Our Hill, Their Beans: Bringing a Boston and College Hockey Institution To Belfast

maybe the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans, but this is our hill, and these are our beans.
Leslie Nielsen: “The Naked Gun”

Today, a plan to move a cooking utensil from Boston to Belfast has caused violent reaction on hockey Twitter on both sides of the Atlantic-or more accurately, over a tournament that involves four teams competing for a cooking utensil. This is the utensil in question:

The Boston Beanpot. Never has so much legend been packed into a cooking container.

It’s the Beanpot-a trophy which has almost mythical status to anyone in New England. Based on the traditional cooking utensil associated with New England and particularly the city of Boston, the silver trophy is awarded to the winner of a college hockey tournament between four New England colleges-Boston University (BU), Boston College (BC), Northeastern and Harvard. The tournament has run since 1952 and takes place traditionally over two Monday nights in February at the TD Garden in Boston-the first Monday is the semi finals (which are different each year as every team rotates its semi-final opponent between the other three) and the second Monday is the third/fourth place game and the tournament final itself.

The Beanpot is a winter tradition like few others in Boston-with all four schools having hockey as one of their main varsity sports and some of the most passionate fanbases in the NCAA, any game between them is going to be a good one-but add to that local rivalry and the almost volcanic hatred between the BC Eagles and the BU Terriers (who between them have won 48 of the 62 competitions, with BU leading the field with 29 victories), and it’s going to be something special.

It’s one of the most-anticipated college-hockey tournaments in North America, and to a Bostonian (who are notoriously protective about their city and its traditions and have more than likely attended one of the four universities), the Beanpot is one of the social and sporting events of the winter season, with the games being played in front of sold-out arenas, broadcast on TV and radio across New England and tickets being scrambled for like gold dust.

If you’re looking for a British sporting comparison, the Beanpot is to New Englanders what the FA Cup Final is to English football fans-a sacred tradition of their season that always takes place around the same time, at (barring exceptional circumstances) the same venue, always means something massive whatever else is going on in the season, and is one of THE sporting events to be seen at. It has its own lore, its own legends (for every White Horse Final the FA Cup has, the Beanpot has the Blizzard of ’78, for example), and its own mystique.

Now, there are tentative plans to bring this tournament to the UK-specifically, to Belfast. And Boston’s mayor is backing the idea.

The Odyssey Trust, owner of the EIHL’s Belfast Giants, wants to bring the Beanpot to the Odyssey Arena in 2016, moving it from its Boston home for the first time in its 63-year history.

Could the Odyssey host one of college hockey’s showpieces?

There is precedent for Boston and Belfast connecting through ice-hockey…the Odyssey Arena has seen the NHL’s Boston Bruins take the ice against an invitational Belfast squad made up of the top players in the EIHL back in 2010…for a few glorious minutes the EIHL even led the NHL thanks to a goal from Jade Galbraith before the Bruins shifted up to…oh, maybe third gear and overwhelmed them. With Boston and Belfast recently becoming “twin cities”, there is potential to forge closer links between the two cities and Boston mayor Marty Walsh is in favour of the idea. Speaking to the BBC he said:

“In light of the recent Sister City twinning between Belfast and Boston, which is underpinned by a longstanding connection between the two cities through ice hockey, I think it would be wonderful to bring the Beanpot to Belfast and am lending my support to the campaign.”

Naturally, the Giants organisation are overjoyed at the chance, as Robert Fitzgerald, CEO of the owners the Odyssey Trust, says:

“Bringing this tournament to the Odyssey Arena is ice hockey’s answer to bringing Notre Dame to Croke Park (in Dublin, for an NCAA football game last year) – the impact would be massive and would bring a major economic boost not only to local sport, but to hospitality, tourism and culture in Northern Ireland.

“Ice hockey has played an important role in fostering strong relationships between Belfast and Boston and bringing this high-profile tournament to Northern Ireland would further cement that relationship and celebrate the links between the two cities.”

Whilst on this side of the pond the news has been greeted with joy (put it this way…I’d swim the Irish Sea if I had to to get a chance of seeing one of the most famous college hockey tournaments on earth) and there is no doubt that the potential exposure for Belfast, the Giants and indeed hockey to the UK and Northern Ireland raises exciting possibilities for us hockey fans on this side of the pond (especially if you’re a Northern Irish local) let’s just say the reaction in Boston and indeed hockey fans in North America has…not been quite as positive.

  1h

I’m getting on a plane to fight the mayor of Boston. Belfast can’t have the Beanpot. I’m too angry for witty commentary.

1m

Send it to Belfast, and it’s just another tournament. Call it what you want. It ain’t the Beanpot.

no.

That’s just absurd. Here’s a tip: don’t play the in a place where they still call it “ice hockey”.

How can anyone go on with their everyday lives right now?! There is a national crisis. They want to take the Beanpot to BELFAST!

I’m glad that 100% of the boston NCAA hockey fan community’s response to this is just…NO.

So, that’s a flavour of the reaction in Boston (and indeed elsewhere). What about in the UK? Granted, as one of those rare breed of Brits who considers waking up at 3:30 am for a Pacific time playoff game perfectly normal and gets annoyed when he can’t watch the Memorial Cup, I’m up for this one…but how up is the UK hockey community on what’s coming to their shores?:

So today; Hands up who had to google what a beanpot is?!

@fourthlinewing

Belfast are bidding to host the Beanpot Tournament in 2016. If that happens, I’m going. No question whatsoever.

