the end of this season. And he has to carry the hopes of a notoriously demanding fanbase-one that’s already broken one rookie coach this season-on his back while doing so.

Talk about being handed one heck of a poisoned chalice-this one, in coaching terms, is more like a pint pot of cyanide.

The very best of luck to Marc Lefebvre. He may need it.