Embarassment of Riches: A (Very Subjective) Guide To The Next Wave Of Great British Prospects

A short while ago, I wrote a post on the EIHA Junior Finals and the wealth of English (note, not British) hockey talent present there. It’s been well received by the UK hockey community, but reading it back, all I can think is not who’s included, but how many players I’ve missed out. Names like Guildford u16’s Richard Krogh, invited to play for a Swiss team next year and the leading scorer of the weekend, or Bradford u16’s Adam Barnes, already an international star with Team England. Of the 30 or so players I mentioned, there were a good few who weren’t, or only mentioned in passing due to the fact they play internationally, already play at a senior level, or simply weren’t there. Being Scottish or Northern Irish, too, meant you had no chance of being picked because the Scottish junior system runs only north of the border. It wasn’t a definitive list of British talent. It wasn’t even close.

In fact, it barely scratched the surface.

So, here’s an attempt to make more of a start. Following is a (very subjective) list of some of the best young players in British hockey’s immediate future. However, unlike the last post, there are a few more rules here.

AGE/EXPERIENCE – In this post we’re trying to limit to looking at players between the ages of 16 and u20…those considered of “junior hockey age” in North America. That’s why some very, VERY good 15-year-olds will JUST miss the cut for this list, though one or two exceptional 15-year-olds will make it.  We’re also focusing more closely (though not exclusively) on those already playing senior hockey (EIHL, EPL, NIHL) in addition to their age group, or those who’ve played World Championships for GB at u18 or u20 level. This means that many will already be familiar to those fans who follow UK hockey closely.

GEOGRAPHICAL SPREAD – We’re looking all over Britain and indeed the world now. Some areas and teams may be slightly more represented than others. That is not intentional bias…it’s simply that I’m more aware of some players than others-although I’ve tried to represent British players abroad, too. It may be light on Scottish players…again, this isn’t an intentional snub.

POSITIONS – Players will be listed by position, and in a random order, not in a traditional “ranking” order. That’s simply because I’m in no way qualified to rank one prospect over another in any way. Where you appear in the list, outside of your position grouping, is not a comment on relative ability/position in the pecking order.

GENDER – This list, unlike the last post, will all be boys/men. Again, that’s only because of the info on them being slightly easier to find/me having seen them play more often….

Those rules set…away we go.

NETMINDERS

Jordan Hedley (Swindon Wildcats)

Jordan Hedley will be the next great GB goalie. With him and Ben Bowns alone, GB netminding is set well for the next few years at least…he’s risen through the ranks at Milton Keynes to become something very special indeed. Last season, at the age of 18, he played 23 EPL games after making his debut at the age of 16. He’s big and positionally very good indeed – and will likely be an EIHL goalie before much longer.

Sam Gospel (Telford, EPL)

We all already know about the Nottingham-born Gospel, who announced himself in spectacular fashion to the EIHL crowds with a Challenge Cup semi-final win for Sheffield…in Nottingham. He’s back at Telford this year to share EPL starting duties with Tom Murdy – like Hedley, he could be a future EIHL starter. Until then, another season of development will do him no harm whatsoever.

Denis Bell (Telford, NIHL)

Denis Bell is a name to watch. Small, fast and agile, he’s already GB’s under-18 starter and played one of the games of the season in the NIHL playoff final against Solihull…a truly incredible netminding performance for a 17-year-old. He’s the GB u18 starter, and unique in that he’s going against the trend of goalies growing larger, preferring to rely on incredible agility. A name that could go far.

Renny Marr (Coventry Blaze, EIHL)

Bell’s rival for the GB u18 starting job, Marr is a more “traditionally” modern goalie. He’s already seen some bench time for Fife Flyers in the EIHL, but has been poached by Coventry to be their training-goalie/backup next season. It’s also been said that he’ll train with MK Lightning and play in the Coventry NIHL development team. Apparently there’s a development strategy all mapped out for him…it’ll be interesting to see how he’s used this season and what game time he’ll get compared to his 30 starts in Scotland last season.