S

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You Can’t Stay Lucky Forever: PDO, Brian Stewart & The Dangers Of Hot Starts

You don’t have to be good to win. Most of the time you just have to be lucky”

There’s been a lot of buzz recently around the Coventry Blaze-deservedly so. After all, they’ve won all but one competitive game they’ve played so far this season, and the form of the Blaze’s netminder Brian Stewart in particular has raised excitement that the Blaze can be back up and challenging for a title this season.

Last weekend, I presented the theory that perhaps a combination of Brian Stewart’s hot start and opposition quality was, in fact, the reason Blaze were where they are, not necessarily because they were a team anywhere near the level some were throwing at them. I also argued that it was far too early to make any conclusions about just how good this Blaze team were, and statistically, their start was ridiculously hot and riding a hot goalie.

Predictably, this didn’t go down too well in Coventry. I was called “negative”, told I had “no proof” and even, in an argument familiar to anyone in hockey who’s ever dared to go near a stats table, told “WATCH THE GAMES, YOU IDIOT!”

So, I decided to take a slightly deeper look. Was the Blaze’s hot start symptomatic of an all-conquering team, or is there a statistical argument to say that the rest of the teams will catch up and they’ll be dragged back to the pack? Was this “incredible new era” down, in a large part, to luck and the right combination of circumstances?

I decided to look into this, using a tool which has been embraced by many in the hockey community-statistical analysis of given variables, or “fancy stats”. Very particularly, one stat. This stat, unlike many others in isolation such as save percentage, points, or anything else, takes everything into account that can happen in a game-every bad bounce, good night and blinding performance-to give us who like to analyse trends and try and draw conclusions about what’s happening in front of us a statistical tool that takes everything in a game into account and a tool to compare how teams are doing.

It’s called “PDO” (the name comes from the Internet name of the person who first came up with it.). Cam Charron, one of the foremost analytical hockey stat guys on the Internet, does an excellent job of explaining it in full here.

Put simply, though, it’s a number you come up with by adding the save percentage of your teams goalies to the percentage of shots your team take that hit the net. Simple, right?

Why should we care, though?

PDO works because it uses blind luck as a factor, and also by not looking too hard at the “quality” of shots a team faces on any given night. It simply assumes that there can be only two outcomes of a shot-either it goes into the net, or it doesn’t. Since “shots” in hockey are only counted as those that either hit the net or would have had the goalie not stopped it, and uses stats gathered over either a period of time or the whole season, it removes all other considerations about “chance quality” or “quality of opposition on a given night”-or at least makes them negligible.

In fact, as you’ll see in the Charron article, the “randomness” of taking a team’s shooting percentage over a period of time effectively negates any effect “shot quality” might have had, because it takes EVERY shot into account. The simple fact of luck variance negates any argument that stats are adversely affected by “always giving up quality shots” because it’s simply not true at a team level.

It also works to show when a team is on a particularly good run or a bad run, using “regression”. I’m going to quote Charron here to explain how:

‘Regression’ here is the theory that since every shot taken in the EIHL must result in a save or a shot, the mean PDO in the EIHL is 1. The longer a player or team plays, and the more their play is affected by random factors present in every hockey game, the closer its PDO will get to 1.

PDO is, essentially, a measure of blind luck, applied to hockey.

So-let’s first of all look at the AVERAGE PDO in the EIHL right now. The theory is, over time, it should make 1. (or, if you write it the way I have and express it as a percentage, 100.0). Let’s first have a look at the average, worked out by averaging the save (SV) and shooting (SHT) percentages of all ten EIHL teams thus far, to give us a baseline of what should be the “typical” EIHL squad:

AVERAGE EIHL PDO: 99.9 (90,9 SV, 9% SHT)

Pretty damn close to 100.0, that, isn’t it?

Now, let’s look at the PDOs of all 10 teams to see how they compare (for statistical purposes, a deviation of + or -2 is considered to be either “very good/lucky” or “very bad/unlucky”

Here they are. PDO first, then shot percentage. Teams are in order of standings.

COVENTRY: 105.3 (95.3 SV, 10% SHT)

BELFAST: 101.3 (92.3 SV, 9% SHT)

BRAEHEAD: 103.3 (89.2 SV, 13.1 SHT)

SHEFFIELD: 105.0 (93.6 SV, 11% SHT)

CARDIFF: 96.8 (89.2 SV, 7.6 SHT)

NOTTINGHAM: 97.5 (90.7 SV-average of Kowalski & Green, 6.8% SHT)

EDINBURGH: 100.2 (92.0 SV, 8% SHT)

FIFE: 98.3 (91.1 SV, 7.3 SHT

HULL: 97.2 (86.2 SV, 11% SHT

DUNDEE: 95.1 (88.9 SV 6.2 SHT)

So-what do we learn? We learn that Brian Stewart is currently 5% above the “average” save percentage gained by an EIHL goalie-and also that the Blaze are getting an above-average amount of pucks to hit the net. We can also see that the Blaze goalie is 2% ahead of his nearest competitor, which is a MASSIVE gap (normally, EIHL starters as a whole have a gap of between 3 or 4 percent between the best and worst).

We can also see that Braehead have the most deadly attack in the EIHL currently-finishing an incredible 13% of their chances, or nearly 1.5 times the average, and that Hull are letting in goals like they’re going out of fashion at the moment-David Brown is letting in nearly 10 more goals per 100 shots than Stewart, and 5 more than an “average” EIHL goalie.

Now, PDO works by assuming that eventually, over a season, all teams will “regress to the mean” and get closer to 100, either as their goalies’ save percentage changes, their shooting percentage becomes more in line with what luck would give, or both. If you’re like Dundee and have a low PDO, SV and SHT number, you’re neither stopping pucks well nor scoring-and things can only get better. So take heart, Stars fans.

