The Night Before EIHL Christmas

With apologies (again) to Clement Clarke Moore, it’s time for this year’s Chasing Dragons Christmas message this Christmas Eve:

Twas the night before Christmas, in the EIHL
Sheffield, Braehead, Belfast, Cardiff, Nottingham as well
Edinburgh, Coventry, Fife, Hull & Dundee
Players, coaches, fans dreaming of what they could be

Meanwhile, hidden, the DOPS men did rest
Nine referees, chosen from among the world’s best
Their rulings all made (though some disagree)
With minds impartial, for player safety

In Belfast, a new era, with faces the same
Led by Steve Thornton, back in the UK game
European heroics made Giants’ eyes smile
But there are nerves Laganside, over league form, meanwhile

In Braehead, Purple Armies are gathering, proud
For a title assault, backed by sell-out crowds
Finner’s men play with skill, and a snarl to fear
Whisper it, Glasgow: “is this your year?!”

In Cardiff, Devils rise like bats out of hell
Under Lord their master, & saviour Kelman as well,
Some said “over-hyped” but the team proved them wrong
And now in the Valleys they sing a victory song

In Coventry, though, the times have been tough
A coach fired, because “OK is not good enough”
And now Chuck Weber faces a mammoth task
Relighting the Blaze – is it too big an ask?

In Dundee, too, the Stars have not shone
Bottom at Christmas, but all hope’s not gone
Recently winning has eased heavy hearts
But a Hutchy turn-around needs to come fast

Edinburgh, Scotland’s Capitals, slow out of the traps
But as Christmas arrives, there are feathers in their Caps
Hartmann’s got them streaking, filled with new belief
Edinburgh lions, finally showing their teeth

Across the Forth in Kirkcaldy, in Flyers country
Fifers hope for a repeat of history
Chaumont, Fleming, Lukacevic and Auger
Are the names they hope bring trophy joy their way

Hull, young & fearless, & led by coach Pacha
Jordan Mayer, Hervato, and the better Tanaka
The Stingrays aren’t perfect, but they’ve earned the right
To beat any team, on any night

The Panthers, blinded by bright CHL lights
Have had some bad, some good, and one glorious night
Beating Hamburg their highlight, but as Yule draws near
Fans fear that cracks are beginning to appear

The Steelers sit proud at the top of the tree
“Happy Christmas Sheffield-welcome back Jeff Legue!”
But deadly rivals await them on Boxing Day
Lose to them, and Xmas won’t be so happy & gay

Now on this Christmas Eve, one duty remains
For your humble writer, of Chasing Dragons fame
To thank you for reading, this year & the next
And leave you a wish to end this scribbled text

As you celebrate this Yuletide, fellow hockey fan
Be you Steeler, or Panther, or Blaze, Stingray, Clan
Flyer, Giant, Capital, or Devil, or Star
Merry Christmas to you, wherever you are!

Thank you to all of you for reading my ramblings on here or Twitter this year-it’s been a joy to write for you…and here’s to more in 2015.

Merry Christmas, everyone,
Paul

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There And Back Again: The Fall And Rise Of The Edinburgh Capitals

The Edinburgh Capitals are one of the stories of this Elite League Ice Hockey season. Currently, they’re on a winning run to dwarf even the wildest dreams of the Caps fanbase, having overcome early-season struggles and the public anger of coach Richard Hartmann to win 9 of their last 11 games and rocket up the table, including a win against Nottingham, another win at home to Coventry and five of their last six at home (the lone loss a shootout loss to Fife) – a state of affairs that has seen a new optimism in the Scottish capital.

Edinburgh is the epitome of a storied hockey town in Britain fallen on hard times recently, like neighbours across the Firth of Forth and deadly rivals Fife Flyers (in Kirkcaldy). Chasing Dragons looks in depth at why the recent winning run has been greeted with such joy not just among the Caps hardcore fanbase, but by fans across UK hockey…and tries to figure out why the Caps may be the second team of many outside Scotland, too.   

INTRODUCTION: UNQUIET GHOSTS AND HOCKEY CATHEDRALS

““Edinburgh is a great big black bastard of a city. A city where there are ghosts of all kinds-and they never sleep.”
Sara Sheridan

“(Edinburgh is) a place so beautiful, it breaks the heart again and again”

Alexander McCall Smith

Murrayfield Ice Rink is a building full of ghosts. Built in 1939, this freezing old barn – a large, squat construction of whitewashed brick crouching defiantly in the immense shadow of Scotland’s much newer and flashier national rugby stadium – holds the very soul of its city in its bricks and mortar. Historic, endlessly proud of its home, built to last, it squats staring across its plot of land like a miniature fortress. Once you get inside, the old wooden seats and steeply-raked stands, along with the utilitarian architecture give you a sense that this building isn’t meant for frivolity. Like the Castle on Arthur’s Seat just down the road, it’s a place of battle – where Edinburgh and by extension Scotland takes on all comers. It’s beautiful in its sheer purpose.

