Scouting Report: Nottingham Panthers’ CHL Opponents.

The Champions Hockey League draw has been made this morning, and it will see Nottingham Panthers left to travel on a whistle-stop tour of Northern Europe, playing Germany’s Hamburg Freezers, Sweden’s Lulea HK, and Finland’s Lukko Rauma.

While the Panthers aren’t getting the true “top tier” of European hockey at the moment, (none of the teams they will face are national champions) are getting several of the better teams in their leagues…Lulea have played in the Swedish Elite League since 1984, while Lukko Rauma (Rauma Locks-well, nobody said Finnish names were that good) are a team even older than the Panthers, having been around since 1936. Hamburg, too, are one of the richer teams in the DEL and have counted several NHLers amongst their roster in the past.

So, for those curious, here’s a lowdown on the three teams.

LULEA HF (SWEDEN)

Colours: Red, white, yellow, black

Home Arena: Coop Arena (The Dolphin), Lulea, 6,300

Formed: 1979

Domestic titles: 0

2013/14 finish: 5th.

Lulea are probably not the “glamour” team in Panthers’ group (none are true European “glamour teams” in fact-the closest to one are probably the Hamburg Freezers) but they are a very useful one.

The northernmost team in Sweden, they finished 5th last year and already have most of their roster built for next season with a mix of experienced native players, a few Canadians and youngsters coming through. Few of the names will be massively familiar to those outside Sweden, but they have picked up former Edmonton Oiler Lennart Petrell (95 NHL games and 376 in Finland’s top league among others) this off season. Other names to look out for include Mark Owuya in net (possibly the world’s only “rapping goalie” with his “Mark In Da Park” alter ego that was a source of much amusement in his time in North America) and veteran Per Ledin, as well as the Abbott brothers, Chris and Cam. Like all the teams in the CHL, they’ll probably provide one hell of a test for the Panthers, and certainly the trickiest travel…Lulea is a ten-hour drive, eleven hour train ride or ninety-minute flight from Stockholm. It’s also the centre of Sweden’s lace industry historically, so it has that in common with Nottingham.

LUKKO RAUMA (FINLAND)

Colours: white, blue, yellow

Home Arena: Kivikylan Areena, Rauma (5,400)

Formed: 1936

Titles: 1

2013/14 finish: 3rd

You know the Panthers go on about their “history” and being formed in 1945? Lukko have nine more years, having been in existence since 1936. Lukko is Finnish for “locks” (well, no-one said the names had to make sense) and they boast a proud list of NHL alumni, including former Manchester Storm star Janne Niskala and current Chicago Blackhawks goalie Antti Raanta.

Their current roster is almost exclusively Finnish, aside for one American in career ECHLer Ryan Zapolski in net. Players to look out for include the explosive Toni Koivisto and experienced goalscorer Ville Vahalahti.

Rauma is another tricky travel trip-four hours from Helsinki by road, or an hour’s flight to Pori airport from Helsinki, followed by another 45 minute drive. They don’t make the trip easy, these Scandinavian teams. As for trains…forget it. Rauma has no passenger service, and again Pori is the nearest option…4 hours from Helsinki via Tampere. But the old town is beautiful, and well worth a trip.

HAMBURG FREEZERS (GERMANY)

Formed: 1999 (as Munich Barons, moved to Hamburg in 2002)

Colours: Light Blue, Navy, Gray and White

Home Arena: O2 World, Hamburg (12,947)

Titles: 0

2013/14 finish: 1st in league, lost in semis of POs

Hamburg are without doubt the “glamour team” of this group-the biggest arena, the most expensive players (there’s 1215 games of NHL experience on the roster the Panthers will be facing) and probably the team who’ll be most hopeful of progressing. The Freezers dominated the league season of the DEL last year, amassing 102 points on their way to a regular-season 1st place finish before being beaten by eventual PO winners and fellow Champions Hockey League competitors EHC Ingolstadt in the semis.

