Crossroads: Why This Could Be A Huge Season For The EIHL-If They Don’t Cock It Up

So, how was your summer?

With the World Cup over and done, the long dog days of July behind us and the nights already beginning to get a little shorter, it’s about time to come back off the beaches and the summer breaks and start focusing on preparing ourselves for the 2014/15 EIHL season. And, of course, for Chasing Dragons to return from its summer break. So here we are. Coming up over the next few days, starting later today, we’ll launch into the most popular Chasing Dragons features (and one of my favourites to write) the EIHL Team-By-Team Sean Previews. But first, a quick “State of the EIHL” address…

As is usual, this summer has seen a lot of changes around the EIHL landscape, and a contrast in recruiting approaches. Some, like league champions Belfast, have gone with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, retaining the vast majority of a roster that blew the league away last season. We’ve also seen a lot of movement within the league, particularly from Sheffield elsewhere as Gerad Adams has blown up his playoff-winning roster to create one with his own stamp on it-a formula also followed by the first-year coaches in Hull and Coventry.

However, what’s really striking is the changes in Cardiff and the great leaps taken once again by the Scottish sides.

Frankly, Cardiff couldn’t really have a worse season than they did last year. With ownership that was just this side of ruinous and a PR policy and public about as effective as that of your average politician, the Devils desperately needed a completely new start this off season. And they’ve got it. With Todd Kelman at the helm after moving over from Belfast and Andrew Lord coaching, the Devils have built a team more reminiscent of a “proper” Devils squad-with plenty of snap and snarl and no little agitation around it. In Brent Walton in particular, they may have found one of the best (and most lethal) import signings of the summer. Could this be their year?

Meanwhile, north of the border Jeff Hutchins has reacted to the loss of the key contributors to his Stars squad (like Rory Rawlyk) to pastures new by simply finding more gems-the northernmost EIHL team have once again recruited impressively, as have Fife. It’s in Braehead that we’re really seeing a team try and make “the leap” though, with the Clan picking up players like Matt Keith, who a few years ago would have only been within the remit of one of the arena teams.

Finally, of course, there’s Nottingham-they of the Champions’ Hockey League participation. As expected, the Panthers have loaded up on imports for the early games in the season as they prepare to take on teams with far bigger budgets and “pulling power” in world hockey. But reading the talk around the Internet, it seems that the Panthers taking part in the CHL has stimulated many in Europe to actually take a look at the EIHL as a viable league.

And all of this put together, combined with Premier Sports renewing their TV deal and showing a continuing commitment to get the EIHL message out there through live games and highlight shows, means that this is potentially the most exciting EIHL season yet. With strong teams north and south of the border, the gaps in competitiveness closing all the time and a slot in both European club competitions secured, this 2014/15 season could be the one the EIHL grows up and takes the first step to becoming a league really worth taking seriously in world hockey.

But with the growth on the ice, teams have to grow off it-and that’s where the momentum could stall. Professionalism is growing around the Elite League but there is still, from speaking to hockey writers and people around the world, a lot to be done to make the league look professional in the eyes of outsiders. There are initiatives sitting waiting to be taken by the EIHL (such as partnering with the “You Can Play” initiative to promote a removal of homophobia from sport, which is one of the most successful and well known sporting campaigns in the world) that can only help grow its audience even further…if the ownership take them.

There are progressive people and clubs in the EIHL-the work of the organisations in Braehead, Belfast and indeed all Scottish teams show that. Todd Kelman comes to Cardiff with a proven track record of excellent PR work in Belfast, and with a city and indeed all of South Wales’ hockey community pretty much hanging on his every word and deed this season.

This, more than any other, is the year the EIHL needs to have the vision, the confidence and the sheer balls to try new things, commit money, let new people take part in marketing, and more than anything embrace any opportunity they have and start thinking further than the end of the season. Do that and there is real potential. Keep going the way they have done, and letting petty personalities and self-interest stop them from doing anything that might even be slightly risky, and the sport will waste the best chance it’s had for years.

Basically, it’s time for the EIHL to put any egos aside, stop all being in it for their own petty fiefdoms and go for it. They’ve got a golden opportunity to really start building something now.

If they’re brave enough.

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