The ghosts are everywhere. In the rink where some of Britain’s greatest ever players (including the British Gretzky Tony Hand) learnt and plied their trades, they whisper stories to stir the Edinburgh hockey fan’s blood…and for a long while the stories have been all that Caps fans old and new have had to warm their frozen veins on the famously-cold winter nights.

But what stories they are. Hush now, and let us start this profile of the Capitals by briefly allowing the ghosts in Murrayfield to set hearts Racing.

PART ONE: RACING HEARTS AND GLORY DAYS, 1952-1998

“Glory days well they’ll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye”

Bruce Springsteen

It is a good thing to be well-descended, but the glory is still owned by our ancestors”

Plutarch
For British hockey fans, there are few more storied names then that of the Murrayfield Racers. Founded in 1956 from the then-extant Royals, the Racers are one of the most successful names of the “golden age” of British hockey, winning the British league four times in a row in the late 60’s and early 70s, along with a string of Northern League titles and some truly epic rivalries with other historical titans of the British game such as Whitley Bay Warriors and Durham Wasps. They’ve also been the team of legendary names like Chris Kelland, Rick Fera, Paul Pentland, Jock Hay…and oh yes, the hometown club and breeding ground of the greatest British born player ever to play the game (shown in his young prime in the pic above) Tony Hand.
The teams at the rink carried the Racers/Royals name from 1952 right up until 1998, and were one of the most historic franchises around…and then they collapsed. Edinburgh hockey looked like it would die, before being saved by Scott Neil. And this is where the Edinburgh Capitals were born.
PART TWO – HEROES, HEARTACHE, AND MARTIN CINGEL (1998-2014)

Mask your doubts with broken smiles, and cover your hurt in your pride”

VNV Nation: “The Great Divide”

Almost since birth, the Capitals have battled manfully against the twin demons of the shadow of their illustrious forebears and a budget that simply isn’t anywhere near that of its competitors. Run on a shoestring, the Caps have only qualified for the post-season playoffs in less than half of their seasons (quite some feat when you consider that they play in a league where only two teams miss out). Their highest league position (apart from a third in the British National League when coached for one season by their favourite son Tony Hand) has been sixth.

For almost the whole of its existence, Edinburgh Capitals hockey has been in the doldrums, with small crowds. Apart from the odd shock victory against the odds, some pulsating derbies against Fife and the truncated hope of the Doug Christiansen era (oh yes, and one glorious season under returning Messiah Tony Hand in the British National League) the Scottish capital has been a place where the underdog roamed, defeat was borne with stoic hope that at least the teams would work hard, and the Caps fanbase found solace on being on the wrong side of the divide with a pride in their team’s battling spirit and in individual heroes-heroes like Martin Cingel.

Cingel was, and is, a true legend of the “modern” British game, certainly of the EIHL era. The man from Povazka Bystrica and now honorary Scot has played for the Capitals for 11 of their 16 seasons, and led them as captain for seven of them – such loyalty from an “import” is almost unheard of in the EIHL era. Not only that, but he leads the franchise in games played (over 300 more than his closest competitor), goals, assists, AND penalty minutes. Names like his, Mark Hurtubise, Jade Portwood and Curtis Leinweber have been bright spots in an almost unrelenting parade of seasons where, just as things seemed to look up, things would collapse.

The Caps have had coaches and players poached by richer teams, injuries, coaches resign before they’ve even got their foot in the door, constant questions about their place in the league, bankruptcy fears, and crowds that seemed dwarfed by their 3,800 seat home. Indeed, after they beat Braehead recently, Clan owner Jamie Black took a dig at these crowds that managed to raise the ire of fans outside Edinburgh…as this excellent blog by Cardiff Devils Live’s Sean Phillips explains. But the dig itself is only symptomatic of the same things that have been aimed at the Caps for many years. They’ve been the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the EIHL ever since they joined, and suffered for it.

In short, it’s not always been fun being a Caps fan. Under Slovak Richard Hartmann, they’ve tried to focus on an Eastern European style that’s been derided as “boring”, “not suited to the league” and many other adjectives…and while it’s brought them individual success, the start of this season seemed to show that this would be another long, hard, Caps season.

PART THREE: THE MURRAYFIELD MIRACLE – MAYBE (Present Day)

“If you and I had been anything less, than these tormented souls
We would never have gone so far, to become what we are.” 

VNV Nation: “Verum Aeternus”

This season began like any other in Edinburgh. A team struggling manfully but languishing down the bottom of the table despite Richard Hartmann’s best efforts, and losses coming one after the other. While there was some truly excellent PR work being done off the ice, the Capitals still looked like a team taking one step at a time through treacle as they fought against bigger budgets and indifference from the rest of the EIHL. Hard as they tried, the talk was once again of a team that would have a chance of competing but would probably be at a disadvantage due to bigger budgets elsewhere. In short, there was no sign of the pattern changing.

