(note before we start: I know there were eight cities in the quarter finals – this post doesn’t deal with Nottingham v Fife or Sheffield v Dundee simply because those matchups, in their own way, went as they have always done in the EIHL and were nowhere near as potentially season-defining as the other two. Plus, frankly I’m not sure anyone really wants to focus on an 14-1 aggregate thrashing-that just seems unfair. Away we go).
Last night in the EIHL was something of a milestone.
It was a night when we truly saw just how things had changed this season for several teams. It was a night, as I wrote yesterday, that could define a season. And, arguably, it did. Or at least set the tone for the rest of it in four EIHL cities.
PART ONE: GLASGOW – PURPLE REIGN
““The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.”
Sun Tzu: The Art Of War
The Braehead Clan came to Coventry last night in the ideal position. Leading the league by a decent margin, facing an opponent who had struggled all year. They came having won game after game, riding high and with many already expecting them to go through to the next round.
In short, they came in perfect condition to come unstuck. It’s a situation many EIHL teams have faced and done so in the past…and with all the talk beforehand from Coventry of “having to stay strong” and this being “the biggest game of their season” any weakness from the Clan-any hint that they were open to complacency-would have been seized upon like blood in the water.
Enter Braehead Clan captain Matt Keith.
I’ve written before about the Clan and their connection with their fanbase, of which Keith is a big part. As captain, you don’t really see him haranguing linemates, organising them or being overly vocal (at least on the ice). But last night his performance alone was something truly superb. As captain he didn’t so much make sure his team wasn’t complacent through words as drag them along with him with the kind of hard-charging performance that demands everyone else equals it. Turning his body into a 6’2, 210lb battering ram and playing the power-forward role to perfection, he tormented the Blaze defence mercilessly, taking prime position in front of Brian Stewart’s net time and again and smashing through any Blaze resistance with all the subtlety of a freight train going through a Ming vase. Along with the equally large Leigh Salters and Stefan Meyer he led his line like the commander of a Panzer battalion, simply rolling over and through the Blaze and creating gaps for his linemates to exploit. Assists on all three Clan goals earned him a deserved MoM, but it was his assist on Derek Roehl’s that epitomised it…no beautiful passing or fancy play here, just driving away at Brian Stewart’s net and causing absolute mayhem off a rebound to jar the puck free for a Roehl tap-in.
I don’t know whether anyone in Braehead has read “The Art Of War” but on a night that could easily have seen other teams take a night off, the Clan didn’t, at least partly because their captain set an example the rest of the team simply had to follow. The terrifying thing was-you got the sense that Keith and indeed all of Ryan Finnerty’s men could have raised the intensity level another five notches if necessary.
And if their performance in the first “biggest game of the season” means anything, they have a leader who is more than ready for the fight on ice, just as coach Ryan Finnerty is off it. Complacency is not an option any more.
PART TWO – COVENTRY: ANGER AND FRAYING ROPE
“It’s all around me
The fear of failing
It’s all around me
And I keep looking down at where I know I could be”
Trapt: “End Of My Rope”
The Blaze have spent all season promising that things will get better, that they know what they’re doing, that improvement is just around the corner. They’ve denied there’s anything wrong as the holes have got more and more obvious, promising that the struggles would die with the abortive Marc Lefebvre era and trumpeted loud promises of “OK not being good enough” and “everything stepping up a level”.
Last night, on the heels of another horrendous home performance that destroyed any momentum they may have built up from last weekend, we finally saw reality hit the team full in the face and cut through the innumerable layers of spin, denial and plain bull faeces thrown up by the off-ice staff in order to try and hide their own failings. We saw real human emotion.
Unfortunately for Blaze fans (aside from Ryan O’Marra working like a Trojan and looking like a racehorse pulling a whole herd of uninterested donkeys) we didn’t see it on the ice. We did, however, see Russ Cowley break every taboo and censorship the Blaze owners have imposed on their PR by standing up in front of a pub full of fans, going off-message and, verbatim, giving a post-match interview that went simply.
“Sorry, guys. That wasn’t good enough. We let you down”
The round of applause that greeted this was the most noise Blaze fans had made all night.
It seems that finally, the predicament the Blaze are in has driven some players to the end of their rope, far beyond mouthing the party-line platitudes about “OK not being good enough”. With sponsors now privately expressing severe dissatisfaction with the ownership, this is a dangerous time for the Blaze-and it needs to be met.
Last night was the first time in recorded memory that anyone in the Blaze organisation has stood up and publicly admitted that there are problems that have been obvious and growing for years.
The response from Blaze fans of applause shows that they, too, finally appreciate being treated as human beings rather than the uncomplaining cattle the ownership would seemingly prefer.
Coach Chuck Weber, too, has torn into his team after last night, saying that “individually, our players aren’t good enough for this league.” That’s a SEISMIC admission for a coach to make in early January with hardly any time to change the roster. It’s also a big enough departure from previous Blaze PR messages to be not even on the same planet. Rather than a united organisation all peddling the same message, the on-ice staff have effectively turned round and rubbished every single thing the organisation off-ice have been saying. They know they’re on the edge of an abyss and the rope is fraying even as the off-ice staff desperately try to claim it isn’t.
Finally, it appears, the coach and players are tired of even pretending things are OK any more.
Whether or not the public bloodletting and apologies will have any effect on the team as a whole are questionable…after all, by now the Blaze fanbase has been bludgeoned into submission by relentless anodyne promises that were never met. If George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth had been a hockey team, it would have been Coventry.