Their roster is full of names that will be familiar to avid NHL and Euro hockey watchers-from former Pittsburgh Penguin Sebastian Caron and German international Dimitrij Kostchnew in net, former NHLers Duvie Westcott (Columbus), Mathieu Roy (Edmonton) and German international Christoph Schubert (Ottawa) on defence and a forward corps containing former Washington Capital Matt Pettinger amongst a host of very skilled European and Canadian players, including top scorer and German international Jerome Flaake. Hamburg are a very, very good team indeed, and will likely provide the toughest test for the Panthers in a group that will see them as very, very much the underdogs.

From personal experience, Hamburg itself is a wonderful place to visit-one of the largest ports in Europe and with nightlife that’s world-famous, particularly the slightly sleazy delights of the Reeperbahn and its assorted areas. It’ll probably be the highlight of the campaign for Panthers fans both on the ice and off it. Just watch your wallets (and the bodily organs close to them) if you go down the wrong street in St.Pauli, lads and lasses…

So, there you are. A brief guide to the three teams Nottingham will be facing in the CHL. Now, we’ll see how the adventure plays out.

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Filthy Lucre, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Start Spending: The EIHL Off-Season So Far

Money is the anthem/Of success, so before we go out, what’s your address?”

Lana Del Rey: “National Anthem”

It may have been a quiet few weeks on Chasing Dragons (real life has well and truly got in the way, so for the two people who may actually have missed the posts, I apologize :)), but in British hockey we’ve seen all hell break loose. And as usual, pounds, shillings and pence has never been far away from the agenda-and once again, money is being thrown around UK hockey. This is happening, depending on who you support/believe, because your team is preparing to face some of the best in Europe (Nottingham) is after a top Brit but they all want too much money (Braehead et al, in one attempt to defend the rise of EIHL import numbers from 10 to 13 over the next three years, including three EU-passport holders, which was dealt with in the last post), British players deciding to drop a league for a chance to work outside of the game/for family/more ice-time and pay in the EPL (see Danny Meyers from Sheffield, Tom Norton from Nottingham and Sam Zajac/Matt Towe from Braehead so far-apply your own reason to each one), or, in a more optimistic view, because teams have more spending power and are better able to throw money around at better-quality players.

But, strangely, it’s not quite the usual suspects throwing it around. After responding to the rise in imports with the defence that the Clan were having trouble attracting top British players due to a combination of wages and players not wanting to relocate, the Braehead management have gone for an early statement of intent this off-season, signing up four players, including young British defensive prospect Zach Sullivan. However, the biggest signing they’ve made so far is, ironically, the very “top Brit” they said they were struggling to attract.

Ben Davies has been lured away from Cardiff to the Clan with the promise of more ice-time, more money and, very likely, of a more stable environment than he’d receive at Cardiff-indeed people around the league say that Davies was telling all EIHL teams exactly what he wanted to come and sign for them this off-season, which implies at the very least that he wanted out of the Devils situation quickly. He’s believed to be on a wage in excess of £600 a week at the Clan (certainly that’s what reports had him asking for when contacting other teams, which is a good chunk of money for a 23-year-old developing Brit, but could turn out to be a bargain in the future.

Meanwhile, Coventry have also been signalling their early intent, raiding the struggling Devils for shot-blocking defenceman and Cardiff fan favourite Mark Smith. Smith was rumoured to be one of several players unhappy in Cardiff over issues with the ownership and their treatment of players, and we’ve seen the Blaze take advantage to get a shot-blocking stay-at-home defenceman that was conspicuously absent from their roster last season.

However, the Blaze topped that a few days later and at the same time made a statement of serious financial commitment, tempting playoff-winning captain and possibly the EIHL’s most hard-working player away from Sheffield as they surprised the EIHL with the signing of Steven Goertzen.

This signing, like the Smith one, was greeted by sadness from the leaving team and immense pleasure from those in Coventry, although it very quickly saw Steelers fans asking just how Gerad Adams had let his playoff-winning captain depart.

