We Need To Talk About Kevin: Belfast Sign A Gamechanger

Hot on the heels of Cardiff rocking the EIHL with the signing of Paul Bissonnette, and the almost-immediate dashing of those hopes as Biznasty found himself an AHL contract almost immediately afterwards, you’d have thought that everything would have settled down again in EIHL waters. Indeed, Bissonnette’s non-appearance, even though Cardiff were always open and upfront about the possibility of him never making it to the EIHL, had somewhat poured cold water on the “EIHL is progressing look at this” crowd (of which I was one).

Until yesterday night, that is, when Belfast made a signing that may not quite have the instant PR impact of Paul Bissonnette (simply because nothing could have the impact of signing one of the biggest personalities in hockey) but will certainly have the same impact on ice. Particularly on both EIHL scoresheets and opposition defencemen.

The Giants have made a massive statement. A statement coming in the form of a 6’4, 228lb  Canadian behemoth named Kevin Westgarth, joining straight from the NHL’s Calgary Flames as their final import, and making a Giants team that already looked like it was hitting its stride after a week or three of adjustment into something truly special.

Westgarth will arrive in Belfast on Tuesday, which means he misses this weekend…however, having got my first (live) sight of the 2014/15 Belfast Giants in Coventry last Tuesday, it seems that he’ll be coming into a team that’s already showing ominous signs of recapturing its league form from last season.

On Tuesday night the Giants went through the Blaze with a surgical precision, bracing and holding against the early flurry of the Blaze attacks with ease, before using their fast skating, positional sense and lethal snap-snap-snap passing to disembowel the Blaze defence with all the emotion and effort of an elephant stomping on a fly, or perhaps more apt, a man slicing a steak with a razor-sharp katana. Rather than attempting to bludgeon their opponents into submission, the Giants looked at the Blaze’s efforts almost with pity, before they stepped up a gear or two and simply blew them off their own ice in a pitiless, vicious display of superb attacking hockey.

This was a Giants squad, unsurprisingly, that was drilled to within an inch of its life and knew exactly what it was doing-unsurprising, perhaps, given that it’s a squad where most members have played together for a year or more.

What’s most terrifying about it, though, is that it was a Giants squad missing its 2nd-line centre and arguably top sniper in Mark McCutcheon and Kevin Saurette that still looked like it was as far above the Blaze as the Everest summit is above base-camp.

Now, that team has added the steel fist to go with the velvet gloves, in the shape of Westgarth. Some “experts” around the EIHL have desperately tried to minimise his signing by focusing on his “toughness”, claiming that he’s only a fighter and isn’t skilled-he’s filling a need that the Giants arguably don’t have.

Rubbish.

Anyone who thinks that a 6’4, 228lb NHL power forward won’t come into the EIHL and be a force either doesn’t know how hockey works or has never seen an EIHL game in their lives. Especially when that player comes into a squad with some of the most accurate shooting from the blue-line in the EIHL behind him and with the size and nous to park himself right in front of the net and experience of battling with defencemen far, far bigger and better than most he’ll face in the EIHL.

Westgarth will cause havoc-and adds an extra dimension to the Giants that will have the likes of Rob Sandrock and Jeff Mason licking their lips as they load up their cannons from the blue-line. He’s the battering ram that can clear the way for the Giants’ skill players and means that they can adapt even more effectively to play any style of hockey needed…a rare quality among EIHL teams.

Westgarth is a clever man, too…he has a degree from Princeton University and has shown signs of being a far better player then the scrapper he was moulded into in the NHL and AHL…it’ll be fascinating to see, like with Bissonnette (who scored at nearly two points a game in the UK) just how far his scoring ability can go.

More to the point, though, Westgarth could, hopefully, be the first of a trend in the future. The very fact that a previous backwater league like the EIHL is now considered an option by players straight from the NHL more and more is a massive positive…it’ll be interesting to see whether the EIHL can take this leap further or whether he’ll be an isolated case as the standard in the UK continues to slowly rise back to ISL levels…

But that’s a matter for the future. The big news at the moment is that the Giants have just got a lot, lot better. And given that they were pretty damn impressive on Tuesday and annihilated the supposedly-strong Coventry while two imports down, that’s a very scary prospect this Hallowe’en indeed.

