EIHL 14/15 Team By Team Preview 8: Dundee Stars: Ready To Shine

But we’ve been sweating while you slept so calm,
In the safety of your home.
We’ve been pulling out the nails that hold up
Everything you’ve known.”

Rise Against: “Prayer Of The Refugee”

INTRODUCTION

The Dundee Stars are another example of Scotland’s return to ice hockey prominence in the EIHL. Their story, along with Fife and Braehead in the EIHL, are clear examples of what can happen when a team builds itself slowly, learns from mistakes and became better and better each year. Last season they surprised the EIHL by riding a hot goalie (Dan Bakala) and some excellent team play to a Gardiner Conference win, although they disappointed a little in the playoffs as they ran into the juggernauts of Fife, who were almost unstoppable in the final month of the regular season and playoff quarter-finals.

This year, after last year’s Conference title, Jeff Hutchins has been forced to rebuild his squad once again as key players like Nico Sacchetti and Rory Rawlyk have been poached by squads offering more riches and promises of silverware. But he has done. Let’s have a look at the 14/15 Stars as they prepare to rise:

GOALIES

#39 Marc Cheverie, #31 Craig Holland

After Dan Bakala left for pastures knew, there must have been some wondering how the Stars would manage to find a goalie of equal calibre in a tricky market. In Marc Cheverie (brother of longtime EIHL stalwart and current Belfast forward Evan) Jeff Hutchins may well have done so-the 27-year-old Nova Scotian is a proven ECHL-level goalie coming into the prime of his career at 27, and has stats equal to or better than more-heralded signings like Coventry’s Brian Stewart. On paper alone, he’s an idea replacement for the highly impressive Bakala and has a good chance of being among the top goalies in the EIHL next season.

Backing him up is the “Sheepdog” Craig Holland, making the move up from Edinburgh. It’s an interesting move for the young Scot-he’ll very much play second fiddle to Cheverie but should get some excellent experience once again..

DEFENCE

(players on PS try-out contracts in italics)

#3 Ziga Svete, #19 Sam McCluskey, #20 Brad Plumton, #23 Paul Swindlehurst, #27 Kevin Quick, #37 Sam Waller, #51 Jan Markelj, #64 Robbie Hill

The Stars defence is a tricky one to figure, simply because it, by Jeff Hutchins’ own admission, won’t be complete until after pre-season. Let’s look at the players we do know are permanent signings first of all. In Sam McCluskey and Paul Swindlehurst the Stars have two of the best young up-and-coming British d-men in the EIHL..McCluskey is a steady, calm player and Swindlehurst stepped up from the EPL last year and instantly became a hit, playing like a player beyond his tender years. This year, they’re going to be joined by two no-nonsense import defencemen…Brad Plumton was popular in Cardiff last season with his solid physical play and willingness to block shots, and Kevin Quick joins from a career which has seen him play 6 times in the NHL and nearly 200 AHL games by the age of 26 as well as be an ECHL captain in South Carolina…an impressive resumé and a sign that Dundee are really out to make waves once again this year. Hows rever, behind those four it gets a little bit confused for now…Hutchins has said there is likely at least one more import spot to be battled for in PS and Slovenians Ziga Svete (ex of Cardiff) and youngster Jan Markelj will be the ones fighting for that spot…Svete is possibly slightly ahead due to his previous EIHL experience, but the 29-year-old and the 23-year-old Markelj may well be fighting for a “third pair” or “fifth D” spot based on the players ahead of them. Young British players Sam Waller and local lad Robbie Hill round out the group-again, these are likely going to be depth defencemen at best.

FORWARDS

#10 Shane Lust, #’12 Lewis McIntosh, #13 Jade Galbraith, #16 John Dolan, #17 Matt Ryan, #18 Igor Gongalsky, #24 John Mitchell, #29 Martin Cingel, #71 Jeff Hutchins, #74 Rob Ricci, #86 Bari McKenzie

This, make no mistake about it, is a group of forwards with some serious quality. It’s also a group of forwards that Jeff Hutchins has clearly built to be all things to all men-there’s snipers, creative players and power forwards in equal measure, such that you could have three perfectly balanced lines even without the use of try-out contract veteran Martin Cingel. More to the point, it’s a forward group with a very high level of skill…no import player has spent their career much below ECHL level, and the Brits, with the exception of youngster Lewis McIntosh, are highly experienced. The creative quotient is filled by former Nottingham Panther Matt Ryan, former Cardiff assist machine Chris Blight and arguably one of the most skilful players to grace EIHL ice ever in the mesmerising stickwork of Jade Galbraith, while sniping is provided by former Braehead Clan sharpshooter Shane Lust and pure goalscorer Rob Ricci. You want some physicality? 6’5 American John Mitchell and the 225lb Ukrainian battle tank Igor Gongalsky have you covered, while there’s always the agitation/hard work of Jeff Hutchins, Bari McKenzie and John Dolan to provide what is one hell of a third trio. This group is put together beautifully, and if Hutchins can get his players to mesh in the way he hopes, then it could run like a Swiss watch. Attacking is not going to be a problem for this Stars squad-they have the kind of explosive talent that many squads would envy.

COACH: Jeff Hutchins (3rd year)

Hutchins has grown as a coach year on year-now into his 3rd season, the 36-year-old Torontonian has clearly relished his task and embraced it with a will..his recruitment this year shows a very definite plan, and as we all know, plans often make prizes in the EIHL. With an experienced squad (the average age of around 27 is among the highest in the EIHL this season), Hutchins has recruited players who know what it takes to perform and keep jobs at a high level. Expectations will be very high this year.