Talk around the league has Sheffield not offering Goertzen a contract, not because they didn’t want to, but because coach Gerad Adams has had a restructured budget this year that means he simply can’t afford to continue the near-four-figure weekly wage of their captain, and decided that it was fairer to Goertzen to allow him to seek new opportunities rather than offer a potentially demotivating sharp pay cut.

The Blaze, desperate for an “impact” signing early on, were more than willing to stump up the difference-a near-four-figure wage for a player who “only” scored 12 goals and 38 points last year seems steep, but anyone who’s seen the Canadian play will agree that he earnt every single penny of his money last season.

While teams on the bubble like Braehead and Coventry have been splashing the cash around on impact new recruits, we’ve seen Belfast and Nottingham adopt the more conservative strategy of simply locking up their key players early on-the Panthers have locked up Rob Lachowicz while the Giants have been re-signing the likes of Daryl Lloyd and Adam Keefe under new Director of Hockey Steve Thornton.

Curiously, though, Sheffield are holding their financial cards close to their chest-letting Danny Meyers go and so far “only” going after the returning Rod Sarich as a “new” player…hardly a big-money response-the cut budget for the PO captain implies that Gerad Adams is already looking elsewhere-perhaps to former Cardiff players like Tylor Michel or even Stuart MacRae to back up the “marquee” signing/return of Rob Dowd. Meanwhile, Fife are making a strong signing in Kevin Regan as they, too, stick to what they know.

Cardiff, meanwhile, have already lost the momentum gained by the signing of GB goalie Ben Bowns from Hull, and with the loss of two fan favourites in Smith and Davies, they need to start seeing players coming in through the door rather than out to keep the restive natives quiet. Rumours of unpaid bills to players, suppliers and now the bank aren’t helping their cause.

So far, though, the main theme of this off-season as described above seems to be “money”. Particularly in the way it’s being spent by supposed “smaller” teams looking to break into the arena team bracket. Coventry in particular are already giving the lie to their “small team who simply can’t compete financially with arena teams” protestations.

Of course, it’s only mid-May, so there is plenty of time for the “big” clubs to start using their financial muscle, if they’re not doing so already. But it’s clear that Marc Lefebvre is aware of the need to convince Blaze fans of his mission early-a mission that will only be more crucial since he was chosen by the management for the Blaze job ahead of other potentially more illustrious/”name” candidates such as former Blaze player and current Fife assistant Danny Stewart and the fast-rising former Swindon Wildcats and current GB U-20 Pete Russell for the Blaze job this season. Ryan Finnerty, too, is wasting no time building on his word in Glasgow last year and clearly looking to take Braehead up from the pack of bridesmaid teams to genuine title challengers.

The theme so far this offseason is of “chaser” teams in the EIHL openly loosening the purse strings and searching for statement signings early as they attempt to either rebound from a disastrous season (in Coventry’s case) or take another step forward (Braehead). Now the question is, with the pursuing teams openly stating their intention of catching up, how will the “big three” of Sheffield, Nottingham and Belfast react, particularly with the Panthers also having a Champions Hockey League campaign to plan for?

The EIHL off-season has already started off intriguingly. It’s only going to get more so as we move further into the summer, but the big question already is just how loose the purse strings in the “chasing” teams may get, and whether or not this will spark another EIHL arms race…

Road To Nowhere: On Brits, Imports, And Widening Chasms

The EIHL have sent another earthquake through British hockey this week, with news that the import limit will be raised progressively over the next few years to allow thirteen non British players in three seasons’ time, up from the eleven currently. The rule will see EIHL clubs allowed ten “work-permit” (non-EU, which to all intents and purposes means North American) players, and a rising number of EU passport holders, from one next season to three in three seasons’ time. The EIHL have seemed to put the blame squarely on a “lack of required-quality British players” on the move in their press release.