Then came November. The ghosts began to be drowned out at Murrayfield, not by sadness, but by joy and optimism that had rarely been seen in such quantities in the old building for many years. The “new” Capitals that had seemingly struggled to mesh and adjust in the early part of the season have suddenly found a gear many didn’t think they had. The torments of the years have, finally, seemed to build up enough that the hockey gods decided to reward the Caps consistently for their efforts.

And now the ugly duckling team of the EIHL – the team that everyone elsewhere accepted, but the big boys would never even think of letting play at their table – are one of the hottest form teams in the league. They’ve taken 17 points in November and December of a possible 22 and are outplaying and well above far more “illustrious” teams like Coventry-the latest win being a 4-2 victory at title challengers Braehead.

In short, the Caps are, maybe, taking the first steps on the way back. And that’s awesome. Because with the struggles Edinburgh hockey has had at senior level since the demise of the Racers all those years ago, they need something to build on and this season looks like it could be it.
Time will tell whether the Caps’ recent run is another blip or not. But there are really positive and clear signs beginning to show off ice in Edinburgh and with the excellent development system bearing a potential new generation of local stars in the current SNL champions, that, just maybe, could herald better times ahead & growth for hockey in Scotland’s capital.

This streak will only add to the optimism & hopefully encourage thoughts that the legacy left by those storied past teams at Murrayfield can be taken up by this team after 15 years of trying.

This streak brings real hope. And that’s something the Murrayfield rink ghosts haven’t really seen in a while.

And for that reason alone, long may it continue.

The Young Lion’s Pride: Ben Bowns’ Coming Of Age In Cardiff

It is the nature of man to rise to greatness, if greatness is expected of him”

John Steinbeck

British hockey fans will tell you that if their international hockey team has historically had a glaring weakness, it’s in goalie development. The annals of British hockey are full of goalies who have been good, even excellent, but through either the vagaries of the UK import system or a perceived weakness compared to goalies from North America or elite European countries, have struggled to establish themselves in top leagues either in the UK or abroad. Indeed, one of the most prominent voices in UK hockey, Sheffield’s Dave Simms, said famously as recently as the late 2000s that “you can’t win the EIHL with a British starting goalie”-pretty much dismissing the efforts of the best British goalies of the modern era in Stevie Lyle and Stephen Murphy as…well, not good enough to win a title. The fact that Murphy (who’s played in Sweden & Norway) then proceeded to go and do so with the Belfast Giants in 2011 after winning a playoff title the year laid this to rest-but there seemed to be no native-born challenger to Murphy for starting goalie for Great Britain.

With British hockey seemingly locked into a pattern for many years of producing goalies who were good, but struggled to match Murphy and break into the EIHL starting group-goalies who looked like they could possibly be the next big thing but somehow never quite made it to the top level-British hockey was desperate for the next big thing in net. A lot of hope finding it in 2011 rested on the shoulders of a teenager from Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

Ben Bowns was, in 2011, already a name being mentioned among those in the know as a possible challenger or even successor to Murphy…the then 18-year-old had developed through the Sheffield junior system at an impressive rate and had just finished his first season as starter for the English Premier League’s Sheffield Steeldogs as well as starting for GB U20s-the question that was being asked now was…could he play well enough to earn himself a chance at an Elite club?

In 2011-12 Bowns went all-out to prove he had the abilty to start in the EPL in a season that saw him record a 2.40 GAA and 93.0 save percentage for a Steeldogs side that was, by EPL standards, not amon the big teams. It was something of a coming-out party for the big (6’2, 212lb) Yorkshireman, and it was the season that brought him to the attention of the wider hockey public in the UK, with a callup to the full GB squad as reserve netminder and proof that the hype was, at least partly, justified…this kid was good.

Ben Bowns in action for the Sheffield Steeldogs in 2011/12…the season that brought him to the attention of more than just those fans in Sheffield

The next season saw Bowns given the kind of chance rarely given to most British goalies…a starting slot in the EIHL. It would be a tough apprenticeship for him, as he’d move across Yorkshire to start in net for the Hull Stingrays for the next two seasons, recording remarkably similar save percentages and GAA’s (90.5 and 3.35 GAA in 2012/13, and 3.53 GAA and 90.7 last season in Hull as his team made the playoff quarter finals). While those stats may not exactly set the world alight at first glance, it has to be remembered that the Stingrays were a team who struggled slightly defensively those two years (although they made the playoffs on the final day in 13/14)-in short, they gave up a lot of shots and the young starter was given the kind of gruelling apprenticeship that only facing large amounts of rubber night after night can give a netminder-a relentless test of character and mental strength that would have broken some young goalies.