Conversely, if your PDO is stupidly high or clearly being massively influenced by either a goalie playing out of this world or a team scoring for fun, you’d better hope that continues all year, or you’re going to get worse. Statistically, in fact, due to luck and the bounces evening themselves out, your PDO is only going to drop towards a hundred…unless you keep playing at a level that’s statistically unsustainable or have a run of luck that should probably see you head to Vegas and bet your life savings on one spin of a roulette wheel…neither of which are likely to happen.

It’s early in the year, granted, but what this PDO does show us is that Coventry and Sheffield in particular are having the kind of dream start and performance levels which are incredibly hard to keep up…and that, statistically, unless Stewart has the kind of season not seen in hockey outside of Disney films or Blaze get even better at scoring than their “third best in the EIHL” level, they will regress back to the pack-just like every other team.

Enjoy it while it lasts, Coventry fans. The numbers say that right now, the Blaze are enjoying the kind of purple patch of fortune and conjuction of factors that simply doesn’t last long. In any sport. It’s just a matter of hoping that they’ll last.

In sport, you need luck-and Coventry are using up a heck of a lot of theirs right now.

And if there’s one thing that is certain-luck always changes eventually.

 

Dropping The Gloves With Yourself: Hockey, Mental Health, Tragedy & Redemption

I need to make three apologies before I start this post, which was “inspired” (if you can use such a word in this context) by my reaction to the tragic death of ex-Vancouver Canuck and Winnipeg Jet Rick Rypien at the age of 27 three years ago. This blog was originally written a day or two after he died in August 2011-but is being revisited now as a riposte and also by recent blogs talking about the “dark side” of hockey and presenting a relentlessly bleak view of how pro sports can only ever affect those of us with mental health issues in a negative fashion.

Firstly, sorry to those who have been waiting for the latest in EIHL news. Had a lot on this week with various other projects so will catch up with those as soon as I can.

Secondly, I apologise in advance that this post may venture into territory some may find a little darker than your usual hockey blog. You’ve been warned.

And thirdly, to those of you who may finish reading this and think that it doesn’t really have a coherent point, I apologise also. It kind of comes from the heart, this one…for reasons that you’ll see shortly. If anything, think of it as some sort of tribute to a fallen warrior…if that doesn’t sound too clichéd.

Now, on we go.

2011 was a terrible off-season for the NHL. Not so much for any events on the ice as for the loss of three men way before their time…first Derek Boogard early in the off-season, Wade Belak, and Rypien. All men were physically fit, living the hockey star dream of many, and all had had some time away from hockey due to injuries.

The Boogaard death was tragic in itself, and I reacted to it the way most people did-with sympathy for his family, sadness that a player who was fun to watch was gone while still in the prime of his career…all the usual emotions. The same with Belak’s.

But Rypien’s death hit me differently. As the news broke and speculation (still not confirmed, we should point out) spread and continues to spread that Rypien may have taken his own life, my thoughts this time round were not just a case of “wow, that’s tragic” this time.

They were a reaction of “holy shit. That could have been me”.

It was and is heavily speculated around the NHL that Rypien suffered from mental health issues. Very few specifics were ever released, if any at all, but they did cause the third-line grinder/enforcer to take several leaves of absence from the game he loved over his career.

And because of this, he’s a player who I identified with a little more than most.

Now-before you start thinking “who the hell is this guy and what does he know?” sure, I’m not an NHL player. I’m not someone who has or probably ever will have to deal with the pressures engendered by playing sports for a living.

But I am someone who has struggled and continues to deal with mental health issues. In my particular case, it’s a (thankfully) mild form of bipolar disorder, and also clinical depression.

This causes me to have fairly frequent and unpredictable mood swings. There are some days where I am immensely happy, positive, creative, and feel like I can do anything I wish. These are the incredible, manic-high days, and they are fairly rare.

Then (and thankfully these are the most common) there are the “normal” days. Sometimes these are better, sometimes worse, but usually, they work out alright, similar to those of almost everyone else on the planet.

But there are other days still. These are the ones when I’m convinced that anything I do isn’t good enough (including any posts on this blog), I’m pitied rather than tolerated by anyone I know, and any contribution my life could possibly make has no value to anyone or anything on the surface of the planet. Thankfully, although I used to suffer massively with them, now I’m on medication they are usually rare and if they do happen, I have lived long enough with this problem and evolved coping strategies that help me get through. In fact, few people can probably tell when I’m having one of those days…a fact that gives me immense pride.

But still, I have to fight with myself to get through. And once or twice in my life, I’ve dropped the gloves with my inner trouble self and come perilously close to losing.

Several years ago, in the grip of one particularly bad swing, I found myself standing on an overpass late at night, standing staring at the cars passing beneath, and just for a fleeting second, the thought entered my head…

“Would it really be such a bad thing if I just jumped?”.

I tore myself away from that rail with several thoughts-family, friendship…all the clichés that people say help in such a situation.

I’ve had to do it again since-the most recent a matter of a few weeks ago while standing at a level crossing as a train approached after a bad day of failing to find a job and being insulted by hockey fans on Twitter for something I’d written about Coventry, and thinking “sod it. If I step in front of this train all my pain will go away”.

But I’m also convinced to this day that hockey played a part, however small, in saving me.

My attempts at playing hockey are with a group of friends at an amateur level in a hockey backwater country. I can skate a little, handle a puck, and kid myself that at the level I play at I’m not that bad, but I have always known that hockey for me is nothing more than something I do for fun.