DEFENDERS

David Clements (Coventry Blaze/MK Lightning)

Coming back to Britain after four years with the WSHL’s Ogden Mustangs (a team he captained the past two seasons), this big, smooth-skating defenceman is one of the most exciting “unknown” talents to come back to the British leagues in a while. He started his hockey in the Coventry junior system before heading to North American prep-school and junior hockey, and returns to the UK ready to make an impact. He has the potential to be the next Mark Richardson-a strong, composed player with excellent puck skills who is equally at home on his own blue-line or the opposition’s

Callum Wells (Chelmsford u18s)

One of the unheralded heroes of Chelmsford Mohawks’ U18 EIHA win, Wells is another strong, fast defenceman who is raw but talented – loves to play physically and is excellent positionally.

Ben Nethersell (Okanagan u18s)

The standout offensive defenceman at the EIHA Junior final, Nethersell’s passing and composure caught the eye, as did his strong shot from the point. More a playmaker than a goalscoring defenceman, he’s very effective at driving his team forward from the back.

Josh Grieveson (Middlesex Black Bears, USHL)

Another Brit in the US highschool system, Grieveson is relatively small at 5’9, but strong, and looked solid indeed for the GB u18s this year. A player who still has to develop a little, like many of these prospects, but the raw talent is clearly there.

Oliver Stone (Okanagan u18s)

Small and fast, the Okanagan u18 captain was the rock that allowed Nethersell to go ranging forward. Rarely makes a bad play in his own zone and a very good skater indeed. Plus, with a name like that, he’s going to be difficult to forget about for sure.

Ed Knaggs (MK Thunder)

He saw some time with the EPL’s MK Lightning last season, and the 17-year-old will likely have more time over the coming season. A strong prospect who is developing steadily in Milton Keynes

Scott Robson (Peterborough Phantoms)

Robson has been around the Stingrays for several seasons now, mainly riding the bench but taking the odd EIHL shift. Last year was his first full EIHL season with Peterborough, where he acquitted himself very well on the blueline. He’s back with the Phantoms this season to continue working his way toward becoming a top British defender.

FORWARDS

Sam Duggan (Orebro, Sweden)

The jewel in the British young forward crown, the youngest Duggan is playing at a level most British players (even seniors) can only dream of by playing in the top Swedish league for his age-group. Fast, skilled and creative, Duggan is a heck of a talent with a ceiling far above the UK – there’s even been the odd whisper that he could come to the notice of the NHL in his draft year (next season). Scoring at a point per game in Swedish J18 and already with several appearances in one of the best junior leagues in the world (Swedish U20) aged 16, the Bracknell product is something very special indeed. Possibly the next great hope of British hockey.

Phillip Mulcahy (Coventry NIHL Blaze)

This little forward plays with a chippiness that belies his small size (5’7) and with his speed and shot he’s already a top goalscorer/agitator in the making. At the age of 16 last year he was very impressive for the Coventry NIHL team, scoring 24 points on a young, inexperienced squad. A player the Blaze management should definitely have their eye on.

Kieran Black (Edinburgh Capitals SNL)

One of the best prospects north of the border not currently playing with an EIHL team in any fashion, Black is a goalscorer, with 20 goals in 11 games in the Scottish u20 league. He’s coming to the point where he needs an EIHL team to take a chance on him if he wants to go any further, though – or even an EPL team…at the age of 20 he’s at the upper end of our limit.

Tom Watson (Solway Sharks)

Another skilled goalscoring forward who got ten goals in 17 for the Solway Sharks last season in the SNL, Watson is a player who the Scottish Elite League teams will likely be aware of soon, if they’re not aware of him already – the 17-year-old has an eye for the net that’s obvious and the potential to develop into a very useful sniping forward indeed.

Jordan Cownie (Braehead Clan)

Perhaps the star of the forward crop, Cownie is one of Scotland (and GB’s) most exciting prospects in a while. A fast, chippy player who loves to make plays, he got 32 points (including 10 goals) in the EPL last year, and after two seasons learning his trade in the second tier, makes the step up to the EIHL full time.