Not this one, though. Bowns stood tall on many a night in a Stingrays jersey and began to knock loudly on the door of other EIHL teams with his play. Stephen Murphy may have been the starter for GB in Bowns’ first world championship trip with the seniors (although in his one start for GB at the Worlds in 2013 Bowns did get a shutout), but his play with Hull meant that, for the first time since Stevie Lyle battled with Murphy, there were two legitimate native-born contenders for the senior international starting job.

Bowns’ two years with Hull Stingrays saw Ben continue his development, rising from hot young EPL prospect to solid EIHL starter.

It was the 2014 World Championship Div IB in Lithuania that really saw Ben Bowns’ coming-out party as an elite British goalie, though. After an injury to Stephen Murphy in the first GB game, Bowns started the next and seized his opportunity with both hands, having an absolutely superb World Championships of 5 games played with a SV% of 92.0 and a GAA of 1.90-stellar numbers for a 22 year old that earned him rave reviews and the GB Player Of The Tournament award.

In action for his country against the Netherlands. Bowns has established himself in prime position to become GB’s starter for years to come.

Then came this season…the season after the breakout. An offseason which saw Bowns prised away from Yorkshire for the first time to start for the storied Cardiff Devils, a franchise looking to start a new era after a nightmare period. Bowns was trumpeted as a key part of that new team-as starting goalie in front of one of the most passionate crowds in the EIHL every week and on a team that Andrew Lord built hoping to challenge for honours, some wondered whether the now 23-year-old could make the leap from “solid EIHL starter” to “elite EIHL goalie” – especially when he’d make most of his starts in the supposedly tougher Erhardt Conference and face offensive powerhouses like Belfast, Sheffield and Nottingham most nights.

In short, everything Bowns has done up until now has built until this season. The 14/15 season was seen by many as the point where Bowns had to prove himself as an Elite League top-level starter once and for all. He was being challenged by Cardiff to make the leap in league play that he’s already arguably made internationally.

This was, if you like, the final exam.

And so far, it’s a challenge that, in the true fashion of his native county, the still-young goalie has risen to brilliantly. The exam is being passed with flying colours.

It’s not often Welsh people will take an Englishman to their hearts, but Bowns’ performances in net for Cardiff (he’s won 18 games so far his season, third-most in the EIHL among starters, and currently holds a 2.63 GAA and 90.7 SV%) have meant that he’s already been accepted as an honorary Welshman around South Wales. His play in net has been calm, assured and elevated several levels from his already-good efforts in Hull.

Bowns’ play in Cardiff is answering any questions there may have been about his ability to make the step to “elite GB goalie” as emphatically as can be

What Cardiff fans (and indeed British hockey) are privileged to be seeing at the moment is a young netminder truly coming of age. Ben’s strong, solid, often flawless play and air of quiet confidence in the Devils’ net are all the signs of a man who should be immensely proud of what he’s achieved already and knows for certain that he can get better still. Whenever I’ve seen him play for the Devils his season he’s been one of the standout players on the ice, displaying reactions and positional sense equal to those of any goalie in the EIHL, and making several saves a night that have provoked audible gasps.

While his time with Hull may have been his apprenticeship as an EIHL starter, at the start of this season when he signed for Cardiff, there were still some questions that Bowns had to answer for a lot of hockey watchers:

Can you make the leap to another team and handle the pressure of higher expectations as a starter?

Can you prove without doubt that you’re in the elite of British-born goalies and challenge Stephen Murphy as “best GB-born netminder out there”

Can you produce for Cardiff at a higher level even than you produced for Hull?

So far, the Rotherham-born, Sheffield-trained Bowns has answered all of this questions with the same answer.

Yes. Just watch me.

Cardiff fans love to sing “GB’s number one!” this season when their goalie makes a save in honour of Bowns’ recent international exploits.

And frankly, the way he’s playing now, there’s little to suppose that this season won’t be the year when South Wales’ adopted Yorkshireman makes that spot his own.

And as for that “you can’t win anything with British goalies” thing? Anyone who’s seen Bowns play this season wouldn’t bet against him being a huge part of helping the Devils prove that claim wrong, either.

Ben Bowns has come of age. GB’s young lion has gone through growing up and is now entering his prime-and the best thing about it is…he’s only going to get better still.

Be excited, British hockey. Be very excited indeed.

Stars In Daylight: The EIHL’s Unsung Heroes

Real courage and heroism is still doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.”

Justin Cronin: “The Summer Guest”

The EIHL has already, it appears, found its poster boys this season. The likes of Mathieu Roy in Sheffield, Rob Sandrock and Adam Keefe in Belfast, Joey Martin in Cardiff, and Chris Auger in Fife are the names everyone looks for on the team sheet-the players who’ve captured the hearts and minds with skill and speed and who everyone in the league knows to look out for when their teams come to town.

But we here at Chasing Dragons aren’t really ones for the glitter-and-limelight trail. Sure, we can write articles about the stars of teams (and probably will do a bunch more before the end of the season) but today we’re focusing on the quiet ones. The cogs buried in the machine that turn un-noticed but would shut the whole thing down if removed. The players who let the stars shine so brightly.