But what it is is an escape. On the ice, no matter what kind of day I’m having, I know that any of the internal fights that I have with myself stop. I’m happy. Hockey is by far the best antidepressant I know. And this, perhaps, is one of the reasons I love it so much-because of a truth that in my case seems to be evident:

Demons don’t skate.

But the Rypien case has shaken my faith in that truth, just a little. It seems that even playing the game he loved couldn’t help. Rypien, a player who was know for his lack of fear and willingness to take on any opponent at any time, a player who appeared to be finally dealing with his problems and was immensely hopeful of getting back into the NHL with the Jets after dealing with the kind of problems that simply can’t be properly explained to anyone who hasn’t dealt with them, may have been challenged by his demons to drop ’em once too often. And this time round, after years of dealing with it, there is the chance that maybe he just didn’t “wanna go” anymore. And that is the scariest thing for me.

Rypien is not the first hockey player to suffer from mental health issues. Tom Cavanagh, a former San Jose Sharks forward, committed suicide in January 2011-he had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and was institutionalized several times.

The thing that makes both these deaths so tragic for me, and hockey in general, is that these are men who played a sport they loved, had fought battles off the ice that few people could conceive, and (certainly in Rypien’s case) looked like they were recovering.

It raises the question…how many other NHLers are out there fighting lonely battles, fearful that they’ll be stigmatized by fans and players alike as weak for admitting that they perhaps aren’t supermen, that they can’t fight their feelings alone.

But most of all it reminds us that these players who we pay to watch are not perfect. They’re flesh and bone too, and they sometimes need help. And it reminds us that the toughest battles in hockey aren’t fought in the corners or in front of the net by many, but in their own minds.

For that reason, Rick Rypien should be viewed with true respect.

Whatever people thought of his style of play, he battled for years with a foe that never stops coming, never gives up, never gets tired, and wants nothing more than to kick the living crap out of anyone it comes into contact with. And he battled hard and well, just as he did on the ice.

Tragically, though, this was a case where the demons won. But I hope that it leads those who may be battling similar issues to realise that in the game of live, sometimes maybe you need someone to back you up when you drop the gloves, and there is no shame in asking. I found my help in hockey and the people I share it with…and it’s probably one of the reasons why I’m still here to write this. I found it in the friendship and camaraderie of hockey.

It’s been three years since he died now. RIP, Rick Rypien. You dropped the gloves and stood up against an opponent that no-one ever should have to, and you fought well enough to inspire this writer who you never met and only ever saw you on TV to continue to do the same every single day. You and your willingness to fight for so long are part of the reason I and others like me are still here. Thank you, sir. May you find peace.

Heading Into Danger: Riley Emmerson, Mark Thomas, And The Farce Of The EIHL DPS

If you’ve been around on EIHL hockey Twitter recently, you’ll be aware of two things. One, that the EIHL now has an independent department of Player Safety, and two, that that department (now referred to as DPS cause I’m lazy) has already made its presence felt, slapping Edinburgh’s hard-hitting forward Riley Emmerson with a ten game ban and the Caps with a fine for the Canadian’s check on Belfast’s Kevin Phillips last Sunday, which caused Phillips to leave the game with a suspected concussion.
Predictably, all hell has broken loose as a result, with the vast majority of the EIHL fanbase denouncing the penalty as ridiculously harsh. Defenders of the penalty have pointed to Edinburgh’s inability to provide video footage as the reason both for the fine and the extension of the ban for a penalty originally called as a two-minute minor to nearly 300 times that, citing the need to disduade clubs from “losing” footage.
But in discussions this week, no-one could really give an ironclad explanation as to just where the 10 game ban & fine was pulled from, except to say that it was “punitive” for Edinburgh not providing footage of the incident, or for Kevin Phillips’ concussion.
However, this weekend, we’ve seen just how badly the EIHL manages itself, and the inconsistency rife within the system, as a one-game ban handed out to Sheffield’s Mark Thomas for a similar hit on Fife’s Danny Stewart yesterday while providing a broadly similar rationale has shown just how unsure of themselves the new DPS are. They’re simply inexcusably confusing. Not only that, but with every day that passes, the ban handed out makes them look stupider still. Here’s why, in roughly the order they came through:

The Case Of The Concussion Conundrum

Kevin Phillips was apparently suffering a concussion as the result of the Emmerson hit-an injury cited by Belfast in their request for review AND the DPS in their decision-making process for the ban. Concussions, according to IIHF guidelines AND medical advice based on an extensive study by Cantu, require AT LEAST six days recovery time before returning to game play, and in recent years the increased awareness around head injuries has made teams & leagues even more aware of these.
Phillips received this concussion on Sunday. The following Friday (five days later) he was playing again against Edinburgh.
So, what we have here is an injury the EIHL think is important enough to take into account in a disciplinary process resulting in a ten-game suspension and a club fine as a result, but not bad enough for a team/player even to follow the minimum internationally-accepted recovery guidelines.
There’s some seriously impressive cognitive dissonance/disconnection going on there even if Phillips has recovered. If he hasn’t or indeed didn’t have the injury in the first place, things get really murky, because it at least raises the possibility that either the Giants exaggerated for gain, or that the EIHL and the Giants are mismanaging a potentially very serious issue. Neither possibility is palatable.
Note-to make it quite clear, I am not saying either scenario above is the one that has happened/is happening, because I simply don’t know.