Advertisements

Sticking Plasters On Open Wounds: The Painful Freefall of Coventry Blaze

Procrastinating, pretending to worry
Solving problems by pushing them aside
Wasting time like we’ve all the time in the world…”

VNV Nation: “Testament”

A few weeks ago, Chasing Dragons took a close look at Coventry’s hot start, and argued that the early pace was masking flaw after flaw in the Blaze’s makeup, in a long article which Blaze fans didn’t like much. The title of that article essentially put forward the content and the argument…the Blaze would be found out eventually.

Three weeks later, the Blaze have gone from a team tearing the league apart to one…well, not. I argued that natural regression would probably see the early leaders slide back to the pack (for which I got all measure of criticism from Blaze fans arguing that my argument was in no way statistically sound)-but I didn’t expect to see it happen quite this quickly.

On Sep 21st, my opinions that Blaze’s hot start couldn’t last provoked a response from none other than Blaze owner Andy Buxton, who decided to take this shot at me on Twitter and revel in the team continuing to prove my fears wrong, thusly:

20141027-115634.jpg

Since that tweet was written on Sep 21 after a 4-3 win against the Nottingham Panthers, the Blaze have only won three games (against Braehead Clan, Fife in OT and an 11-skater Edinburgh on PS)-they’ve played eleven. In those eleven games they’ve only scored 19 goals, or at a rate of 1.6 goals a game, while conceding 34, or, or 3.1 a game. There is obvious frustration within the camp, with rumours of something of a rift between top defenceman Rory Rawlyk and his coach, (and indeed others, as anyone who sees the way the team split apart into small groups post-game in presentations or sees them yelling on the bench will testify) and the stars simply aren’t producing as expected (with the exception of Ryan O’Marra, who’s only scored twice but leads the team on points).

Ouch. They say that pride comes before a fall.

The Blaze are a team who, currently, have learned that even if your hot goalie stays hot (and Brian Stewart, despite this awful run, is still second in the EIHL in save percentage and often the only player preventing mere losses from becoming cricket scores) eventually, you have to do more than just ride him to victory.

The team will no doubt point to four from six points last weekend as something of a sign that things are changing for the better-but look into things a little more closely.

This is a team who are being outscored on average by a goal a game DESPITE having the goalie with the second-best save percentage in the league (although he’s only 5th in GAA now) It’s a team that needed penalty shots, at home, to dispose of a ninth-placed team with 11 skaters.

It’s also a team that has the second-worst PP in the league, no player in the top 20 league scorers, and a coach who can spend a week working on a powerplay and actually make it worse. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start from the back.

Brian Stewart has faced the second-most shots in the EIHL (602 shots, for an average of 35 a game)-fifty more than his nearest competitor Marc Cheverie in 10th-placed Dundee. More to the point, he’s faced 120 shots, or nearly four games worth more, than the next goalie in the Erhardt Conference (Sheffield’s Frank Doyle, who has 480), and three hundred more, in only four more games, then Nottingham’s Craig Kowalski.

Frankly, the Blaze are still riding him like a stolen donkey. The only difference between now and early season is that Stewart is, understandably, unable to keep up his truly incredible start to the season. The law of averages means that no matter how good your goalie is-when you’re conceding more goals than you’re scoring, you will lose games.

And Blaze are doing that now. This weekend they hit the low point of the season so far-taking a 3-1 lead vs Cardiff at the Big Blue Tent on Saturday night before the roof fell in-nine unanswered goals from the Devils over five periods this weekend and a team and coach that looked lacklustre, uninspired and, frankly, awful.

We’ve heard a lot about how the Blaze are a “close team” this season-indeed the “this is a team unlike last years cause it’ll work hard for points all year and it’s united” schtick is one that defenders of the team loved to use in the early part of the season when the team were winning…now, though, the lustre appears to have worn off as Blaze fans realise that this team doesn’t only look like repeating the mistakes of last year, but surpassing them.

Let’s look at the coaching, too. This Blaze team had a noted issue with the powerplay, so we saw Marc Lefebvre as coach say all the right things at the end of last week-“we need to improve on the PP, start scoring…we’ll be working on it all this week ahead of the Cardiff games”.

That work’s result? Zero goals scored on nine powerplays this weekend-and three conceded while shorthanded.

This Blaze team looks disjointed, unhappy and unsure of itself. It also is a team that’s somehow taken one of the standout scorers of the EIHL era, an ex-NHL forward and playoff winning captain and arguably the premier offensive defenseman in the league and turned them into a mishmash of personalities who seem to have no common aim apart from pulling the same shirt over their heads.