The unsung heroes.

Because it’s often difficult to spot these players on a few viewings, I threw the question out on Twitter to EIHL fans earlier today-“who’s your team’s most under-rated player? Who’s the guy you only miss when he’s not around?”

The response was…well, pretty damn good, really. So good it’s going to contribute a fair bit to this column, in fact.

We’ll run through every team and pick out the players both their own fans and/or I think you SHOULD be watching when they come to town. It’s time for the bushels to be lifted, the veils to be drawn back and the best-kept secrets of the EIHL to get their moments in the Chasing Dragons sun.

Every dog has their day, and these players are the ones that most deserve theirs alongside the big names this season.

BELFAST: MARK GARSIDE: The Little Engine That Can

When you think of Belfast’s third line, you think of the likes of Adam Keefe snarling at opponents, Daryl Lloyd making a career out of making very large men with sticks want to kill him, and the often-ballyhooed “heartbeat” of the team (you only have to listen to Belfast podcast A View From The Bridge for a minute or two before that phrase comes up)

But there’s a third member of that line, and he’s arguably one of the most under-rated players in the league. East Kilbride’s pride, Mark Garside, has gone from heralded prospect in Edinburgh to third-line lynchpin in Belfast. Not the biggest at 5’10 and 185lbs, the Scot’s strength lies in his sheer work ethic and faceoff ability…not a stride is wasted and they’re all taken at full pelt as he harries and dogs the footsteps of opposition players in a way that doesn’t have the fireworks of linemates Keefe and Lloyd but is just as relentless. To play nearly 450 games in the top UK league by the age of 25 tells of his talent-but these Belfast fan testimonies tell just how much he’s loved in Northern Ireland:

Garside’s like the cornerstone in a building for Giants. Lose him and the whole edifice is weakened” (Kathy Caldwell)

Definitely Mark Garside.for the Giants” (Phillip Armstrong).

part of the best third line in the EIHL…dearly miss him” (Andrea Cochrane)

An honourable mention goes to Kevin Phillips as he was mentioned by a good few Giants fans, but the fact that so many Giants fans replied with the same name and his key role for GB as a defensive forward makes this one of the easiest picks on the board.

BRAEHEAD: LEE ESDERS, MATT HAYWOOD, TRISTAN HARPER – Braehead’s Three Headed Monster

It was hard to separate these three and pick just one…so in the end, I didn’t. There are many, many more players on the Clan who get more attention than the British third line but Esders, Haywood and Harper are the very definition of unsung…they do the thankless job of grinding while other players on the team do the scoring. If “unsung hero” is defined as someone who works themselves to the bone so others can profit, these three exemplify that type. They don’t score relentlessly, they don’t dazzle with flashy plays-they just keep relentlessly skating, pounding their bodies to pieces while wearing the opposition down like waves crashing on rock. And just like those waves, their cumulative effect is far, far better measured over time then in a single moment.

These three guys have been cast in the roles of unloved, unrewarded human sandpaper. They’re not pretty, they’re not spectacular…but if they just keep to their task, great things can be made.

CARDIFF: CHRIS CULLIGAN: New Found (Lander) Glory

When you’re the guy that started the “under-rated” discussion in the first place, you can’t really be left out of it. The 26-year-old from Sydney, Nova Scotia has quietly been one of the most effective players on the “new” Cardiff Devils, as well as the equivalent of a human Stanley knife. He’s played left wing, right wing, centre and defence already this year…and done it all with a quiet, unfussy competence that has been happy to do the grunt work and let the players around him shine. He’s not scored a huge amount, nor troubled the scorers massively in any form…he’s just never left a puck unplayed, his man unmarked, or a d-man un-forechecked on any shift that’s required it.

And that, surely, is the essence of a team player. Fittingly for a player who wears the number 57 on his back, he’s played in a veritable Heinz variety number of situations, positions and roles, and performed them all to the best of his ability.

He is, in short, one hell of a player who deserves far more recognition than he’s getting.

COVENTRY: RYAN O’MARRA: Carrying the Burden 

It seems crazy to name a player who is his team’s top scorer “under-rated.” But in a team that’s struggled mightily so far this season, the big Canadian ex-NHLer has taken the Blaze on his 6’2, 220lb frame and along with Brian Stewart, tried to carry them along almost singlehanded at times. For this, he’s received accusations of laziness, being “disappointing” and being “on a holiday” from sections of Blaze fandom, while Stewart has been lauded to the skies.

A big part of any “playmaker”‘s game is chemistry with his linemates, but up until now O’Marra has been switched around and relied upon to produce whoever happens to be stuck alongside him. The Blaze have scored 80 goals this season – O’Marra has been involved in nearly a third of them, and assisted a quarter of them himself. That’s some playmaking ability from a player who’s supposed to be quietly coasting through the season, especially on a team that’s struggled offensively.