The Case Of The Missing Footage

Many have said the Edinburgh ban is a deterrent to ensure no team”loses” footage when their player is cited. That’s perhaps the case and no-one would argue against it. However-unless it’s Emmerson himself who hid the footage, punishing him personally for a team error is ridiculously harsh-especially if the team are also fined. The fact that Edinburgh have (unsurprisingly) appealed means this could come down.
Oh yes…except the Caps GM, Scott Neil, has said the 10-game ban has absolutely nothing to do with punishing them for a lack of footage. So, from that logic, we can assume that the DPS thought a hit was automatically worth ten games, based on an injury that may or may not actually be serious (or is being horrendously mismanaged), having not seen it. So-fair enough, high hits equal ten game suspensions. It’s harsh but at least it’s a pla…oh, hang on…what’s this?

Consistently Inconsistent
The real test of the DPS’ reasonableness came immediately after the Emmerson ban was announced-a day later Sheffield’s Mark Thomas was cited for a similar hit to Emmerson’s (ie considered as high by the opposition) that was available on video.
This time there was video footage. This time the DPS couldn’t possibly go wrong. A boarding, high and hard, just like Emmerson’s. The video or lack of it has no bearing on the decision.
Even assuming injury doubles the tariff, Thomas is gone for five games, surely. That would be the consiste…
One game. That’s what the ban was judged worthy of.

So-we have two hits, both similar (indeed most who’ve seen both think the Thomas hit is MORE dangerous, and a league saying the ban is decided purely on the hit itself so any argument about a lack of footage doesn’t count…
except the Thomas hit, the worse one, is apparently worth NINE GAMES LESS.

So-in summary, the EIHL, an EIHL team and the Department of Player Safety have, in one weekend:

– given two similar hits bans differing in seriousness by NINE GAMES.
– used a concussion injury as basis for a 10-game ban, but apparently didn’t consider the same injury serious enough to follow internationally agreed concussion management protocols.
– admitted that the lack of video footage had no influence on the ban, thereby pretty much blowing any justification for the imposition of a max tariff on top of a (perfectly logical) club fine out of the water.

Oh yes-and let’s not forget that despite the EIHL making a big play out of the new DPS being “unconnected to any team”-they refuse to tell us who they are, effectively ensuring that EIHL discipline is now run by a shadowy group of people who have no public accountability-people may have given the previous system stick but at least fans knew who Moray Hanson was.

It is, not to put too fine a point upon it, a bloody awful start to the “Department Of Player Safety” era-no accountability, no logic, and two wildly differing decisions for the same hit.

Already, the “brave new world” of a supposedly independent department has its credibility lying in shreds-whoever these shadowy men and women in the Department of Player Safety are, they’ve already messed up badly, and left what could’ve been a great leap forward mired in a quicksand of fan and team distrust.

So, for EIHL discipline, there may be a new name over the door, but the shop is still a mess.

It needs fixing. Quickly.

Giant Among Men: Why Adam Keefe Is The Most Important Player In The EIHL, Bar None

Hockey fans love many different types of players. Some love fancy scorers, the danglers, the dancers. Some like the pugilists, the scrappers, the agitators. And some, for some unknown reason that most of us can’t really fathom, like goalies.

But around the EIHL, there’s usually a lot of love for the kind of blue-collar players who make teams tick-the kind of players whose contribution shows on more than just the stat sheets in terms of goals and assists. The kind of players who are often the ones you need to win.

In the EIHL, there’s a player who is one of those par excellence. A player who is arguably the most important player in the EIHL, bar none.

Adam Keefe in typically robust pose, landing a hit on Edinburgh defenceman Michal Benadik last season. (pic: BBC Sport)

Belfast Giants captain Adam Keefe is the very definition of a franchise player. The 30-year-old from Brampton, Ontario has had more of an impact then probably even he thought possible on both the EIHL and the city of Belfast. Now in his fourth season in the Northern Irish capital and proudly wearing the captain’s “C” on his chest for the third season in a row, the 5’11, 200lb forward has already cemented his place among the all-time legends of his team-and arguably as one of the most significant and respected players of the EIHL era.

In a league where gaudy numbers are often the quickest way to fans’ hearts (look at the way Ryan Ginand instantly became a star in Coventry, for example) Keefe’s way to the Pantheon has been paved with bruised knuckles and bruised bodies as well as goals…playing on the Giants’ third line, he’s formed a partnership with his great friend and partner-in-crime Daryl Lloyd which has been a huge part of the Giants’ success-the pair of them are the closest the EIHL will ever get to the famous “Bash Brothers” familiar to anyone who’s ever seen the Mighty Ducks films.

Keefe has never apologised for his style of play-a style that more than once has brought him into conflict with the disciplinarians of the league as his hitting has crossed a league-sanctioned line. It’s a style of play that emphasises the team above all else-if there’s a shot to be blocked, a punch to be taken or a check to be landed, Keefe will be first in line-and his team-mates know it very well indeed.

Keefe sharing a typical on-ice “exchange of pleasantries” with Cardiff’s Brad Plumton (pic: Belfast Giants)

fasIn a league with a high turnover of players from season to season, particularly amongst non-British players, it’s rare for imports in the EIHL era to hang around in the league for a long time, never mind at one club. It’s even rarer for imports to integrate themselves into the local community and identify themselves with a franchise quite in the way Keefe has managed to do-it’s fair to argue that he holds the same place in Belfast fans’ hearts as former GM and Giants legend Todd Kelman. To fans not just in Belfast but across the EIHL, “Keefer” IS the face of the Belfast Giants, appearing in promotional material regularly, mixing with local media and making himself a big part of local and Northern-Ireland-wide charity appeals during his time in the city, such as the “Wee Oscar” appeal for young cancer sufferer Oscar Knox…Keefe was incredibly active on Twitter both in publicising the campaign and finding ways for the Giants and their fans to help. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, far from “just” being the most recognisable player in Belfast, he’s one of the faces of the EIHL itself.