PROSPECTIVE LINES

Jade Galbraith-Rob Ricci-John Mitchell

Chris Blight-Matt Ryan-Shane Lust

Igor Gongalsky-Jeff Hutchins-John Dolan

Bari McKenzie-Lewis McIntosh-(Martin Cingel)

Kevin Quick-Sam McCluskey

Brad Plumton-Paul Swindlehurst

Ziga Svete/Jan Markelj

Robbie Hill-Sam Waller

Marc Cheverie

Craig Holland

PLAYER TO WATCH: #13 Jade Galbraith/#74 Rob Ricci

Picking these two players as a pair because, frankly, there was no way that Jade Galbraith was ever NOT going to be picked-anyone who’s seen him play in the EIHL knows that there has rarely been a more skilful player to step onto EIHL ice. Rob Ricci looks to be created as his ideal partner in crime-reports from Denmark have the diminutive Canadian from Brampton, Ontario as a gifted goalscorer who needs linemates who’ll set him up and make space for him. Basically, Jade Galbraith’s perfect role. They may need a physical player to do the dirty work with them but Jeff Hutchins has several options on his roster for that-Stars fans should be licking their lips at the prospects of seeing these two together.

SUMMARY

The Stars are, if you’ll forgive the very obvious pun, very much still rising. Not resting on his laurels after the conference win last year, Jeff Hutchins has clearly approached this season deciding that solid goaltending and an explosive forward corps are the priority, and he’s very definitely achieved both of those objectives. Much will depend on how Hutchy completes his defence-it’s not the biggest, but this is more then compensated for by the size and physical depth of the forward group. As this squad has been built, every signing has been made with a clear plan in mind and a clear role, and perhaps the most glowing testimony about their forward depth is that you could have any combination of forwards in the top nine and it would look like a very good set indeed (youngster Lewis McIntosh is very much the 10th)

Stars fans, be excited. Your team has improved another big step on last years, and we all know what they achieved in terms of surprising the rest of the league. The question was asked “can they repeat last years’ success, or was it a fluke? The answer is a very definite one. Last year was no fluke, and to prove it, our team will be better this year.

It could be a very exciting year in the far north for Hutchy’s Heroes.

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The CHL is Coming: Why You Should Be Watching The Champions’ Hockey League

Last night saw the start of something that could be massive in European hockey. A competition that will, eventually, find a team who have the right, at least temporarily, to call themselves the “best hockey team in Europe”.

Yes, there will be talk that any Euro-wide competition that doesn’t involve KHL teams can’t be considered the “top tier”. There’ll also likely be confusion among those not familiar with European sport and Europe-wide competitions as to how one can have a “Champions’ Hockey League” with 44 teams, many of whom weren’t close to being champions in their respective leagues last season.

But let’s look at what the organisers of the CHL and its founding teams have already achieved. They’ve managed to create the first “Europe-wide” competition that will genuinely have as its mission the attempt to find the “best team in Europe”. 44 teams from 12 European leagues will start the group stages, before 16 (11 group winners, five best runners-up) go through to the elimination stages in November. This is a competition on a scale that’s rarely been seen in Europe-and teams will have the chance to qualify as national champions year in, year out. It’s a genuine attempt to do something special in European hockey-and while attempts for such things as the “Champions’ Trophy” have been seen before, this is the first time it’s been done on this scale.

Last night saw all the talking and hype stop and the action begin, as 15 games across Europe filled the kind of slate that European hockey fans would gorge upon…storied names like Frolunda, Farjestad and Djurgarden (Sweden), Sparta Praha (Czech Republic), HIFK (Finland) and SC Bern (Switzerland) all went into battle last night for the honour of their respective leagues-and the first night of action didn’t disappoint.

Performance of the night was Tappara Tampere (FIN) going 3-0 down to Stavanger (Norway) after 8 minutes and coming back to win 7-3, including the equalising and go-ahead goals 7 seconds apart at the end of the second. Ocelari Trinec of the Czech Republic were the dominant squad of the night, thumping Bern 7-0 in a rout that also contained the goal of the night-this between the legs beauty from Marek Troncinsky:

What’s Czech for “dirty dangle”?

Just in case that’s too quick, there’s photographic proof Troncinsky went full through-the-legs on Bern’s netty:

That GIF and picture is the kind of hockey that you can expect from the top leagues and teams in Europe taking part in the CHL on a semi-regular basis…along with close games…three on the first night went into OT and penalties and there were some great comebacks around the matches as well.

So-why does this matter? Well, if you’re British or interested in hockey firsts, it matters because the Nottingham Panthers are representing the UK EIHL, and it’s the first time that UK club hockey has really been given a chance at the “top table” of Euro hockey, particularly in the EIHL era. UK hockey fans, for all the skill level of the EIHL, just don’t get to see the level of hockey that the CHL will provide, and now there’s a chance to see at least three games’ worth of it on UK ice. The Panthers are fulfilling an important task in trailblazing the way for British hockey to be taken more seriously in European circles than it has been in many years (due in the past to a laundry list of problems like lazy PR, unscrupulous owners, dodgy deals and comedy decisions almost as long as the CHL entry list)…but a decent showing from the Nottingham club could benefit all UK hockey massively, even if they lose the majority of their games. For that reason, British hockey fandom needs to get behind Nottingham wholeheartedly.

But what about if you’re not European? Why should you watch it?

Simply put, because this is some of the cream of European hockey action. There are some in North America who think big-time hockey stops whenever you hit an ocean while travelling in any direction from NA, but it really doesn’t. The CHL gives you a chance to see those European NHL prospects you’d not normally be able to track-like Boston’s Anton Blidh in Frolunda, for example. It also could allow you to spot the next great Euro wonderkid (names like Karpat Oulu’s 16-year-old Finnish prodigy Jesse Puljujarvi, for example)…and assess them playing against bigger, experienced players rather than under the usual “junior tournament” conditions.

Then, of course, you get to experience a completely different type of atmosphere. As someone who’s stood in the middle of crowds in the 20,000-seat Lanxess Arena (Koelner Haie) and experienced the cauldron of the Helsinki Derby (HIFK v Jokerit) in the Helsingin Jaahaali, I can testify…European hockey crowds are an experience everyone should have…and the Champions’ Hockey League will be showcasing some of the best hockey arenas in Europe, as well as a few you might not even be aware of.

Then there’s the potential for magic, wherever you are as a hockey fan. Seriously…watch that GIF of Marek Troncinsky’s goal a few times and tell me that the potential for someone pulling that in EVERY GAME doesn’t excite you? Comebacks, drama, rivalries…they’re all here, particularly as we get towards the KO stages and there’s the potential for teams in the same league to meet in European playoff competition.