With that production on a poorly-coached Blaze squad and without his talents being used to best effect, imagine how good he could be under a well-thought out system that uses him and his linemates in the best way possible…like that that could be created by Blaze’s new coach, Chuck Weber.

Exciting thought, isn’t it, Blaze fans?

DUNDEE: IGOR GONGALSKY – Gon In 60 Seconds.

Kevin Quick was also in line for this award after heroically leading the rearguard action fought by the Dundee Stars so far this season as they struggle through the swamp of early season doldrums, but at the last he’s shouldered aside by the Ukrainian war machine that is Igor Gongalsky. Built like a tank at 6′ and 225lbs and playing with all the subtlety of one mashing through a trench, the man from Kiev has quietly racked up 18 points on a struggling squad to be second among active Stars players in scoring while leaving his mark on opposition defencemen. He may not be the most glamorous or prettiest player in the league, but like many of the others on this list, he performs a thankless task for his team incredibly well without really being credited for it by the world at large. So on that basis alone, he makes this list.

EDINBURGH – JADE PORTWOOD : The Best EIHL Player You’ve Never Heard Of

Unless your name’s Martin Cingel or Rene Jarolin, or you’re putting up ridiculous numbers, it’s hard to be noticed as an Edinburgh Capital in the wider EIHL. Not because people are intentionally ignoring you, but just because people often don’t tend to notice the Caps stars that often. But Jade Portwood is slowly changing that…the Canadian from Medicine Hat has developed a reputation as a shootout demon and already has ten goals this season. 2nd in goals on the team behind Jarolin, he’s a player who somehow manages to ghost into spaces un-noticed despite being 6’3 and 205lbs, and it’s served him well this season and indeed in his previous two. His resumé before coming to Britain didn’t promise that he’d set the league alight, but he’s a legend in Murrayfield already and, very slowly, in his third season, he’s starting to get noticed outside the Scottish capital, too.

FIFE: MATT REBER: Fife’s Speed Demon

In Fife, it’s the likes of Chris Auger and Matt Nickerson who get the Auld Barn jumping regularly with their brains and brawn. Failing that, Jordan Fulton and Scott Fleming will light the lamp or the touchpaper. But quietly holding it together is 25-year-old Edina, MN native Matt Reber. Like fellow Edina-ite Dan Carlson, he is a skilled, quick two-way centre who makes his line tick without making a fuss, as his almost un-noticed 21 points in 20 games show. He’s possibly the most un-noticed point-per-game scorer in the EIHL…mainly because he doesn’t grab the flashy headlines…he just makes the simple plays over and over again, and eventually, they pay off in points. Couple that with his excellent penalty-killing, and you might eventually end up catching a dose of the rare Fife illness “Reber Fever”, yourself.

HULL: JORDAN MAYER: “Little, but Fierce”

Helena’s description of Hermia in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” could equally apply to Kingston’s Jordan Mayer. While all the attention has been focused on Cory Tanaka, 22-year-old Mayer has lit the lamp at a rate of nearly two goals every three games so far (16 in 26 and 31 in total) to justify Omar Pacha placing his faith in a player with only 12 games of pro experience to be among his top forwards. Mayer, like the Stingrays, is so far showing that he can compete with far more illustrious opponents without backing down, and along with Cory Tanaka he’s forming an impressive young and fast one-two punch on Humberside and making an early claim to be one of Omar Pacha’s finds of the season.

NOTTINGHAM: CHRIS LAWRENCE: #lawrencelove

Now here is the very definition of a “Marmite” player. Some Panthers fans can’t stand him, others think he’s the second coming of David Ling. But he’s neither. He’s the first coming of Chris Lawrence. In Coventry on Sunday his size and strength were on show to the full in a dominant performance against the Blaze, including two beautifully taken goals. He’s surely one of the few EIHL players ever with his own hashtag-the 27-year-old Torontonian is hitting his stride now and will be hoping #lawrencelove spreads throughout the Panthers fanbase even more so than it has already. It deserves to.

SHEFFIELD: DARRELL HAY: Fading Into The Foreground

Amongst a team with superstars like Mathieu Roy, Mike Forney and Ben O’Connor, it’s fairly easy to hide if you want to. Darrell Hay, Sheffield’s veteran D-man from Kamloops, BC probably doesn’t want to hide intentionally-it’s just that amongst the scoring pyrotechnics of the aforementioned players and the starburst personality alongside him that is Cullen Eddy, his no-nonsense, simple style just doesn’t stand out in the way some of his team-mates do. Essentially, he’s the kind of player whose calm, steady, simple style of play means you only notice him when he makes a mistake.

The key thing about Hay (and I mean this as a great compliment) is that unless you’re looking hard for him, you don’t notice just how well he does what he does. Making mistakes is not something that Hay views as part of his job description-nor are they something that he considers acceptable at work. And that’s what makes him so valuable.