Ask any EIHL fan for one opposition player they’d love to have on their squad, or an EIHL player who they’d love to have as a team-mate, and for all the above reasons, Keefe will be among the first names mentioned, whatever colour jersey they wear. His willingness to go to the dirty areas on ice and do pretty much anything for the team (including dressing for the EIHL playoff final last year despite reportedly carrying a very painful injury that made him barely able to skate) and do all the unglamorous but necessary things that win games make him a leader many teams would happily sell their souls for.

If there’s a battle to be had in front of the net during a Belfast game, there’s a good chance Adam Keefe’s in the thick of it (pic: Belfast Telegraph)

In three EIHL seasons so far he’s scored 75 points and racked up 625 PiMs over his 163 games, but mere numbers simply don’t show just how much of an impact Keefe has had and continues to have on both Belfast and the EIHL. Arguably, the only other players in the EIHL era who have been as important to their teams’ identities throughout their time at the club are Brad Voth in Cardiff, Dan Carlson in Coventry, Martin Cingel in Edinburgh and (possibly) Jeff Legue in Sheffield. That’s some pretty august company to be measured in when it comes to franchise players.

Of the players above, Keefe is the only one still at the club where he’s had most impact-and right now, it’s pretty hard to argue that there’s a player in the EIHL more important to their team’s (and by extension the league’s) identity both on and off the ice. That alone, for all the reasons above, means that the Brampton Bulldog is, by far, the EIHL’s most important player. 

And we look forward to seeing him “pull on the work boots” along with Daryl Lloyd and go to war for the Giants once again, while every Giants fan realises just how lucky they are and every player, coach and fan in the EIHL outside Belfast secretly wishes he was pulling on their jersey.

When your presence inspires such love in your own team and envy in the rest of the league, that, for all the reasons above, is the mark of a truly great player.

Adam Keefe. The most important player in the EIHL, bar none.

Time For Answers: The Burning Questions For Every EIHL Team

As the 14/15 EIHL season officially starts this evening (with Dundee taking on Belfast) and the preseason games have been watched, picked over and noted for every possible weakness by opposition fans and coaches. But now, the good stuff starts. The games are for points, more than pride. And since it’s still early in the season, every team still has questions to answer. What are the big questions we should be asking about every EIHL team, and how will they answer them? Chasing Dragons takes a look:

BELFAST GIANTS: Is no change as good as a rest?

The Northern Irish side have clearly decided that, with a team that won the EIHL by a street last year and set the standard for every team to follow. This year, despite changing their coach to returning hero Steve Thornton, they’ve kept the vast majority of their players together-only replacing players where strictly necessary. Pre-season has so far not been the greatest barometer for whether or not this has worked-a narrow victory over Cardiff at home was followed by a 7-5 loss away (although in Giants’ defence this was with only ten skaters and a backup goalie. We know the Giants are very good indeed…but the question is-can they click and rekindle the same spirit as they did last year, especially now they’re carrying a massive bullseye on their backs for the rest of an improved league? They’ll need to prove they can.

BRAEHEAD CLAN: Is Kyle Jones consistent enough for a title challenge?

Many have picked Braehead already to make “the leap” they’ve been threatening to make for several years this season. However, the one thing that’s keeping people from picking them as a “legitimate” title challenger-the big question on their roster-is in net. Kyle Jones is a useful EIHL goalie, make no mistake. Well, “serviceable” might be fairer. A save percentage of 89.9% is not going to win your team a title, unless you have a very, very high-scoring team in front of you. There’s no doubting that the Clan have a very useful team in front of him…but Jones will have to do his part consistently every single night to make them a great one.

CARDIFF DEVILS: Can they perform away from the Big Blue Tent?

In preseason the Devils have played four games, two home, two away. In their own rink they’ve scored 13 goals-away from it they’ve only scored three. Understandably, Andrew Lord has built a team that is likely to be most comfortable and incredibly suited to the tight, hostile confines of Cardiff Bay, but in order to be truly consistent they need to be a team that can do it away from their own rink. Their offensive explosion against Belfast shows that they do have players who can score consistently, but they’ll need to do it in all rinks, not just at home, if they want to be the great team that the Devils fans and others think they can be.

COVENTRY BLAZE: Have they actually addressed their weaknesses? Can they find consistency?

The Blaze have made much of their improvements this off-season, although pre-season play of again only winning two of four has perhaps reined in a few of the more “optimistic” fans. The main criticism of fans last season was seemingly a lack of intensity in key moments, a defence that didn’t really do its job and gave the goalie hardly any protection-also something of a lack of depth between the top line and those below. This time round, the Blaze have built a defence that looks good on paper, but is relying almost exclusively on ex-Dundee Star Rory Rawlyk to provide any creative impetus, and Ryan O’Marra and Jereme Tendler to do the same up front. If they lose one of that “Holy Trinity”, can they cope consistently over a long season? There’s also a question-mark remaining over goalie Brian Stewart-is he consistent and calm enough over a season?

Then, of course, there’s the mental aspect. Last year Blaze were into the habit of playing twenty or forty excellent minutes a game. The trouble is, hockey games last for sixty minutes. So far this preseason this team has done the same, most spectacularly when they conceded four goals in the third in Cardiff, including three in six minutes. Brian Stewart has been called “slow” by many fans, particularly against the fast passing and puck movement of Sheffield…can the Blaze get themselves into gear and can they prove they’re more than just a one-and-a-half line team, with consistent production from more than just their stars? They have to, or they’ll be shut down relatively easily. Marc Lefebvre has already said he knows the Blaze need to be more consistent-but saying and doing are two different things.

