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”.