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?

 

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