DUNDEE STARS: Who are the Stars? How good are they when settled, really?

Dundee have started a little confusingly in the preseason, losing once to Edinburgh in their first game and being a team who still haven’t quite completed their roster…as of now, their defense isn’t set in stone, and until that happens, it’s really hard to get a handle on just how good they look, never mind how good they actually are. Also, Jeff Hutchins has built himself a rugged team, as one would expect. Discipline is going to be a key thing for the Stars, but before they can even begin to settle that down, they need to know who’s staying and who’s going. And that will have to happen very quickly, especially with a tough opening weekend against Belfast and Coventry.

EDINBURGH CAPITALS: Can the locals step up? And can they find the right balance between physicality and skill?

The Caps are a different team this year-to the point where even the most loyal Capitals fans have noticed the change for the better. With the likes of Riley Emmerson, Kyle Flemington and Lukas Bohunicky they have one of the most physically imposing teams in the EIHL-but with Rene Jarolin, Greg Collins and Richard Hartmann they have the skills, too. However, the British crop, predominantly local-bred in the SNL are in the main inexperienced and having to step up a level-the learning curve is steep and painful, with James Wallace blowing out his knee in pre-season, too. With the Caps relying predominantly on local British talent to back up their imports, they’ll need to play up another level to ensure that Murrayfield is known for more than just tough games and pretty goals in a losing effort this season.

FIFE FLYERS: Can they keep the momentum going?

Towards the end of last season, Fife were the form team-they accessed an inner reserve of belief and grit that seemed to carry them through on will alone. Now, with a new season but the majority of the same roster, can Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart catch that lightning in a bottle once again? The Flyers have arguably a better, deeper group than last year-but they’ll be hoping to capture the same fighting spirit embodied in the Kirkcaldy Roar. They have to if they want to repeat the Herculean efforts of last year in a much stronger, more even league.

HULL STINGRAYS: Can they keep up with the rest of the league?

No disrespect to them, but Hull are the weakest-looking team in the EIHL this year, possibly by some distance. They will have to play well above their CVs or have Omar Pacha discover the spirit of Scotty Bowman in order to make any serious noise in the EIHL this season. Failing that, they just need to play at their best every single night, because it’ll be enough of a struggle for them against the likes of Sheffield, Nottingham etc without them shooting themselves in the foot. The Stingrays are the poor relation of the EIHL…just how will they find a way to offset the gaps?

 NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS: Can they handle the load? Just how strong is their EIHL roster?

The Panthers are putting their players through a hell of an early season-six games against some of the best teams in Europe in the CHL by early September, two more in Slovenia, and your normal EIHL schedule. Luckily for them, they’ve got a 16-import roster early in the year to help them deal with it. But what happens in October? Do the Panthers run with spare imports and continue to harvest the benefits of depth? Or do they cut themselves down to 12-if so, who goes?
The Panthers are representing the EIHL with hard work but sadly, no success…even with a strengthened roster they’ve been steamrolled by the teams so far…conceding 20 goals in 3 games while only scoring 5. With three still to come and injuries already piling up, can they handle the extra load on top of the regular EIHL season, or are they increasing the profile of the league at potential major cost to their own championship ambitions?

SHEFFIELD STEELERS: Will the expectation and off-ice pressure have a negative effect on-ice?

Finally, of course, we come to Sheffield, certainly the hothouse cauldron of the EIHL. No team has higher expectations placed on them, no off-ice effort is more bombastic (some might even say arrogant) and no team is more prone to heaping pressure on its players with statements in the press and rhetoric. You need to be mentally strong to cope in Sheffield, because there’s simply no time to bed down. Perform or the axe falls.

This Sheffield team looks very useful indeed. But that can sometimes be a curse-as Doug Christiansen and Marc Lefebvre found out last season. This Steelers team will live and die by how it lives up to the hype its own employees generate…can they get off to a fast start, then keep going and make the reality match the myth, because, though the margins for error may be low elsewhere in the EIHL, in Sheffield they’re non-existent.

As this article finishes, the puck’s being dropped on the first game of the 14/15 EIHL season proper. Dundee take on Belfast in a match that sees pretenders v the champions. Any sort of result will send a message to the rest of the EIHL already-it’s up to the two teams, and indeed all teams early in the season, to decide whether that message is going to leave confident answers, or only more questions.

Puck drop time. Here we go.

EIHL Team By Team Preview 10: Edinburgh Capitals: Steel Fist In A Velvet Hockey Glove

“My skin is thick now
I learnt these lessons years before
This time I’m ready for your war”

Hadouken: “Declaration Of War”

INTRODUCTION

Traditionally one of the EIHL’s basement sides, the Edinburgh Capitals have spent most of the EIHL era bumping along the bottom, as a plucky little team that was secretly most people’s second squad but never really one that people remembered seeing. Even Caps fans accepted that making the playoffs and an entertaining season was the best they could hope for as bigger teams with more money and bigger crowds simply outmuscled them.

Then came Richard Hartmann-the Slovak tried to bring an Eastern European “velvet hockey” style to the EIHL, emphasising quick skating, skill and puck possession over any sort of physicality. It made the Caps wonderful to watch for hockey purists (and called “boring” by those who prefer more blood-and-thunder styles of the game) but unfortunately, in a predominantly North American-dominated league with an emphasis on grinding and tight checking, it didn’t really take off well enough.

And so the Caps decided to modify their style a little. And this year, they have, with Hartmann going for a more North American and powerful look. How’s he done it?