What we’re seeing now is the result of four or five years of stagnation in Coventry, both on and off the ice. I’m not talking about things on a business side-but on the side of culture and drive. Players used to want to play in Coventry-they used to know that they’d be held to the highest possible standards.

The past few years, while teams like Braehead have shown the route to success is unity, in Coventry they’ve gone in the other direction-the team has blithely been allowed to drift further and further away from the fans, secure in the knowledge that most of them will come through the door no matter what and with the organisation enclosing themselves in a no-criticism bubble. The problems for this team have been here since the start of the season, but rather than quietly get on with fixing them the club have chosen to stick fingers in ears and go “as long as we’re winning, it’s OK…we can ride a goalie all the way to the title, right?” and the fanbase has fractured between those who can see the problems and those who can’t (or won’t) admit to them.

Off the ice, the matchnight organisation has seen stuttering starts, failed equipment that’s actively sabotaged the hard work of those trying to improve it, and an experienced tailored to pretty much what anyone but the actual fanbase wants.

Now, the fans are turning on a team that looks barely a shadow of those that have graced the Skydome ice. And it hurts to watch a Blaze club who’ve had great players and moments like Adam Calder, Joel Poirier, Wade Belak and Dan Carlson represented by a team who simply don’t seem to care and lack any cohesion, run by a rookie coach who says all the right things but can’t seem to follow them up or even (in some cases, such as that of sniper Jereme Tendler) use his players talents to best effect.

I wondered preseason whether this Blaze team would flatter to deceive as a case of style over substance. I was called “deluded, bitter, and negative” by those both within the club and without for raising those concerns…even going as far as public ridicule, as in the tweet from Andy Buxton mentioned earlier (incidentally, that’s something else that would never have happened in the “old” Blaze…back then, the club actually knew how important anybody who watched their club was, whatever their opinion of events on the ice. The arrogance of today was non-existent)

Now, though, the Blaze’s attempt to sell Lefebvre-brand snake-oil has been found out. Right now they’re a club going nowhere, full of buzzwords, promises and claims of action from the owners and coach, but with those claims being shown to be false week after week.

Simply put, in the way they’re being run and the interaction with the fanbase, they’re looking like Cardiff under Paul Ragan, but with a much better PR machine and financial mangement that actually works.

The trouble is that now, that PR curtain has been lifted, ironically by the changes and success wrought in Cardiff, Fife & even Braehead (teams in a similar position arena-size, stature, and budget-wise to Coventry) and Coventry has seen the ugly truth beneath-this Blaze team has gone from one of the leaders of the pack to an embarrassment while those running it have seemingly taken the easiest possible decision in coaching changes and hoped for the best.

The time for talking is over. There need to be big changes in Coventry, on and off the ice. And they need to happen now, or in only a few weeks this season could be another listed among the false-starts and sad failures of the past five years.

Right now, the Blaze are desperately trying to live in the reflected glories of the mid-2000’s. And the fire is slowly going out, while the coaches and players squabble about the lack of fuel.

And, as someone who’s watched hockey in Coventry for most of his life and, even if he’s not a fan now, still remembers the good times, watching this team stumble slowly into the darkness and being strangled by a web of false promises, fan apathy and lack of owner ambition hurts. It hurts a lot.

This team isn’t fit to lace the boots of former Blaze legends like Calder, Poirier, Belak, Cloutier, Carlson, Lehman, Martin…the list goes on and the legacy of every single one of those players, all who’ve fought and bled for blue, is being shamed and dragged through the mud by their 2014/15 successors. And the worst thing is-as long as the money is coming in, no-one seems to care.

I loved those teams dearly. Since then, my writing path has taken me away from fandom to an unemotional observer. Time and trying to make a career hockey writing does that. But it hurts my soul to watch those great players and teams have their legacy dishonoured so flagrantly and seemingly without a care.

Something needs to change. Cardiff have proved you can come back from the depths with a bit of drive, some brave personnel decisions and an attempt to reconnect with the things that made you so popular in the first place. The magic has gone-the Blaze let it slip through their fingers bit by bit since the glory years of the mid 2000s.
Now, all of the Skydome is feeling the loss. It needs a new era-and maybe there will need to be painful decisions made in the short term…the question is, are they up to the challenge any more?

Coventry is a patient city, used to new beginnings. But it won’t wait forever. Remember that, Blaze organisation.