The CHL is European hockey at its very best. And for that reason alone, it deserves to be watched.

This is something special. If you’ve restricted yourself to your own little part of the hockey universe before, or think that the best hockey is only to be found in North American leagues, the Olympics or World Championships, think again and watch a game or two.

Europe, as the CHL slogan says, has come to play. And you’d be made to miss out on the chance to see it, wherever you are.

EIHL 14/15 Team By Team Preview 7: Belfast Giants: Theory Of Evolution

“Never look back, don’t doubt tomorrow”

The Nearly Deads: “Never Look Back”

INTRODUCTION

Last year’s regular season could hardly have gone better for the Belfast Giants. Runaway league winners, the all-conquering teal-and-white army from Northern Ireland ran roughshod over the rest of the EIHL for long periods. But they weren’t perfect-an incredible comeback from Nottingham in the Challenge Cup final and a playoff loss of a team that had given all it could and more to Sheffield meant that two spaces in the trophy cabinet remained unfilled. However, it’s incredibly hard to find a negative in the Giants season last year-Paul Adey built & coached their roster beautifully.

However, this season Paul Adey is gone, Steve Thornton is back behind the bench, but the personnel on the ice are pretty much exactly the same. Some have questioned whether this is the right move with the rest of the EIHL looking to change and catch up the gap opened up by the Giants last year-indeed many rosters are now built on the Giants template. Can this team, with a new coach but familiar faces, possibly be as good again, or will it be haunted by expecting to repeat a dominance that other teams have acted to stop? Let’s look at them:

GOALIES

#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson.

The Giants go with “tried and trusted” once again in net. Stephen Murphy is GB number one (although under heavy pressure from Ben Bowns for that particular role) and consistently one of the best in the EIHL. No worries here. Behind him is Ballymoney boy Andrew Dickson, who will do the lions’ share of door-opening but can play well enough-gaining a few wins in relief last season and more than able to step in for a little spot duty. However, should Murphy suffer a long-term injury, the Giants may act to bring a proven starter in.

DEFENCE

#3 Jeff Mason, #6 Rob Sandrock, #13 Dave Phillips, #24 Calvin Elfring, #25 Cody Brookwell, #62 Kevin Phillips

For all intents and purposes, I could simply cut and paste what I wrote last year about this defensive unit, because it’s exactly the same one as that which conceded the least number of goals in the EIHL last season (14 less than the next nearest challenger). Everywhere you look in this group you see quality-Rob Sandrock has one of the most terrifyingly good slapshots the EIHL has ever seen and also skates better than almost everyone else, Jeff Mason would be a number-one offensive defenceman on most teams, Calvin Elfring is an unflappable and wily veteran, Cody Brookwell is superb physically and has a bite going forward, too, and the Phillips brothers are both very capable. If there’s one possible knock on this group it’s their age-the potential top pairing of Elfring and Sandrock has a combined age of 74, and the youngest of the group is 27. However, that’s nitpicking in a group where veteran smarts and superb conditioning more than made up for Father Time last season…and there’s no reason to assume it won’t do so again. Make no mistake, this defence set the benchmark last season, and it goes into this season being the one everyone else will measure themselves against.

FORWARDS

#7 Mark Garside, #9 Evan Cheverie, #12 Ray Sawada, #17 Mike Kompon, #19 Colin Shields, #21 Mark McCutcheon, #22 Kevin Saurette, #47 Adam Keefe, #71 Craig Peacock, #72 Daryl Lloyd.

At the time of writing, the Giants are yet to complete their forward group-although it’s more than likely that the only addition, at least to start the season, will be local boy and tenth forward Gareth Roberts, with the Giants often preferring to hold one import spot in reserve until the first few weeks of the season has passed. This, like the defence, is astoundingly similar to last season’s group-a group that, lest we forget, scored the most goals in the EIHL-and not only that, they scored 22 more than the nearest challenger…an impressive feat. The Giants have lost Dustin Whitecotton and Jeff Szwez, both to Germany, and skilled forward Chris Higgins has jumped the Irish Sea to Nottingham but their replacements are all incredibly capable. Mike Kompon (Higgins’ replacement) is a player who can both create and score and has done in leagues better than the EIHL for years, while Ray Sawada (Szwez’s replacement) is a big, bruising power forward who loves to cause havoc in front of the opposition net and was on the fringes of the NHL for several years with the Dallas Stars.

The Giants have also added two-way C Mark McCutcheon to the mix in a like-for-like swap for Whitecotton as a player who can create and score but prides himself on doing all the important little things that win games. These are added to the best third line in the EIHL in Scot Mark Garside, soul of the Giants Adam Keefe and agitator extraordinaire Daryl Lloyd, while Brits Craig Peacock, Colin Shields and likely Roberts round out the roster.

Simply put, what the Giants have done is taken the most prolific forward-group in the league last year and said “why change it?” Even the new players are almost direct replacements for those who’ve left, down to style of play and team role. This is not a forward group that has pulled up trees in its rebuilding. But what it is is battle-proven and incredibly effective, just like the group last year. You don’t fix what isn’t broken, and the Giants have wisely not tinkered where little is needed. Steve Thornton knows which side his bread is buttered.

COACH: STEVE THORNTON (1st season, 2nd spell in Belfast)

Thornton is a popular man in Belfast both as a player and a coach. The Canadian knows the city, knows the fans, and knows what they expect…particularly after last year. He also knows that this is a season where change needs to be carried over smoothly, both in the coaching staff with Paul Adey going elsewhere and in ownership with Todd Kelman heading for Cardiff. He is the very definition of what Belfast fans would call “a safe pair of hands”…indeed Todd Kelman has said that he never had any other man in mind for the job.

Thornton has high expectations on him this season, but many of the players know him well, the fans know him well, and so he’s coming in with a softer landing than many would have. However, that doesn’t mean that failure will be taken lightly, either by him or his public.

