“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.