Your clock is ticking. And time is beginning to run out.

Lightning In A Bottle: Paul Bissonnette Returns, And Cardiff Toss A PR Thunderbolt

But you have thrown the gauntlet down
Only one who wears the crown
So I will gladly hunt you down
And I’m gonna stomp you into the ground”

Saliva: “Hunt You Down”

A normal Friday night in late October is not the time you expect your world to be rocked. Particularly not if you’re an EIHL fan. By now all the big, anticipatory signings have been made, the excitement of opening weekend has been and gone, and the grind of the season has been settled into.

The natural order of things is slowly, slowly beginning to be set, and there are the beginnings of working out how teams fit in and whether or not this is going to be a “good” year.

I wrote yesterday about the excellent work being done in Braehead, and the positive feeling they’ve generated this season as a result. Another team that’s been doing that in spades and who I could have equally written exactly the same article about is the Cardiff Devils…the Todd Kelman and Andrew Lord-inspired revolution in South Wales this season has been something that I held high hopes for in the Devils team preview in preseason, but it’s happened even more quickly than anyone expected, with Kelman bringing in clever touches like a fan shuttle-bus service to Cardiff centre (numbered 666, naturally), excellent PR touches such as changing the office phone number of the team to also end in 666, and generally galvanising the Red Army to once again be proud of their squad.

Even if this was all he’d done (and “all” seems to unfairly minimise the scale of the turnaround achieved in Cardiff in just a few short months) it would have been impressive, as on the ice Andrew Lord has built a hard-nosed, committed squad who love playing in Cardiff, love interacting with their fanbase and play a style of hockey that’s a joy to watch. After a few teething problems early in the season, the Devils have well and truly found momentum to the point they’re now getting their biggest crowds in 12 years.

In short, Cardiff and Braehead are both teams that are showing the way in British hockey at the moment.
Now, though, Todd Kelman & the Devils ownership have taken it up a level. They’ve hurled a genuine thunderbolt into the British hockey landscape and shook the EIHL to the core-and in the process come up with a signing that may have incredibly important long-term ramifications.

Oh yeah-and if things go their way, they just might have signed the biggest game-changer to be seen in the EIHL in a long while while Todd Kelman has added to his reputation as a genuine British hockey wizard.

In convincing Paul Bissonnette to return to Cardiff straight from the NHL after becoming a free-agent, Kelman and the Devils have achieved the kind of PR strike that British hockey can only dream of. I wrote back in 2012 that Bissonnette to Cardiff pt 1 was the most important EIHL signing ever.

Two years later (give or take a few weeks) Biznasty is back in Cardiff. And his signing has caused a social media earthquake that sees his name trending on Twitter in the UK, British hockey fans incredibly excited, the North American hockey media suddenly focusing its attention, however briefly, on Britain and the EIHL suddenly having one of the most well-known personalities across the hockey world fly, literally, into their laps.

This story is only made better for Cardiff when you hear that Bissonnette turned down offers from other EIHL teams to return to South Wales-in fact he openly approached the Devils and said, effectively…”do you guys want me back?”

Let’s get this clear-this is just NOT something that happens to the EIHL. Established NHL players do not simply turn round and say “well, I need a contract-can I come and play in Cardiff?”. Or, for that matter, Sheffield, Coventry, Nottingham or any other team that likes to consider itself the traditional first-in-the-queue when it comes to marquee signings.

Paul Bissonnette, in action for Cardiff the first time round (pic-Al Goold)

NHLer Paul Bissonnette, in action for Cardiff the first time round (pic-Al Goold)

Bissonnette is coming into Cardiff on a rolling contract while he still hunts for a deal with an NHL team. He could not make it to South Wales at all or he could be in Britain all year-the Devils have been careful to make it clear that should the 29-year-old from Welland, Ontario be offered a deal by an NHL club, he’ll be immediately released from his Cardiff contract. Assuming that that doesn’t happen before he gets to play for Cardiff, he’ll arrive in the UK around November 2nd according to the official team Twitter, for a planned debut in a huge home tie against Nottingham.

The Devils, as you’d expect, are milking this for all they’re worth. And who can blame them? What Todd Kelman and the Devils ownership have achieved is something that British hockey can only dream of-they’ve managed to make one of the biggest PR coups not just in Devils history, but in EIHL history. They’ve signed a name with incredible presence in the hockey world-one with nearly 600,000 Twitter followers, loved by the hockey media and a true fan’s dream in terms of character and playing style.

