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.

2 thoughts on “There And Back Again: The Fall And Rise Of The Edinburgh Capitals

  1. Paul,
    Not only a fantastic article but it truly captures the essence of Murrayfield and its indelible history.
    Much like Kirkaldy in its storied antiquity it is also lends a sense of pride to all that have plied their trade in its heart.
    Not enough credit can be given to Mr. Neil, Dunbar, Hay and Hand as to their continued dedication to the sport and more importantly to Murrayfield has created a legacy in Edinburgh.
    Well done and looking forward to more great reads.

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