PROSPECTIVE LINES

Kevin Saurette-Mike Kompon-Ray Sawada

Colin Shields-Mark McCutcheon-Evan Cheverie

Daryl Lloyd-Mark Garside-Adam Keefe

Craig Peacock

Calvin Elfring-Cody Brookwell

Davey Phillips-Rob Sandrock

Jeff Mason-Kevin Phillips

Stephen Murphy

Andrew Dickson

PLAYER TO WATCH: #12 Ray Sawada (RW)

Big, powerful and with a scoring touch that took him to the very fringes of the NHL, the big British Columbian from Richmond hasn’t quite got the gaudy numbers of some players to come to the EIHL, but he has got some serious AHL pedigree-247 games is not a bad number at all for a 29-year-old. At 6’2 and 205lbs he’s perfectly-sized to cause trouble in front of the net and make space for his linemates (possibly Saurette and Kompon) to pull off the creative moves while he does the dirty work. He’ll be the water-carrier on his line, making the hard yards and digging the puck out of the corner whenever it’s required…and if he can do that while also popping in the goals whenever given the chance, he’ll be a very valuable player indeed.

SUMMARY

This is a Giants team that’s looking back and going forward at the same time. It knows what brought it such great success last season and so the team template hasn’t deviated much-only a few of the names have changed. Some might wonder if this is wise given the efforts made by the Giants’ rivals in recruiting over the off-season, but they’re forgetting…the Giants are the reason everyone feels so challenged to raise the standard in the first place this season.

Yes, they say that you should strive to reach the summit, but once you’re there, you stand still, because if you start taking risks the only way to go is down. The Giants have spent the off-season confident both in their past efforts and also confident that they don’t need a rejig to repeat them. They’ve stood at the top of the mountain looking down with quiet confidence at the rest of the EIHL scrabbling to catch up and said “we know we deserve to be here. Now we’re staying. Come and knock us off our perch.”

Now, the rest of the league are climbing up towards them. But this Giants team are braced for battle. If anyone wants to push them off the EIHL summit in 14/15, they’re going to have to work very hard indeed.

EIHL 14/15 Team-By-Team Preview 6: Fife Flyers: Ready For Take-Off?

“Hope dangles on a string
Like slow spinning redemption
Winding in and winding out
The shine of it has caught my eye”

Dashboard Confessional: “Vindicated”

INTRODUCTION

The Fife Flyers are, without question, a team on the rise this year. After their heroics not only to overhaul an 11-point deficit in February to sneak into the playoffs on the last day of the season, the venerable old lady of Kirkcaldy is coming into 14/15 with a rejeuvenated, youthful outlook. A large part of this, it has to be said, is down to the influence of Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart-a coaching team that bleeds Fife blue and yellow and has the Flyers playing with true fire in their veins.

Kirkcaldy is a proud hockey town-arguably no other club in the country has more passionate, dedicated and knowledgeable support than the Flyers. Certainly, no other club has as much of a connection to its community, with the Flyers having been around for 77 seasons including this one and with all but one of the British players born within a few miles of the rink (and even the one that wasn’t was only born a few miles away in Edinburgh) This year, they’ll be hoping for the same feel-good rollercoaster ride that enthralled them last year-what does this Fife roster look like, and can it deliver?

GOALIES

#29 Blair Daly, #32 Kevin Regan

The Flyers have gone with the same pairing as last season in net-Blair Daly and Kevin Regan are both very good netminders capable of stealing a game on any given night, although the 30-year-old Regan will be the starter, with Daly more than ready to step in for spot duty/injury relief. Regan marked a 90% save percentage last year, although his GAA was slightly higher than some other goalies at 3.14. The native of South Boston is a scrapper of a goalie who’ll fight for every puck-in that respect he’s the perfect reflection of the team in front of him, and if he can improve on a decent first year, the Flyers will benefit hugely.

DEFENCE

#2 Tom Muir, #4 Chris Wands, #5 Kyle Horne, #13 Euan Forsyth, #50 Matt Nickerson, #55 Kyle Haines, #60 Jamie Milam.

The Flyers’ defensive unit is very much a case of “evolution, not revolution” with only one new addition from last season in former Cardiff Devil Jamie Milam, coming in to replace the offensive output of last year’s stud offensive D Justin DaCosta. It boasts a strong local flavour, with all of the locals having grown up in Kirkcaldy and made their way through the junior system-Muir, Wands, and Forsyth are all no-nonsense, capable d-men who can take a solid shift while Kyle Horne is a genuine minute-munching workhorse who rarely makes a bad play. Fireworks will be provided by the intimidating Matt Nickerson, already a legend on the Forth after his one season there and a player whose outgoing personality and fearless, full-throttle physical play have made him an “honorary Fifer”. Kyle Haines is a steady, effective offensive D and new boy Milam will add to that, looking to prove doubters wrong after an unimpressive 13-game spell in Cardiff blighted a career where he’s produced impressively offensively (18 goals last year from the blue-line is some feat no matter what league you’re in). This is a solid unit.

FORWARDS

#8 Ned Lukacevic, #9 Scott Fleming, #10 Stephen Gunn, #15 Josh Scoon, #18 Allan Anderson, #21 Bobby Chaumont, #22 Matt Reber, #23 Jamie Wilson, #26 Jordan Fulton, #39 Danny Stewart, #61 Chris Auger

Again, it’s a case of “evolution not revolution” in the Flyers ranks…they’ve lost Derek Roehl and a rotating cast of wingers, but gained Chris Auger and Scott Fleming from the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets…both of whom are extremely capable offensively (combined total of 46 ECHL goals and 104 points last time out). They’ve also managed to retain crucial pieces from last season in the very skilled Bobby Chaumont & Ned Lukacevic, the feisty and hard-nosed agitator extraordinaire Jordan Fulton and speedy two-way centre Matt Reber. The local boys are a mix of youngsters (Josh Scoon and Allan Anderson) and third-line contributors in Steven Gunn and Jamie Wilson, and of course there’s Danny Stewart, assistant coach, heartbeat of any team he’s on and one of the hardest-working players in the EIHL.