More to the point, they’ve also signed a power forward who can make a team that’s already very, very good indeed truly dangerous-a bruising, committed player who still holds the record .for fastest scoring-rate in the EIHL from his last time here (at a shade under 2 points per game) on a team that wasn’t as good as this one.

In the context of the NHL Bissonnette might be a PR gift who’s known for his mouth and off-ice activities as much as those on it-and that’s impressive enough. In the context of the EIHL, he’s a true game-breaker of a like that’s rarely seen in the EIHL.

The Devils now have a player joining them with a massive personality, a can-do attitude and a love for the game and any team he plays for that makes any attempt to market him almost superfluous-he does that himself.

Let’s make something clear to those of you who still need convincing. In EIHL marketing terms, Bissonnette is an atom bomb among a league of fireworks. He’s the biggest thing to hit this league since Theo Fleury-and as I argued last time, probably bigger.

For Cardiff to get that to happen once as they did in 2012 is special-when you combine the returning personality and skills of one of the most marketable players in the NHL with a team and organisation who have proved that they know how to use such a gift, as Kelman does, you have genuine lightning in a bottle.

If you’re looking for a way to make British hockey more accessible and well known, there can be no better situation to hit the sport, no bigger marketing opportunity, no better pairing, then Kelman and Bissonnette.

The EIHL is already massively excited, and they should be.

This is the biggest thing to happen to both Cardiff and the EIHL in many, many years. And, unlike previous opportunities, this time Cardiff have the perfect situation and support to take advantage in ways that few would have thought possible before.

This is the kind of marketing opportunity that Todd Kelman loves-and for that reason alone, fans of the Devils and indeed British hockey should be very excited indeed.

Buckle up. Both on the ice and off, Cardiff suddenly became THE team to watch in Britain, wherever you are. The player isn’t even here yet and already the PR benefits to both Cardiff and the league have been huge. Just imagine what Kelman, Bissonnette and the Devils could do for Cardiff and the EIHL when he gets here.

There’s no Biz like Biz-Nasty-especially when it’s coming back to Cardiff. And British hockey cannot wait.

The New Kings Of Scotland: Braehead And The Rise Of The Purple Army

I’ve made no secret in the past that I’m something of a fan of what the Braehead Clan have been doing over the past few years. Under the steady guidance of first Kirsty Longmuir and now Gareth Chalmers off the ice, and Ryan Finnerty on it (after a succession of several coaches) the past two seasons have seen the Purple Army rise from “stable expansion franchise” in their first two seasons to one of the new powers of the EIHL. They have an incredible arena at IntuBraehead (one of the most beautiful in the league), a professional and slick off-ice operation and a fanbase that for the most part has grown with the team, to the point that they’re now regularly gaining more fans watching then more “established” teams down south and selling out their arena.

This year, though, there’s a different feel about the Clan-a feeling that they’re no longer just aiming to be the premier team in the Gardiner Conference, but have far loftier ambitions. They currently sit at the top of the EIHL table, having won all of their own conference games and only failed to take a point from one-a record only matched by Nottingham (who’ve only played one game in the Erhardt, so probably aren’t that brilliant a representation).

They also have scoring at a rate few can match-two of the top five scorers in the EIHL are Clan players (Neil Trimm and Scott Pitt) and they also have the leading defensive scorer (and only blueliner in the top 20) in Scott Aarssen. In their first TV appearance (against the fancied-in-preseason Coventry), the Clan looked calm and capable, making the Blaze look ordinary. Ryan Finnerty and Zack Fitzgerald have their team playing fast, hard-nosed hockey that has seen Kyle Jones well-protected and any preseason worries about their netminding covered.

But it’s off the ice the feeling is most noticeably changed. To look at the way the Clan fans talk about their team and the way they support it, it appears that the Purple Army, rare among EIHL clubs, is not so much the people who turn up to watch the team and clubs play lipservice to as the lifeblood of it. Much like Fife and Belfast, the whole drive of the Clan has been not to get people through the doors just to watch a sport, but to become part of something bigger than just a hockey team. It’s an ethos that’s already paid dividends in Belfast and Fife and is now being stepped up to another level in the way Braehead conduct themselves.