Ollie Betteridge (Nottingham Panthers)

Another player stepping up to the EIHL full-time this season after impressing for Nottingham given limited ice time in the CHL last season as well as spending time with the EPL’s Swindon Wildcats, Betteridge is a speedy young sniper whose small stature belies a willingness to get stuck in along the boards. Relies on a quick shot and astute positional sense to create scoring chances/score goals.

Liam Kirk (Sheffield Steelhawks)

One of the most skilled players in this group, the Sheffield product is a great skater and has hands to die for – his puck-handling in tight spaces is amazing for a 15-year-old. Already playing against players 3 years older at u18, he’s just sneaking into this group by virtue of being an exceptional talent. Definitely a name for EIHL teams to watch – if the Steelers aren’t watching him already, they should be.

Kyle Watson (Sheffield Steelhawks)

Liam Kirk’s linemate and one of his partners-in-crime, Watson is a bit more of a physical player than Kirk-more of a two-way counterpart to Kirk’s pure offence. He’s got a good hockey mind and positionally is very strong-not as flashy as Kirk is, but equally effective.

Michael Stratford (Okanagan u18s/Swindon)

Big, strong and with a lethal wrister, Stratford is arguably the best pure sniper in this group. He seizes on loose pucks in the offensive zone like a cat pouncing on a mouse, and very shortly afterwards the puck’s usually to be found in the opposition net. He’s being given a chance at EPL level this season, so it’ll be interesting to see how far his shot can take him.

Luc Johnson (Okanagan u18s)

The GB u18 captain and MK product is small, creative and thinks the game at lightning speed. He’ll need to grow a little to really step up to the next level but on skill alone this kid has a very bright future indeed. He’s also a very good leader.

Glen Billing (Okanagan u18s/Swindon Wildcats)

Like Michael Stratford, Billing has a potentially great future. Scored an average of 4 points a game at u18 level this season as well as playing at NIHL and EPL level with Swindon, and will likely play for three teams again this season – something that’ll bring his development on in leaps and bounds.

Ivan Antonov (Sheffield Steeldogs)

One of the most skilled forwards in this group. the young Brit of Russian parents scored 19+22 aged 17 for Bracknell in the EPL last season…he’s incredibly fast and has great vision, along with a huge amount of patience. Watching him play, it’s very easy indeed to forget he’s only 18…this year is a big one for him and will likely see EIHL teams (particularly the one just across the road from his new home rink) watching him with covetous eyes if his play continues as it has.

Lewis Hook (MK Lightning/Coventry Blaze)

One of the top British forward prospects out there, as his 21 goals in the EPL last year (aged 18) and big jump in play level for Milton Keynes after his move from Peterborough prove. Hook is an exciting playmaker, who loves to be involved offensively. His shooting and passing are excellent, as is his hockey sense – this year is key for him as he takes on a two-way contract between the EPL and the Elite League.

Toms Rutkis (Okanagan/Swindon)

One of the most exciting young British forward prospects, the British/Latvian forward looked a standout player for the GB u18s this season, and scored an average of 2 goals a game for the elite Okanagan junior side as well as scoring 4 goals in the EPL at age 16. Rutkis is a fast, agile forward with great hands and an accurate shot. Along with Billing and Stratford he’s making the step up to the EPL with Swindon next season, so has a golden chance to really cement his place among Britain’s top prospects.

Danny Ingoldsby (Wightlink Raiders)

At 6’1 and 201lbs at 18 Ingoldsby is a power-forward in the making – something that the GB game lacks a little in its native players. He’s already played 3 seasons at EPL level with some success, and while some might see his move down to the NIHL this season as a step back, he’ll be relied upon as a top contributor on the Island and this season could be the making of him as an offensive player.

Cameron Winn (Basingstoke Bison)

The Basingstoke product has spent his whole career with his hometown team, and has developed into an excellent two-way forward. Not the most prolific, but among the hardest-working players out there.