GOALIES 

 #53 Tomas Hiadlovsky, #31 Craig Mallinson, #31 Kevin Forshall

Returning in net is Richard Hartmann’s “crazy Slovak” Tomas Hiadlovsky-the 25-year-old from Trencin hasn’t put up the greatest EIHL stats in his two years in Edinburgh, but in his defence, a lot of that has been due to defensive lapses in front of him…when your defence is anchored by the horrifying defensive player that is Jan Safar, you’re going to face a lot of shots. The entertaining goalie will take the majority of starts-behind him is Caps SNL prospect Craig Mallinson, getting his chance at the top level after some impressive seasons at SNL level…he’ll share the duties with Kevin Forshall as backup, with Craig Holland having left for Dundee. Mallinson already has his first EIHL win after beating Dundee in preseason and has performed impressively, but it’ll still be Hiadlovsky who’ll start, most likely.

DEFENCE

#4 Joe Grimaldi, #5 Lukas Bohunicky, #7 Jay King, #19 Marcel Petran, #22 David Beatson, #28 James Wallace, #54 Kyle Flemington (tryout)

This is the first indication the Caps are going in a different direction…Jay King and James Wallace are both young local players stepping up from the SNL-Wallace is on a 5-year deal, so clearly Richard Hartmann sees something in the young Paisley boy. Jay King is a Caps SNL product whose development has been impressive so far. But it’s in the imports we see a change…Marcel Petran is a smooth-skating Slovak with offensive skill to burn, Kyle Flemington and Lukas Bohunicky are both very large (6’7 and 6’5) defensive defencemen (Flemington is a young dual-national Canadian/Brit on a tryout and Bohunicky is another Slovak). But the big name on this group is Joe Grimaldi, the former Nottingham Panther, who lit up social media last year and is certainly a big personality as well as a useful offensive presence. The group’s rounded out by local stalwart David Beatson, who’s a Murrayfield fixture and also a big bloke at 6’4 and 229lbs…he’ll handle physical duties, too.

FORWARDS

# Callum Boyd, #12 Greg Collins, #17 Richard Hartmann, #20 Sean Beattie, #26 Riley Emmerson, #35 René Jarolin, #36 Jade Portwood, #40 Daniel Naslund, #92 Dennis Rix   

This is an intriguing forward group, to say the least. It’s also a group very different to those previously created by Richard Hartmann, not least in the massive 6’8, 249lbs frame of Riley Emmerson. The huge British Columbian is clearly the man tasked with protecting the Caps skill players, and protect he will…Hartmann has, by the looks of it, decided that the likes of Daniel Naslund and the sublime-to-watch Rene Jarolin need someone to enable them to weave their stickhandling magic without fear of intimidation. Jarolin is by far the standout player on this group, closely followed by Hartmann and Jade Portwood. It’s impossible to put just why the 32-year-old from Skalica is so glorious to watch into words-the closest I can get is that that he’s like a watching a Rolls-Royce, in that he does everything his team requires of him on the ice with such quiet, unhurried, understated brilliance, and so efficiently that it doesn’t even look like he’s trying-there are surely few better hockey minds in the EIHL than his. 

Snap and snarl is provided by college product Dennis Rix along with local product Sean Beattie alongside Emmerson, but while Hartmann has looked to accept the blood-and-thunder ethic of the EIHL a little, this is still very clearly a skill-oriented team…Greg Collins is a prolific assist and setup man and Naslund and Portwood provide a balanced package of size and skill to complement Hartmann, Collins and Jarolin. Hartmann, too, can drop back to defence if required to provide some extra offensive punch-and at 38, he’s an old, calm head, too.

COACH: Richard Hartmann (4th year)

As the only coach from outside North America in the EIHL, Hartmann is something unique..a skilled player in his own right who has a very clear idea of how he wants his teams to play, and is deceptively calm on the bench. He’ll be looking to use the benefit of his experience and hockey brain to plot ways the Caps can bridge gaps to much more illustrious looking squads elsewhere…and his teams always work incredibly hard. Definitely an up-and-coming coach.

PROSPECTIVE LINES

Rene Jarolin-Jade Portwood-Greg Collins

Daniel Naslund-Richard Hartmann-Dennis Rix

Riley Emmerson-Sean Beattie-Callum Boyd

 Joe Grimaldi-Lukas Bohunicky

Marcel Petran-David Beatson

Jay King-James Wallace

Tomas Hiadlovsky

Craig Mallinson

PLAYER TO WATCH: #12 Greg Collins

Rene Jarolin would be the obvious pick for this spot, but frankly we’ve waxed so lyrically about him in the “Forwards” section that to do so again here would simply be to repeat what we said-the Sublime Slovak is something special for “purist” fans of the game. Greg Collins, meanwhile, is an intriguing pickup. He looks on paper like a taylor-made replacement for the departed Curtis Leinweber, both in stature and style of play. This is very much a recommendation-fast, skilful and with an eye for goal, if Collins does settle in Edinburgh he could be a sleeper hit, much like Leinweber was. 

SUMMARY

Nobody is saying the Caps will be title challengers, but Richard Hartmann has quietly put together what might be the most “complete” Caps squad for several years. There is exciting potential in Collins and Naslund to add to the obvious skill of Jarolin, and with Riley Emmerson the Caps finally have a genuine physical intimidator to ensure that they’ll be given the space to play. Couple that with the emerging and maturing Jade Portwood and some potential sleeper hits in Daniel Naslund and Marcel Petran, as well as the big personality of Joe Grimaldi, and this Caps team has something to attract everyone. It won’t win the league, but it’ll be a fun season in Edinburgh, and with a little bit of luck and a big season from Hiadlovsky, they could be playoff-bound once again. The Caps lion is stirring in the Scottish capital after far too long a sleep.