It’s fascinating to watch the way players interact with their fanbases during a game. Many teams seem to prefer to keep that distance-only acknowledging fans in your traditional moments like goal celebrations. But it’s interesting watching this Clan team interact with the Purple Army. The glances up towards the stands in breaks in play. The moments where the players almost seem to feed off the fans and then the fans get even louder in a virtuous circle.

Here’s an example-when the Clan were down in Coventry at the beginning of the month, a goal down at the start of the third and looking willing but with the Blaze repelling their attacks, there was a faceoff in the Blaze zone that saw Clan captain Matt Keith look up at the chanting Purple Army as the players took their positions. He looked up at them, and just as he settled into position, his left hand came off the stick and pumped up and down, twice, in the universal “turn it up” gesture. It was a quick, quiet gesture that many may not have noticed.

But the Clan fans did, almost as if they’d been waiting for it. There was a roar from the hundred or so Scots in the Skydome, a “come on now, boys!” in a strong Scottish accent bounced off the roof of the Dome, and the Clan won the faceoff.

Next shift…bang. Derek Roehl equalised, set up by Keith. And as the Clan celebrated, you saw Keith again, look up to the Purple Army behind the goal-and Roehl, too, as they celebrated. Both with a “that was your goal, Purple Army” look on their face.

This team has a connection with its fans-and both they and the fans feel it acutely and feed off it. In that particular game the Blaze managed to cling on for a win by their fingernails, but it’s equally visible in the Braehead Arena-the team and fans, for the first time, have moved beyond the basic “player/fan” relationship into a place where they’re all simply members of the Purple Army.

I said preseason that this Braehead team was the best roster they’ve ever had, but more than that, it’s a roster that’s instantly connected with its fanbase in a way the previous four possibly haven’t. It’s a roster that’s perfectly placed to reap the hard work done of the previous four years on and off the ice-the work that’s led to strong sponsorship, one of the most passionate and loudest fanbases in the league built from scratch and a team that regularly packs its sparkly new arena.

In their fifth year, this Clan roster has finally become what every EIHL team wants to be. So far, it’s a shining light of what can be achieved by patient, hard work. It’s also a very, very good illustration of why EIHL teams should never, ever focus on the bottom line and sponsorship over the fan experience and never risk alienating their core supporters, as some have done in the past few years.

The battle cry in Braehead this year is “Join The Clan”-and all the work done to get to this point means that people are flocking to do so-but more to the point, “Purple Army” isn’t just a name-it’s an ethos.

The difference this year is that when that Clan go into battle now, teams playing them aren’t just facing twenty men with a few thousand in the background. They’re facing a single, united force of three thousand or so who back each other up whatever happens, like all the best.

The Purple Army are truly united. And so far, they’re well and truly on the march in a way that’s more menacing, more powerful and more intent on victory than at any time before.

Giants In Europe: A Scout’s Guide To Belfast’s Continental Cup Opposition

Current EIHL champions, the Belfast Giants are away from home this weekend, following the Nottingham Panthers in heading into European competition in Group B of the Continental Cup. The Giants will face Fischtown (Bremerhaven) Pinguine from Germany’s DEL2, CSKA Sofia from Bulgaria, and Tilburg Trappers of the Netherlands in round-robin play at the 4,200-seat EisArena Bremerhaven.

It’s a nice rink, fitting of European competition:

The outside view of the EisArena Bremerhaven, where Belfast will be in Continental Cup action this week

 

The battlefield for Belfast Giants this weekend-the EisArena Bremerhaven

The city of Bremerhaven is in Northern Germany on the Baltic coast, and is one of the largest ports in Europe. Located near to Bremen on the River Weser, it is Bremen’s port and historically a major naval base, which contributed to it being heavily bombed in WWII. Now part of the city-state of Bremen, it’s stuck out on the mouth of the Weser and is the fourth-largest port in Europe.

But enough of the city…what about the three teams Giants will be facing this weekend? Let’s take a look at them:

FISCHTOWN PINGUINS  REV BREMERHAVEN

Founded 1974
Home arena Eisarena Bremerhaven
(cap: 4,254)
Colours Black, Red, White
General manager Hauke Hasselbring
Head coach Michael Stewart
Captain Marian Dejdar