This is a forward group that is the very definition of “greater than the sum of its parts”. There may be some concern over the third line, although Gunn, Stewart and Wilson are a more than useful group they may not produce like some others. However, the productivity in the top six is more than ample, with a Line 1A and 1B rather than a clear “first and second” line.

This is a better forward group than last season for the Flyers-and more to the point it’s a more balanced one-there’s more scoring potential here than last year and with the defence behind them that they have it’s free to play, too…other teams will have to work hard to intimidate them and with the Kirkcaldy Roar behind them in Fife they’ll be a dangerous prospect.

COACHES: Todd Dutiaume (10th year)

The longest-serving coach with one team in the EIHL, Dutiaume comes into his 11th season behind the bench in Fife on a wave of optimism. Along with assistant Danny Stewart, Dutiaume has been the architect of Fife’s rise to a team taken very seriously by all, as well as a return of the “feel-good factor”. His and Stewart’s brand of hockey is exciting, passionate and devil-may-care, where players are encouraged to play with hearts on sleeves but at the same time be accountable-it’s a brand of underdog spirit that pays dividends.
Dutiaume is part of the fabric in Fife-he’s a legend there both as player & coach and the coaching position is his as long as he wants it. He’s served and continues to serve Kirkcaldy in the great tradition of Flyers teams.

PROSPECTIVE LINES

Scott Fleming-Chris Auger-Bobby Chaumont
Jordan Fulton-Matt Reber-Ned Lukacevic
Jamie Wilson-Danny Stewart-Stephen Gunn
Josh Scoon/Allan Anderson

Jamie Milam-Matt Nickerson
Kyle Horne-Kyle Haines
Chris Wands-Tom Muir/Euan Forsyth

Kevin Regan
Blair Daly

PLAYER TO WATCH: #61 Chris Auger (C)

The 26-year-old Ontarian is the player Dutiaume and Stewart will be looking at as one of the hubs of their attack along with Bobby Chaumont-he’ll be the creative centre who’ll load the bullets for Chaumont and Lukacevic to fire. He can also score himself-getting 28 goals amongst his points last year. Not the biggest of forwards, he may rely on skill more than physical play to do the job, but on the big ice of Scottish rinks and arenas where he’ll play the majority of his games, Auger will likely revel in his task.

SUMMARY

The Flyers are a better team than they were last year-they’ve taken an already solid roster and improved it with some savvy additions and increased scoring threat with Auger & Fleming. They also have a truly passionate public behind them…the Flyers are entwined with the community and in locals’ hearts in Kirkcaldy in a way that’s almost unique in UK hockey-probably only Belfast come close.
This is a solid group. It’s one that will challenge every team, every night and has an excellent chance of building on last season-and with one import space remaining there’s still potential to strengthen further. The 77th season in Fife Ice Arena may be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet,

EIHL Team By Team Preview 5: The Braehead Clan: The Clydeside Killers

“I hear the sounds of marching feet in the distance
and there’s a bloody revolution in the air”

Dropkick Murphys: “21 Guitar Salute”

INTRODUCTION

This, for the Braehead Clan, is a crossroads year. In their fifth season as an EIHL team, the Glasgow squad are poised to make the leap from “perennial borderline conte, nder” to “EIHL powerhouse” and take their seat at the top table of British hockey. With crowds approaching 3,000 on average, clever and consistent growth off-ice and patient, intelligent growth and marketing strategies, the Clan are, in many respects, the model for how to build a successful franchise over time in Britain. The market they’ve carved out in Glasgow (a city dominated by the two biggest football clubs in Scotland) and the work they’ve done in cultivating a loyal, passionate fanbase is, this year more than any other, ready to pay off. Ryan Finnerty enters his second season as Clan coach with an experienced assistant in Zack Fitzgerald and with arguably the strongest roster the Purple Army have had to date. So, what’s it look like?

GOALIES

#29 Kyle Jones, #15 Joseph Myers

No unknown faces here. Kyle Jones returns in net as the starter, but he’s backed up this time by arguably the strongest backup in the EIHL. Joe Myers comes to the Clan after many years in his home city of Cardiff, and the 27-year-old Welshman is rivalled only by Nottingham’s Dan Green and Cardiff (and former Clan) backup Mike Will in terms of experience.

However, his main role will be to push Jones hard for the starting spot-the 30-year-old from British Columbia was solid if unspectacular last year in the Clan net, and is arguably the weakest part of a very strong Clan roster. the Clan will be hoping he can continue this season closer to his playoff form, which saw him pull off a 95% save percentage. His regular 50-game season saw him sitting solidly in the middle for GAA but towards the lower end of the EIHL in save percentage-he’ll need to improve that this season for the Clan to really challenge for honours, although he does have the benefit of a stronger team in front of him this time…

DEFENCE

#2 Jamie Fritsch, #6 Scott Aarssen, #13 Zack Fitzgerald, #21 Zach Sullivan, #22 Chris Frank, #91 Ryan Kavanagh

Ryan Finnerty has clearly thought very carefully indeed about the makeup of his defence, deciding to go with five imports of six to give his team a solid foundation in front of Jones. Only two players return from last season’s unit, in Scott Aarssen and Chris Frank-the rest of the group is very much built on a clearly-defined mix of tough, no-nonsense play in their own end and solid attacking play. Aarssen (33 assists last season) and smooth-moving youngster Ryan Kavanagh will provide the offensive push, with career AHLer Jamie Fritsch expected to do it all as the number-1 defenceman while Zack Fitzgerald and Chris Frank make life hell for opposition forwards and deal with the majority of the physical work. The Clan have also shown some foresight in the pickup of 20-year-old British prospect Zach Sullivan from the EPL’s Basingstoke-the GB u20 star is making the step up to the top level in a unit which is more than experienced enough to ensure he continues his development well. This is a very strong, well-rounded unit indeed, with the only possible question-mark over the young Kavanagh-can he produce enough offensively to make up a little for the perceived defensive shortcomings in a league where defencemen HAVE to be good at both ends of the ice?