HEROES ALL, NOTICED…FEW

There are many other players in the EIHL I could have included in this group-players on every squad who contribute far more to their team then fans, media and those watching give them credit for. But these are the players who are perhaps the best-kept secrets on their respective squads.

Now, the secret’s out. These guys are good-and they deserve to be recognised more often for it by their own fans, and indeed hockey fans across Britain.

Toujours Fier: Au Revoir, Jean Béliveau, Capitaine Canadien, 1931-2014

He was their man, and he was their people. They discovered each other, and the moment was enormous. Montréal was his town. He felt himself at the exact centre of the country’s heart. At the meeting points of ships, railroads and people-at the precise point where the interlocking directorates of Canada found a balance…I’ve never seen anything more beautiful”.

Hugh MacLennan: “Two Solitudes”

The above quote, from one of the greatest Canadian books ever written, wasn’t written about Jean Béliveau. It wasn’t even written while he was playing…the book being published in 1945, six years before “Le Gros Bill” started his rise from young Hab to giant of the game of hockey.

But it might as well have been. Béliveau, who died early this morning aged 83, wasn’t the highest-ever scorer in NHL history (though he did lead the Canadiens for many years until surpassed by Guy Lafleur) nor will you find him listed often as the greatest exponent of stick-and-puck ever to lace up skates (although you will assuredly find him in the top ten of every list). But with his passing the hockey world has lost one of its true titanic figures…a man known as much for his pride, elegance and sheer class off ice as on it.

It may seem strange for a British hockey fan to be writing about Béliveau-particularly one born 13 years after the end of his playing career. But, as a fan of hockey played as an art form as well as a bruising, gladiatorial battle, watching the 6’3, 205lb gentle giant from Trois-Rivieres play hockey was like being an art student being exposed to every single great artwork humanity ever produced at once.

To watch Béliveau stride across flickering (usually black-and-white) pictures in his iconic number 4 jersey, with his long, elegant, deceptively languid stride, while seemingly holding the puck and everyone around him under a spell that he could break at any moment he chose with an unerring pass or accurate shot, was to watch art create itself and to look upon the face of the hockey gods.

In an era of legends being made and alongside more flamboyant names like the Richards and Bernie Geoffrion, Béliveau was the quietly beating heart of arguably the greatest single collection of talent ever to play in one jersey…the great Montréal Canadiens dynasty that won 10 Stanley Cups in 20 years. As the faces around him changed, Béliveau was an ever-present throughout the 50’s and 60s, leading the team to five of those Cups as captain, and quietly and modestly changing from mortal to god first in Québec and then, eventually, across all of Canada.

Four Steps To Heaven: Jean Béliveau battles with fellow legend and #4, Boston’s Bobby Orr

The effect Béliveau had on hockey and the Canadiens can’t be measured by mere statistics, but they can certainly give an idea. 1287 NHL games, all for Montreal. 1395 points. 586 goals. Ten Stanley Cups as a player (and another seven as a team employee). 13 times an All-Star.

But more than just numbers, Béliveau did things and caused others in hockey to do things that would be unthinkable today. Even before he was an NHL player, the Canadiens liked him so much they bought an entire league (not a team, a league, the QJHL) in order to make sure he became a Hab. He was also responsible for a fundamental change of hockey law…pre-Béliveau, a player served the full penalty for every powerplay whether or not there was a goal. After a night in which Béliveau scored a hat-trick in 44 seconds on a PP (against Terry Sawchuk, no less) the NHL governors decided to change the rules so that it could never happen again, voting 5-1 in favour.

Off the ice, Béliveau became a man known for his pride, elegance and dignity-a prototypical leader of men who took an immense amount of pride in personally replying to every piece of fan mail he received. The stories of his grace, selflessness when interacting with fans and sheer humanity are legion, but none are better than this one-the story of Béliveau personally phoning men suffering from cancer regularly, at the request of their wives, simply to offer support after winning his own battle a few years ago. He was offered a seat in the Canadian Senate, but turned it down. Today, the Canadian Parliament offered him a standing ovation in tribute…a gesture that very few political giants will ever get, never mind hockey players, w

Supremely talented on the ice and supremely humble off it, the man who was always proud of his Acadian heritage and who felt himself unworthy of leading the Canadiens even after being chosen to do so unanimously by his team-mates was the soul of the bleu, blanc et rouge…a towering colossus whose mere existence and presence at Habs games put fire into the hearts of Montrealers. Much is made of the Habs using the quote from “In Flanders Fields” as their motto…

To you from failing hands we throw the torch – be yours to hold it high”

Jean Béliveau carried that torch with pride, the living embodiment of John MacLean’s words that are read by everyone who crosses the threshold of the Bell Centre dressing room.