The hosts are probably the team standing most directly in the way of the Giants qualifying for the next stage-the current DEL2 champions sit fourth in their league after 8 games and will have a loud and passionate home support behind them. Built out of a mix of experience and youth, the Pinguins have several names familiar to EIHL fans in starting goalie Brett Jaeger (formerly of Coventry Blaze) and forward Brendan Cook (formerly of the Nottingham Panthers and Braehead Clan). The Pinguins also contain a large number of experienced and not-so-experienced imports both from North America and Eastern Europe, and like the Giants are a roster who have played together for more than one season and know each other very well indeed. Standouts among them include 6’5 Canadian defenceman Ryan Martinelli, the vastly experienced Russian Andrei Telyukin and skilled, experienced Czech scorer Jan Kopecky. Others to watch for include talented centre Andrew McPherson, who’s one of the key creative players. Make no mistake, this is a very tough test indeed and will be an excellent match for the Giants. They’ll be expecting to go through to the next stage in their home arena, and will work very hard to make sure they do so. The group could well come down to the meeting between Belfast and the Pinguins.

 

CSKA SOFIA

Founded 1964
Home arena Sofia Winter Sports Palace(capacity: 2,500)
Colours Red, White

The Bulgarians are something of an unknown in this group. Qualifying from the preliminary round in their home rink against the Serbian, Romanian and Turkish champions, CSKA are made up of a mix of Bulgarians and other Eastern European nations.  They’re assembled from a motley level of the lower Slovak leagues, the minor Russian levels and one Swede, Andreas Johnsson. Notable names include Kristijan Simo, who spent two seasons playing for the ENL/NIHL’s Peterborough Islanders and MK Thunder a few years ago, and current top scorer, Slovak centre Marek Mendel. As the team who’ve already had to go through a preliminary competition to get this far, they should be the weakest in the group. But the simple fact is, nobody knows much about them either way. The Giants pedigree should see them take a fairly comfortable win, however.

TILBURG TRAPPERS

Year Founded 1938
Home Ice Stadium Stappegoor IJssportcentrum Tilburg (capacity 2,500)
City Tilburg, Netherlands
Team Colors Blue, yellow
Head Coach Paul Gardner

Tilburg are a team familiar to British fans, having made several trips over to the UK to play both Coventry and Hull in recent years. The Trappers are among the best teams in the Dutch league, which is generally viewed as slightly below EIHL standard, but not by much. They’re made up mainly of Dutch players, and contain a whole bunch of the Dutch international squad that lost to Great Britain narrowly in the last World Championships, including club and international captain and standout Dutch star Dierderick Hagemeijer and national team starting goalie Ian Meierdries. Also this year the Giants will come up against a former Fife Flyer in forward Kris Hogg, who will be one of the Trappers’ main offensive threats (he scored 29+32 in his lone EIHL season). Other notable players include forwards Peter Van Biezen and Steve Mason

The Trappers have had a fraught offseason, with questions over whether there’d even be a Dutch league thanks to financial issues in the domestic game. They are also notable for having possibly the worst player profile photos ever committed to film.

Here’s captain Dierderick Hagemeijer, getting in touch with his “bad boy band album cover” side:

“Hey, guys, how do you sing “I Want It That Way” in Dutch?

But, in the worst of the lot, forward Jeffrey Melissant pulls out his best “game-face” (and we don’t mean the game you play on ice.)

“Hey girl, my teammates say I have “soft hands”. Wanna find out why?”

The Trappers have had mixed results vs British teams in the past, but as athe opening opponents to the Giants on Friday, it’ll be crucial for Belfast to get a win to set up their Conti Cup campaign in the best possible way. They will provide a potential banana-skin early on as a gritty, hard-working opponent, but should be beatable…they have the chance to play spoiler in this group though, and an outside chance of qualification if neither Belfast nor Bremerhaven take them seriously enough.

So there’s your opponents, Belfast. Forward Adam Keefe has already tweeted that the Giants have “unfinished business” in Germany after their trip to Landshut ended in disappointment last time, so there’s no question the EIHLers are up for this. It should be a heck of a weekend in Northern Germany.

Good luck, Giants. Do the EIHL proud.

You Can Play…Or Can You?: Homophobia in UK Hockey, And Why The EIHL Needs To Act

If you’ve been around hockey the past few years, you can’t have failed to notice the impact had by You Can Play.

An organisation set up by Philadelphia scout Patrick Burke and his father, Calgary Flames GM Brian, in memory of family member Brendan Burke to promote LGBT inclusion in sport and combat homophobia, it’s gone from an idea to commemorate a beloved family member to one of the premier campaigning organisations for inclusivity in sport…a powerhouse supported by the major sports leagues in North America, national team organisations across the States and in the process has become the go-to advocate for LGBT rights in sport.