FORWARDS

#5 Ben Davies, #8 Matt Keith, #10 Stefan Meyer, #11 Matthew Haywood, #14 Derek Roehl, #17 Lee Esders, #19 Neil Trimm, #24 Leigh Salters, #26 Tristan Harper, #61 Scott Pitt

Looking at this forward group will make opposition defencemen wince. Not so much because of the prospect of them being dangled out of their shoes (although, let’s be clear, there is no mean amount of skill amongst this group) but because it’s possibly the most bruising, blue-collar group of forwards assembled in the EIHL this season. With the potential to send out a top line where the SMALLEST player (Stefan Meyer) is 6’2 and 201lbs, the word “bruising” hardly seems to do this group justice. However, there’s some serious quality here too. Neil Trimm throws set-up passes around for fun, picking up 44 assists in 48 games last season, Scott Pitt comes to Scotland off a high-scoring year in Germany’s second tier, and Ben Davies is one of the premier British players in the game and a creative force in his own right.

Once again, though, it’s in the physical battles and dirty work in front of the net where this team will shine-Leigh Salters, Matt Keith and Stefan Meyer are all the type of top-tier power forwards who teams would be delighted to have one of-the fact that the Clan have three is almost an embarrassment of riches (there is no clearer illustration of this than in the fact that Salters and Meyer combined scored 51 EIHL goals and over 110 points last season-add 20-goal AHL scorer Keith to that and you have a hell of a trio). In Derek Roehl, Matt Haywood, Lee Esders and Tristan Harper, too, the Clan have four players who are relentless in their pursuit of opposition bodies to hit and opposition skins to work themselves under.

Make no mistake, this is a forward group opposition defencemen will absolutely despise playing against. The “Clydeside Killers” are coming.

COACH: Ryan Finnerty (4th year)

Ryan Finnerty is one of those coaches who, ever since he was fired by Sheffield, has looked like he’s coaching with a fire in his belly. The 33-year-old from Lethbridge, Alberta is one of the most passionate men in the EIHL…but also one of the best with people (I interviewed him several times last year and I’ve rarely met a man more passionate and willing to share his passion in a sport than Finner). Known for always demanding the best from his teams and with a coaching knowledge that’s growing every year, Finnerty is fast becoming one of the most valuable coaches in the EIHL-now all he needs to do to take the step to the next level is lead a very talented Clan roster to fulfil its potential.

PROSPECTIVE LINES

Stefan Meyer-Matt Keith-Neil Trimm

Leigh Salters-Ben Davies-Scott Pitt

Tristan Harper-Derek Roehl-Matt Haywood

Lee Esders

Jamie Fritsch-Scott Aarssen

Zack Fitzgerald-Ryan Kavanagh

Chris Frank-Zach Sullivan

Kyle Jones

Joe Myers

PLAYER TO WATCH: #10 Stefan Meyer (LW)

The big Canadian was one of the signings of the season last year, finding his form later in the year after a slow start, and pulling off an explosive four-goal night against Coventry in February in the process. Now, brought in as one of the marquee signings for a Braehead squad determined to challenge for honours, he’ll be expected to match that production in a different setting. Can he do it? Those in Glasgow will be hoping he can, because they’ve no doubt committed a good portion of their budget and ambition to him doing so…

SUMMARY

This has to be the year Braehead finally take the step up to the top table, right? With expectations probably higher than they’ve been for a long time, a shrewdly-recruited roster and arguably the strongest off-ice team in the business, all the stars have aligned for the Clan to make the leap. Finnerty has clearly decided that he’ll turn the Clan into one of the most ornery, hard-working squads in the league-a team built very much in his own image as a player. There is no reason to assume the Clan can’t take a trophy this season-after four seasons of constant improvement, this could finally be the year their hard work begins to pay some serious dividends.

It could also be a banner year in Braehead for fan favourites-this team is built in a way that the Purple Army will love, and every opponent will hate. Obviously, the EIHL couldn’t get anywhere near the famous intimidation factor and sheer nastiness of the famous “Broad Street Bullies” in Philadelphia, but this Clan team will revel in the nickname of the “Clydeside Killers” by the end of the season if all goes to plan.

One things for sure-they are one hell of a team this year, and when the Purple Army come to town, teams had better be prepared for an all-out war.

 

EIHL Team By Team Preview 4: The Nottingham Panthers: Mix n’Match Hockey

I just don’t know what to do with myself…”

The White Stripes: “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”

INTRODUCTION

The only thing we know about the 2014/15 Nottingham Panthers is…we don’t know much about the 2014/15 Nottingham Panthers. Sure, we know the history…we know the situation that this is a team having to balance competing in the biggest club competition in Europe with teams twice their size and four or five times their budget with the mundaneness of an EIHL season. We know this is a roster built, at least early on, with that European competition in mind. And we know that judging by the recruitment Corey Neilson has returned to the “a place for everyone, and everyone in their place” recruitment ethos that saw the 2012/13 Panthers (almost) sweep the trophy board before a slightly less impressive year last year (although they did continue their seemingly endless stranglehold on the Challenge Cup, winning it for the fifth time in a row).

But the way this roster is built, it will likely be late October before we can get a concrete idea of what the 2014/15 Panthers EIHL personnel will be, particularly when it comes to imports. But, despite that, let’s plunge into the current roster and see what’s hiding in Corey Neilson’s kitty litter this season…

GOALIES

#33 Craig Kowalski, #31 Martins Raitums, #34 Dan Green

The Panthers are going into the CHL with two very good import goalies. Craig Kowalski is one of the best netminders of the EIHL era, period, while Martins Raitums is a Latvian who was anonymous for Hull a few years ago but has put up impressive statistics in the Kazakh leagues the past few seasons. These two will likely split time in the CHL early-season games, but unless Kowalski is injured, is poached by another squad as a result of the CHL or has an awful time, the EHL job is his to lose-Raitums, after all, is on a “short-term” contract and will likely look for a starting job elsewhere in Europe the moment that contract ends. About the only way he stays is if the Panthers very cleverly use their “EU import” slot on him and give themselves the strongest goalie tandem in the league. Dan Green will once again get the best seat in the NIC as backup to the backup in the CHL and likely EIHL second-string.