“To you we pass the torch”: Jean Béliveau’s name and legacy will live forever in Québec, and wherever else hockey is played and loved

 

There are great hockey players, and there are great men. Béliveau was one of that rare breed who are both. Today, the hockey world mourns with Montréal. Even here in Britain. And we hope that somewhere, Béliveau and his great friend Maurice Richard are once again skating together and making magic in Heaven’s own hockey rink.

Au revoir et merci, Capitaine Canadien. Hockey will miss you forever.

Weber Of Intrigue: Coventry Finally Break The EIHL Coaching Mould.

Discard the old regimes…failed ideologies…draw the lines and start again”

VNV Nation: “Streamline”

From great necessity comes great change. After the firing of Marc Lefebvre and several years of making the wrong decision, the Coventry Blaze finally appear to have grasped the nettle and backed up all their big words about a “change of culture”.

In their hiring of a new coach who’s come from outside the EIHL goldfish bowl completely, the Blaze owners have not just gone for something that’s a new approach for their squad, but arguably a new approach for the EIHL as a whole.

In hiring Kelly Cup-winning coach Chuck Weber, most recently of the KHL’s Medvescak Zagreb, the Blaze have done that rare thing in EIHL hockey and looked to bring in someone completely new to the UK…in a move that, frankly, should have happened way before now.

Weber is the first coach to be hired from “outside” the EIHL since Braehead hired Paul Gardner in 2012, and only the second coach in the EIHL’s history to be hired for a role without previous experience either playing or coaching in the UK leagues (Ben Simon for Sheffield in 2010/11 being the other). He’s arguably the one with the most impressive pedigree, too. An excellent full summary of Weber’s path through a coaching career can be found written by Craig Summerton here.

Weber is, without doubt, exactly the type of hire that the Blaze had to make. The owners of the club pretty much admitted a few weeks ago that the club needed a fresh perspective, new demands and fresh eyes, and in Weber they have been lucky enough to find a coach that couldn’t be more taylor-made for such a role. Described by every source that can be found about him as a “thinking coach”. He’s also a man who’s worked on the off-ice side of things…a man who seemingly has no problem whatsoever ruffling feathers if it’s what’s needed.

And by god, do the Blaze need shaking up, both on and off the ice. Just how much they need doing, and just how big the task Weber faces, was made even more clear in the aftermath of his signing announcement. Andy Buxton, speaking for the Blaze ownership on CWR’s Faceoff programme on Monday night, basically admitted that the team had pretty much nothing to back up the team off-ice.

He (Weber) can come in and make a real difference. He’s excited about helping the organisation put foundations in place that can take the club forward. We wanted to look totally outside the box and not recycle the same ideas, which what’s been happening the past few years”

That’s something that fans have been saying for many, many years…so it’s interesting that only after four or five years making the same mistakes have the team admitted that things needed to change.

Lefebvre didn’t put enough structure in place-and the fans haven’t seen the best of Blaze players because they haven’t been given any guidance by him.”

Again-this is something that was seemingly obvious to everyone since April…except the people actually in charge. But the real curious thing is the admission that the Blaze effectively haven’t been doing the basic things that you’d expect “professional” sports teams to do-things like monitoring nutrition, having team meals and actually making sure the team are trained properly.

“I don’t think that the sports science thing has been possibly embraced before” said Buxton…which was incredibly shocking to hear, and practically flew in the face of everything the ownership have said before. Comments about Jereme Tendler playing better recently while having more of a system to work to since Lefebvre left also seem to back up the fact that, very simply, this team has been held back by the man at the helm and indeed some of the problems behind the scenes…something that, to their credit, the Blaze now seem to be attempting to address.

Weber coming into the team will be very interesting indeed…as a coach who’s worked at a far higher level than the EIHL he’ll doubtless be coming in with certain expectations…and the real test of the Blaze’s will will be how they respond to those. After all…anyone can make promises.

However, this is truly a golden chance for Coventry’s long-term future and a hire that shows some real ambition for change…with Weber only committed until April, Blaze fans will hope that he’ll come in with no fear of speaking his mind and sharing home truths…and, if necessary, burning down the way things are done from the inside.

Simply put, it has to happen, and someone like Weber with his CV thus far is the kind of person who can turn promises into action given the chance.

The Blaze have finally, FINALLY done what’s been needed to be done for many years in Coventry. The winds of change are blowing.

For the sake of the Blaze’s long-term future, they’ll have to blow hard. Weber, if necessary, needs to be allowed to destroy as well as create this season. If he is given a completely free rein as the owners have promised, then this is one heck of an exciting period for the Blaze coming up. All the positive reaction to the news so far is fully justified-even this cynical young hack is excited by the prospect of what’s to come, just because this is genuinely something that’s very rarely been tried before in the EIHL, never mind in Coventry.

Mr Weber, you’re coming in with a big reputation. The very best of luck to you. After the past few years in Coventry, you may well need all of it.