Its YCP Project has one simple message-that gender and sexual orientation should have no impact on how sportspeople or those watching them are seen. It’s taken several high-profile cases where athletes have been caught using homophobic language and turned them into teaching moments for North American sport, using viral videos from teams and players and signing up some of the biggest players in sports as advocates to spread a simple message.

Sport is for everyone, whatever your gender or sexual orientation.

Hockey in North America has been one of the most fervent supporters of this movement-perhaps unsurprising since the whole initiative was founded by major hockey figures. In its nearly-three-year existence YCP has made great strides in trying to change the stereotypical “macho” culture of hockey and make NHL hockey arenas and North American rinks a place where LGBT people can feel accepted and safe from the discrimination many still suffer.

However, in the UK, it seems that despite the EIHL’s constant emphasis on hockey being a “family sport” and trying to push the inclusiveness of hockey compared to other sports, homophobia is still an issue that EIHL clubs would prefer simply didn’t exist.

Last night at the Sheffield-Hull game, there were widespread reports on Twitter of homophobic abuse being openly shouted at an injured Stingrays player by Sheffield “fans”…despite repeated requests via Twitter for the Steelers to at least say something about it nothing has happened yet. This, following upon the repeated sexist and racist comments made in the past by a Sheffield club official, is something that once again puts the team in a poor light, since it appears they’ll happily tolerate homophobic abuse in their rink. They’ve been tweeting throughout the day but it appears they’ve decided not to mention the incident. Compare this with the way most football teams react to even isolated reports of offensive chanting nowadays.

Sadly, though, homophobia is not just a Sheffield problem-it appears to be one that EIHL clubs and indeed many EIHL fans simply don’t notice…you only have to look at EIHL fan Twitter on a game night or stand in any rink in the UK, and there’s a chance you’ll hear some form of homophobia at some point in the night, even if it’s just the use of the word “faggot” as an insult.

The EIHL has been offered the chance to join the You Can Play initiative-both Sheffield and Coventry, for example, have been approached in the past by fans asking if they could join the stand against homophobia. Neither have. EIHL team officials have cited fears of “players getting abuse on the rink by opponents” or “players being uncomfortable” to me as reasons for not supporting inclusion of LGBT people in hockey. Which frankly is just sad.

The EIHL is trying to market itself as a friendly alternative to the “traditional” sporting environment-how often do you hear arguments against swearing and announcements asking fans not to abuse the officials/players? Yet by continually refusing to take the lead in fighting homophobia among fans and players and publicly supporting initiatives such as You Can Play, the EIHL are refusing to commit to making their rinks and indeed UK hockey a safe place for ALL fans. By allowing team officials and “mouthpieces” of the game to continue to spout outdated sexist and racist views on Twitter without censure they’re making rinks seem unwelcome to a large section of society.

And worst of all, they’re making UK hockey look like an outdated sport stuck in the 70s to those who suffer such abuse.

At a time when UK hockey has much to recommend it (playing standard is climbing, crowds are doing the same, the competition is becoming more competitive every year at every level)…why wouldn’t teams take a PR slam-dunk that can’t possibly backfire? Why wouldn’t the EIHL move into the 21st century and become the first organisation in Europe to become affiliated with one of the largest sports charities in the world, not only improving its image as an inclusive area for all levels of society at a time when many “popular” UK sports, such as football, are still unwilling to openly embrace LGBT fans and players (an FA campaign plan to kick out homophobia was shelved when no player wanted to get involved recently, for example, for fear of “image”).

UK hockey has a chance to do something genuinely good in sport by taking a stand against the homophobia within it, and in the process promote the growth of the game within the UK.

But if incidents like last night in Sheffield are allowed to continue and teams remain scared of the “effect on image” promoted by attempting to be a more welcoming, inclusive sporting environment, then it’ll simply throw that chance to be taken seriously by those outside away.

And if incidents like that mentioned last night on Twitter and the sexist and racist language used in the past are not condemned and indeed a stand actively taken against them, then all EIHL and UK hockey clubs risk doing is alienating the fans they already have-something they can ill-afford to do.

The sport on-ice in the UK is evolving fast and catching up with modern lives and practices in the 21st century.

It’s time the EIHL made a public push for attitudes off ice to do the same-it can only benefit them and the fans who watch them in the long run.