This, predictably, has been greeted with a storm of debate amongst British hockey figures on Twitter, with British players united in their condemnation of the move, fans split between the “we just want to watch hockey” and “this will screw over our national team” camps, and, predictably, EIHL figures trying to make a spirited defence of the move and claiming that they had “no choice”-indeed even saying that things could be far worse due to EU law effectively making putting a “quota” on EU passport holders working in any industry in the UK illegal.

However, what this move has brought into sharp focus is the simple fact-the British hockey system for development of home-grown players, and indeed the EIHL’s stated aim to “develop and promote British talent at the highest level possible” has failed. We’re in a position now and launched on a road where, if the game in the United Kingdom doesn’t react, then from an international perspective, UK ice hockey, at least at senior men’s level, is on a road to nowhere and accelerating.

As expected, practically everyone has weighed in with their view on this, but again and again, the same questions have come up-and here, Chasing Dragons attempts to summarise them.

1. It’s a given fact that EU law prevents any restriction of employment for EU citizens-and that the law rules that EU citizens/passport holders wanting to work in Britain should have no barriers to employment. Indeed, many EIHL figures are citing said law as the reason for this change. In which case, how on earth is practically every pro league in Europe (including the EIHL, still) blatantly managing to break it? 

The EIHL says that it’s attempting to “protect” British players by still allowing a quota on both imports and EU players. Which is very laudable, if taken on face value and makes sense. However, how is the league comfortable attempting to use EU law “forcing” them into this change as a justification even though they’re stll flagrantly breaking it by protecting British players? 

If any attempt to “protect” British players is breaking EU law, why not just come out and effectively say “right, we’re abolishing EU import limits full stop…because essentially any attempt to enforce them except on non-EU players is illegal and if we’re challenged on it, the league and clubs die”? Yes, it will hurt. Yes, there will still be criticism. But at least that way, the change is going to be seen as inevitable and needing to be made to survive.

2. OK-so we’re now working from the presumption/point that this change HAD to be made to get closer to complying with EU law. But why did the EIHL feel the need to blame “the lack of British talent” specifically in their PR? Does that not basically say “Brits-with a few exceptions, they’re not good enough for our league-sod ’em?”

Here’s the very first line of the quote from Tony Smith, EIHL chairman, on the reasons for the change:

“The league agreed that there is a shortage of top-level British players, which keeps the Elite League from being outstanding across the 10 teams.”

That, basically, is “there aren’t enough British players to keep people from thinking the EIHL is crap if we use them at the current level”.

Or, put it another way “at the moment, some of the British players in the EIHL are just too crap for the standard we want”.

Now, you could get into a whole debate on whether or not that’s true. But openly coming out and saying “our native -born players are holding the league back, so we’re going reduce them”? That’s….jesus. That’s not so much a slap in the face for British players currently working hard both in and to get into the EIHL as a shotgun blast of derision.

If the EIHL had followed this up with “The EIHL accepts the need to develop Brits and is looking at ways to form partnerships with junior development” (as Braehead Clan’s Gareth Chalmers was very careful to state, almost word-for-word, on Twitter last night”, then you can bet that there would have been far less vitriol because it would at least have shown a PLAN to develop the native game, of which this is a step along the road. But there is no evidence of that plan, anywhere. Why not?

3. If developing British players is such a big problem-then where the heck is the EIHL’s efforts to come up with a strategy to do so?

No-one is denying that GB players need to be developed better. But by cutting off , the EIHL is effectively saying to the rest of British hockey “we’re only interested in ourselves as a product. Yours is the developmental role, then we take.”

It’s all very well saying that “there’s not enough British talent”. But how many EIHL clubs up until now are we seeing actively pursuing a policy of junior development in the same way we do in North America? There are “good” junior development schemes and “bad” junior development schemes all over the country, and to be absolutely fair to the EIHL clubs, more and more are at least recognising the need for internal development and attempting to put localised schemes in place but there appears to be no attempt to put a coherent plan in place to improve the product (British players in EIHL hockey)  from the bottom up-creating a pipeline from bottom to top. Indeed, Jamie Black tweeted last night that “the only way British hockey will improve is from the top down.”