But in the wreckage there are signs of positivity-in Ryan O’Marra’s refusal to simply join the apathy of some of his peers-in Chuck Weber’s straight talking. In O’Marra’s skill and refusal to lie down. In Steven Goertzen’s effort. In Russ Cowley’s sheer bravery in doing something that you’d have thought Coventry had forgotten how to do…be honest and open.
The team have now been pushed beyond breaking point. Last night could well be an epiphany of sorts.
Or, it could just be another false start. But at least now, the team and fans are actually on the same page for the first time all season.
It’s a shame it took such an abject loss to bring it to this point.
CARDIFF – ROAR OF DRAGONS
“These are the faces that dance in your all night dreams
These are the faces that spur you as a team
These are the moments that raised you from the dead
This is the feeling when your heaven is full of bread”
Paul Henry for the BBC: “Red Army“
“Hell is empty. The Devils are all here”
Ariel, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”
If anyone needed a refresher on just how much this particular Devils team have become part of South Wales and South Wales has become part of it, they should have been in the Big Blue Tent last night. By all accounts the roar of the Red Army was a living thing, inspiring their troops on the ice to a 4-2 victory over Belfast that not only sent them through to the semis of the Challenge Cup, but laid down another marker in their title race.
This was the Devils facing a bitter rival and being plunged into adversity (the Giants went 2-0 up in the first period to lead the tie and undo all the hard work Andrew Lord’s team had done in Belfast the week before)…and then coming back punching to make sure that, unlike Devils teams in the past, they would not suffer another hard-luck story.
This was the Devils beating a bitter rival despite giving them a two-goal headstart and once again proving that they had steel wills to go with the snarly style of play and the brio brought to the setup by Todd Kelman and his ownership group that the South Wales crowd have embraced with a fervour bordering on the religious.
But in the final 20 minutes, it was something else. With many hailing it as “the best atmosphere they’d ever seen at a Devils game” (some claim indeed given the cauldron that was the old Wales National Ice Rink), the Red Army and their team went up another levl in their relationship.
The words at the beginning of this section were written for the Welsh rugby team, but they could easily apply to the “new” Cardiff Devils-and more specifically, how the Red Army relate to this team. I’ve written extensively about how important the Red Army are to their team and also the great work being done by Todd Kelman and all at the Devils, but last night was something that arguably stepped things up another level…you only have to read the quotes from Andrew Lord post-game to see that:
“The rink was so loud, we could hear the fans before we even hit the ice,”
“The entire first period was ridiculous and the final 10 minutes was insane. We could hardly hear each other on the bench.
“I can’t tell you how much of a difference this makes to the guys. In my two years in Cardiff, I haven’t seen anything like this and talking to everyone associated with this club, it hasn’t felt like this in years.”
“It hasn’t felt like this in years“
Those are the kind of words of which championship challenges are made. Let’s not forget the Red Army are famously known for their passion, but it seems that last night they did something even they can’t remember doing in a long while despite the Devils’ consistency in the EIHL era…they carried their team home to victory (over a motivated title rival no less) by sheer volume.
That is a terrifying prospect for opposition teams to face for the rest of the season. For the Devils, though, it’s something that could make all the difference. If it doss, maybe last night will be looked back upon as the win that really joined team and fans as one in Cardiff this season.
BELFAST – FALLEN GIANTS
““You never get cheered for telling people the situation is not as simple as they think.”
Ken Follett: “Fall Of Giants”
Belfast are a team that, seemingly, isn’t quite sure of its identity any more. Despite having the vast majority of last year’s roster return and several high-profile additions (including Kevin Westgarth) join the team, they’re struggling to reach the heights that same unit did last season. Giants fans are already beginning to put gentle pressure on Steve Thornton and also several players-notably Westgarth, who hasn’t performed anywhere near the level an NHLer with his size and skill might be expected to. Last night was another arrow in the side of this Giants team-a team that on its best nights can still look irresistible as the one that won the EIHL league title by 20 clear points last season and got to the playoff final.
For many the situation is simple-for whatever reason the players in Belfast just aren’t working hard enough or performing to their full ability. Last night, though, they went 2-0 up against Cardiff and it all seemed to be rosy for a little while.
Last years Giants, given such a situation with a boot on the neck of their opponent, would have ground it down and choked the Devils out of the game with the ruthlessness that became their trademark under Paul Adey. But this time round, the lack of them doing the same thing showed just how important a change of coach can be in a negative as well as a positive fashion…the faces are the same, but with a new one at the helm, they just don’t look terrifying any more.
Of course, it’s not as simple as “new coach has ruined the Giants” – other teams have got better, the Giants have got a year older, maybe the hockey gods have decided to turn their eyes away from the banks of the Lagan and toward the banks of the Bay or the Clyde…but there is definitely a problem in Belfast. One that was thrown into sharp relief by coming up against their former GM…while the Devils have reached the Giants level of off-ice effort and gone up another gear, the Giants have stagnated. And now, they’re not just being caught-they’re being overtaken.
If last night had an over-riding theme, it was of the new trumping the old. New approaches, new optimism, new powerhouse teams trying new approaches and moving with the times showing former powerhouses who have opted to rest on their laurels just how dangerous that can be.
Last night was, in microcosm, a demonstration of a trend that this season has thrown into sharp relief as beginning to become self-evident in the EIHL. Running a successful team is a race-if you stop constantly moving forward, you get overtaken by those that do and left behind. Last night, that was plainer than ever for all to see in four EIHL cities.