DEFENCE

#2 Tom Norton (two-way with EPL’s Peterborough), #3 Bryan Schmidt, #4 Sam Oakford, #6 Mike Berube, #8 Cody Wild, #25 Colby Cohen, #32 Charles Landry, #45 Stevie Lee, #55 Evan Mosey, 

Again, this is a defence loaded up to the gills for the CHL. The only two players who are guaranteed to stay beyond the early part of the season are the Brits, Sam Oakford (stepping up from the EPL after several impressive development years) and Stephen Lee (one of the best British defencemen out there). Mike Berube, and Bryan Schmidt are the only obviously defensive D among the imports…Charles Landry and Cody Wild looks to play a capable two-way game while Colby Cohen (a career AHLer) and Evan Mosey (one of the dark-horse signings of this season, potentially) are both exciting-looking offensive players. The simple fact for the Panthers here is…they have six import defencemen and only need four, so two will be sitting out or gone by the time we get into the meat of the EIHL season. With Wild already injured, he may get a sympathy spot to stay, but the simple fact here is…any of these import d-men can do an EIHL job…and all of them know they’re fighting for a potential contract, although with Colby Cohen on a short-term contract he may have his sights set elsewhere. The Panthers would be wise to at least try and keep the former Providence Bruin, however. There is certainly an embarrassment of riches here for Corey Neilson to pick his “final” EIHL roster from.

FORWARDS

#5 Dave Clarke, #7 Rob Lachowicz, #10 Nathan Robinson, #16 Max Parent, #19 Rob Farmer, #20 Chris Higgins, #21 Bruce Graham, #22 Mark Lee, #26 Brandon Benedict, #27 Chris Lawrence, #41 Greg Jacina, #47 Martin Podlesak, #51 Ollie Betteridge, #89 Jonathan Boxill.

Phew. What a murderers’ row of forwards. With 14 forwards, 5 of them Brits (although Betteridge is on a two-way) and only 11 spots available, several of these players won’t last beyond October. It’s already known that Nathan Robinson, Martin Podlesak and Mark Lee are the three players announced as on “short-term” contracts…Robinson spent last year in the DEL and is a very quick forward, Lee is a versatile centre and Podlesak is a big Czech power forward, so all could be very useful in the EIHL if convinced to stay on. However, the depth in the Panthers’ group even without these three is frightening. Lachowicz, Farmer and Clarke are all top-tier British players, while Boxill, too, was an impressive grinding forward last season. Among the imports Bruce Graham tore up the EIHL scoring charts last time he was here, Chris Higgins has skill to burn and Greg Jacina is solid. Max Parent is another big man up the middle, and Brandon Benedict is a truly superb two-way centre who has consistently been one of he best players at his position in the EIHL. Finally, Chris Lawrence is a big imposing winger who has scored fairly consistently at ECHL level. Frankly, you could take any six of these import forwards (assuming that the Panthers don’t carry any spares) and you’d have a very strong group to join arguably the strongest Brit group in the EIHL. Again, Corey Neilson has an embarrassment of riches to pick from here in his 13 forwards.

COACH: Corey Neilson (7th year):

We know how good Corey Neilson is as an EIHL coach. The fact that his teams have won nine trophies in the past five seasons is clear enough a demonstration of that. The question this season isn’t how he’s built his roster to start, but how he manages the bounty he has at his disposal. Does he go with extra imports and if so, how does he keep all his players happy? How does he use his British group, particularly in European competition early on? Most importantly, who does he keep and who does he cut when the “short-term” contracts are over? Does he try to retain players or go with his original plan?

The decisions he makes are crucial as always, but in this season, they could be more crucial to Panthers’ success than ever.

PROSPECTIVE LINES (CHL)

David Clarke-Mark Lee-Nathan Robinson

Chris Higgins-Bruce Graham-Greg Jacina

Martin Podlesak-Brandon Benedict-Chris Lawrence

Rob Lachowicz-Max Parent-Jonathan Boxill

Ollie Betteridge

Colby Cohen-Bryan Schmidt

Mike Berube-Cody Wild

Evan Mosey-Charles Landry

Stevie Lee-Sam Oakford

Craig Kowalski

Martins Raitums

Dan Green

PROSPECTIVE LINES (EIHL)-these are the strongest lines I think the Panthers “could” put out, assuming they can convince their “short term” contract imports to stay and thus choose from all 17 for their final 12, while also keeping to some sort of logical budget and within EIHL laws)

David Clarke-Bruce Graham-Nathan Robinson

Chris Higgins-Mark Lee-Chris Lawrence

Rob Lachowicz-Brandon Benedict-Jonathan Boxill

Ollie Betteridge

Colby Cohen-Mike Berube

Cody Wild-Evan Mosey

Stevie Lee-Sam Oakford

Craig Kowalski

Dan Green

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Colby Cohen (D), Nathan Robinson (F),  Bruce Graham (F), Evan Mosey (D)

Yes, I picked four players-two of who I think will stay, and two of whom (Cohen and Robinson) are on short-term contracts. Let’s deal with those two first. Colby Cohen is an AHL-quality offensive defenceman, big and skilled for his size. He’s a player who any EIHL team would likely drool over. Nathan Robinson is the same-fast and skilled, he’s scored well at far higher levels than the EIHL and if the Panthers can keep him he’d be the perfect foil to Bruce Graham on the top line. Evan Mosey is an exciting young offensive D who’s something of a surprise grab for the Panthers having played in the Dutch league last year, but he has the potential to be one of the sleeper hit signings of the season if he continues his Dutch form. He’s also a dual-national, which helps a lot in the recruitment stakes.

SUMMARY

As you can see by the above, the Panthers have a myriad of options and are going into this season as arguably the greatest unknown in EIHL terms thanks to the wrench in roster makeup the CHL recruitment has thrown into the works. What is certain is that, whatever the final Panthers roster ends up looking like, it’s going to be a strong one that will give many other teams pause. It’s also going to be a big, powerful one, with the average size being 6’1 and 191 lbs and many players being bigger than that, particularly up front.