That might be the case if there were already active progression or a clear progression path through the levels-after all, in North America we’re seeing juniors forced to improve at every level as they constantly have a goal in sight-first to be drafted, then to cement their place in the AHL, then get up to the NHL, then stay there.

In the EIHL, that path simply isn’t there. To play in the EIHL as a Brit, youngsters are competing for a job that will likely be lower paid than other alternatives such as the EPL, see them receive less ice-time, and probably be jettisoned after one or two seasons. By this reckooning, the EIHL has now put itself in a position where there’s a lack of British talent at the top level of the British game simply because other levels are providing a much more comfortable living. While the EIHL improves in standard, the international team plateaus largely at the level of whoever happens to be the top Brit in the EPL at any given moment.

If fans of team GB thought that an increase in imports wouldn’t see EIHL teams increasingly rely on them over young Brits, then the development problems wouldn’t be an issue.

4. Defenders are keen to state that this will see EU players treated the same as Brits, and open up the market equally to teams. The spirit of the rule is to comply with EU law. But where’s the assurance that this rule won’t simply see the EIHL gap between rich and poor widen, and a rise in North American “stars” coming in as loopholes are exploited?

The key motivation for this question comes from the wording of the EIHL rule, which doesn’t state “EU citizens” but “players with EU passports” for the “new” imports. This opens the floodgates for dual-national North Americans to be brought in by teams-as long as they have EU nationality. Effectively, it means that, under the new rules, there are a number of North Americans who effectively get a “free” place-if a team wants to, next year it can still sign eleven Canadians even though the limit for “non-EU” players is dropping to ten, provided one has an EU passport.

It’s perhaps best to look at this with an example.

Player X is a Canadian player who is Canadian-born, has spent most of his career in the AHL, but has played the last four years in the EIHL. He signs for an EIHL team again this season, with a view to gain the right to a British passport at the end of the season. Under the 10+1 import rule, he counts as a “non-EU” player, and thus only leaves his team with 9 other North American players and one European.

But-next year, let’s say that the team want to resign X, but also an ECHL star they’ve brought over as one of their “other” non-work permit players (Player Y) & the European-born star Player Z they’ve picked up the year before as their “EU” player. Without the increasing level of EU passport players in the rules, the team would have to make a tough choice between X and Y, losing one of them.  Now, despite still being North American, X has dual nationality. Now, he can take an  EU import slot and count as one of the teams’ “EU players”-leaving the team free to keep both Y and Z if they wish  without having to worry about releasing one, as they would have under the old rules.

This season, had the increase been implemented, it would have seen seen players like Calvin Elfring and Dustin Whitecotton potentially count as “EU” imports next season, as well as dual-nationals like Jeff Hutchins. With the increasing number of imports sticking around in Europe, that recruitment pool is only going to grow

What’s to stop the big teams from deciding to exploit the loophole now open to keep their top NA stars, while smaller clubs have to hunt around for European bargain-basement gems every season?

This rule may have been written in the spirit of complying with EU employment law, but it may simply see more North Americans in the EIHL.

5. So where the heck do we go from here?

The simple fact is, no-one knows. There are arguments that say this rule will push British players even harder and motivate them to succeed-although the overwhelming rhetoric of “broken dreams”, “turning their backs” and in the case of Ben O’Connor openly calling his home country’s hockey program a “joke” shows us that British players themselves have not reacted well to the changes. Will this see more players following Matt Towe and Sam Zajac away from the EIHL to the EPL or (ideally) going abroad to chase their dreams? Or will it see GB players sidelined aside from a select few as the EIHL moves further away from any effort to develop native talent and there’s no change below, as appears to be the fear of many?

Either way, it’s going to be an interesting few years. If the EIHL can survive and team GB improve, then maybe the majority of players and fans are wrong. But if the EIHL survives at the cost of another generation of talented young British players, is that worth it for the sport in the UK?