The Panthers have claws sharpened as usual…the question is, how they use them in domestic competition. Use them right and they’ll beat any team in the league, and so they shouldn’t be counted out of adding to Corey Neilson’s trophy haul this season.

Cat-Scratch Fever: Why The Nottingham Panthers Are Right, And Their Opponents Are Wrong This Offseason

“If you don’t want to use a competitive advantage, you don’t want to compete. Period”

There’s been a lot of controversy this offseason amongst EIHL fandom over the Nottingham Panthers roster. Not because it’s breaking any rules, but simply because the Panthers are using those rules and taking every single competitive advantage they have in building it.

The Panthers are competing in the Champions’ Hockey League as EIHL representatives-a league which brings together rules from many different leagues and effectively gives Corey Neilson a blank slate to build his roster. Whilst the rules of a “traditional” EIHL roster only allow for 12 non-British players to dress on any given night, the Panthers currently have 17 carried on their roster, along with nine British players…enough for five lines-worth of players and, theoretically, enough to field a team without any British players at all in the CHL if they go for the standard EIHL template of three-line hockey.

The fact that only 12 of these 17 imports will be allowed to actually dress at any one time in the “league” roster, that several of these players have been announced as signing on “short term” contracts for the CHL, and that during the CHL games the Panthers will likely use their imports far more than British players simply because that’s the way they’re better able to compete has set off mutterings around the rest of the league about the way the Panthers are building their roster being “unfair” and “making a mockery of the EIHL”. Some have even gone so far as to say it’s “not a Panthers team” and those UK hockey pundits of a Sheffield persuasion have tried to claim that the early season roster building is detrimental to team morale as the imports look around and are forced to fight for their jobs.

All of the above objections from others are at best misguided, and at worse, just plain bitter sniping at another team disguised as concern trolling. The insular attitude of  “well, they shouldn’t be allowed to use their resources” is also, in a nutshell, the kind of blinkered, miserable attitude in some quarters that sums up the EIHL’s small-time mentality among many involved.

Let’s get this clear. In the context of European hockey, the EIHL is not a strong league. In the context of Champions’ League hockey, the Nottingham Panthers are like minnows swimming in a school of sharks. Teams like Bern, Hamburg and (in Nottingham’s group) Lulea have budgets, recruiting power, coaching, and facilities that EIHL teams and fans can only dream of. They also have roster strengths that far, far outweigh your average EIHL roster. Good as the Panthers are by UK hockey standards-if they took on the vast majority of CHL teams with a 12-import roster they would get absolutely annihilated.

We’re not talking “annihilated” in the context of just “losing every game”. We’re talking “annihilated” in the context of losing by a minimum of four or five…and that’s if the other team is only playing at half speed. The teams in the CHL are better-trained, better-drilled, better-paid and deeper than any “traditional” EIHL squad.

Using that argument, and with the Panthers representing an EIHL that only has a tenuous hold on being allowed into the top competition in Europe thanks to a discretionary wild-card…how the hell can anyone who claims to have the growth of British hockey at heart (like other EIHL team employees) say that the Panthers doing their level best to actually provide some competition for these other teams and not get embarrassed is “not in the spirit of British hockey?”

It’s that kind of “limit yourself because we’re not sure you can get money along with it”, risk-averse, short-sighted thinking disguised as “wanting everything to be fair” that plagues UK hockey.

The simple fact is-Panthers choosing not to load up for the CHL when they’re able to is something no sane team or fan would want. As a fan, who wants to see your team humped 7 or 8-nil knowing that your team COULD have made itself competitive and didn’t? Why would you not want to see the best possible team out there, and even if you’re not a Panthers fan, why would you NOT want to see your league represented as well as possible because you’re more concerned about some moral arbitrary notion of what an EIHL team “should” be in what is essentially a pre-season competition?

And if you’re a Panthers coach, the advantages keep coming. You’re effectively being given an excuse to make your twelve imports, the “difference makers”, the marquee players on any EIHL team fight for their jobs in a pre-season camp against real opponents far better than you could find anywhere else. Sure, some of these players are “announced” as signing on initial short-term contracts, but if you think that Corey Neilson WON’T be watching every single player on his team and thinking out strategies to convince every single one of his imports to stay a Panther if they perform well, or that these players HAVEN’T been told “the only way you’re guaranteed a contract is if you perform with us” then frankly you have no idea how sport works.

Some have said that carrying 17 imports into pre-season will cause tension in the locker room early on as every import is forced to fight for a job-including Dave Simms. Of course it will.

That’s the whole point of doing it. If you’re unhappy about Nottingham carrying extra imports and making them & British players fight for CHL playing time and jobs when the short-term contracts run out-there’s one reason and one reason only for you doing so, however you trot out phrases about “team bonding” and “giving the Brits a chance”.

That reason is simple jealousy that your team isn’t able/willing to do the same. 

To claim that players being forced to fight for jobs is a “bad thing” for a team is so laughable it’s almost beyond belief. Every single man in the Panthers dressing-room is a pro hockey player. They know damn well what they’re getting into. They know that their earning potential depends on them playing well-either to make an excellent showing on a short-term contract and put themselves in the European shop window. Any notion that they’re not going to be comfortable in a pre-season/early season dressing room where they have to fight for jobs is idiotic…if they are uncomfortable at having to fight for a job, they probably shouldn’t be pro hockey players.

The Panthers loading up for the CHL is a naked demonstration of a team doing what’s best for them-indeed doing a thing that any other hockey team would do-and getting pilloried for it based on vague excuses for one simple emotion…jealousy.

It’s also a demonstration of the small-time mentality still prevalent in UK hockey among a lot of people “well, if we can’t have nice things or use their entry into a new competition as a great combination recruiting tool, bonding exercise AND player evaluation early in the league season through our clever planning, nor should anyone else”.

The hypocrisy being demonstrated by those bemoaning Nottingham knowing full well that their own team would do the same were it possible is just sad. And it’s one more example of how, deep down, it seems that some in British hockey actually have an aversion to doing anything to better the game, unless it benefits their team directly.

It needs to stop.