Bobby Chamberlain (MK Lightning/Coventry Blaze)

A feisty forward with a good lump of EIHL experience already, Chamberlain has been playing senior hockey since he was 16 at EIHL and EPL level, so there’s no question he can cut it. Now his game needs to jump to that next level as he looks to become a part of the top rank of British forwards, and possibly the younger heir/counterpart to Rob Farmer – though their physical sizes differ their style of play is very similar.

This is just a narrow sample of the talent out there…in the ladies’ ranks names like Molly Brooks, Kaitlyn Butterfield, Kimberley Lane, Katharine Gale, Beth Scoon and Shannon Douglas mean that the GB women’s team is in just as strong a spot for the near future as the men are – if that talent is used/nutured effectively by the British system.

What the list above shows is that there is exciting young talent just bursting to come through all over the UK and at all league levels…the question now is how many of these players can fulfil their potential in the British system over the next few years.

Remember these names – they could be the stars of British hockey tomorrow.

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The Science Of Selling Yourself Short: How The EIHL And Its Own Fans Are Contributing To It Standing Still

“Just sing along, I’m the king of catastrophies,
I’m so far gone,
That deep down inside I think it’s fine by me,
I’m my own worst enemy”

Less Than Jake: “The Science Of Selling Yourself Short”

This offseason has been an interesting one already in the EIHL & British hockey as a whole. It’s supposed to be an offseason of change. Of positivity. To listen to the “all is well” side of EIHL fandom, the crowds are going up, the players are getting better, the league is getting more competitive…everything is going brilliantly for British hockey right now, and anyone who tells you different is wrong.

This is a good time to be a hockey fan in the UK – in fact, we should stop complaining and enjoy it!

That attitude is one that is seeing the EIHL slit its own throat.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot to be positive about the EIHL at the moment. Coventry appear to be making steps towards a genuinely integrated development path under James Pease’s stewardship, signing several British players on two-way contracts (let’s leave aside the fact that in James Griffin and Bobby Chamberlain two of them are players with over 400 EIHL/EPL games between them and Griffin is being lauded as a “development” player after already spending 5 seasons at the top level getting a regular shift, shall we?), including Renny Marr, one of GB u18’s top netminding prospects. The Kelman/Lord Revolution in Cardiff continues apace with the Devils leadership and fans already massively confident of continuing last year’s momentum into a new season. Braehead continue to build strongly and there is much talk of a “new era” in Sheffield this year with more focus on local talent and “integrated thinking”.

Recently it’s been announced that the EIHL will bring in video review to all ten rinks next season after it was (successfully) trialled at the EIHL Playoff Finals this past April. This will apparently be paid for by revenues that would otherwise have been committed to a fourth official on the ice – something which in true EIHL fashion was trialled last year but only optionally, allowing teams to choose whether or not they paid for the extra official (unsurprisingly, some didn’t). This is a much-needed move that will allow the EIHL to avoid some of the contentious goal/no goal decisions that have decided games in seasons past, such as Fife’s “penalty shot that never was” a few years ago.

There’s also the introduction of the much vaunted “u20 league”..plans for which have been floating around as far back as last match. After lots of talk and hot air about how there were consultations, plans and “real impetus” in moving the sport forward-here’s the result…four teams. Four u20 teams – Scotland East, Scotland West, Okanagan/Swindon and Sheffield.

You’ll notice there the conspicuous lack of any EIHL clubs (with the notable exception, it has to be said, of Sheffield) or indeed any EPL ones. A curious move – but then again, with leagues already running at lower levels that carry the label of “development”, and several teams (again, James Pease in Coventry in the foreground) pointing more towards using their NIHL teams as “youth development” portals rather than very-high-level recreational leagues containing old warhorses and those who can’t quite commit to a full-time pro career.

This, again, is positive.

The trouble is, though, that all of this is rhetoric and talk we’ve heard before. We’ve seen the “rising attendances and great new era for British hockey” chat on the horizon before. The talk of “genuine development strategy”, “integrated development paths” and “a new professional approach.”

The trouble is, it’s a glossy sheen that has often rubbed off pretty easily whenever anyone’s actually taken anything of a look at it. Which is perhaps why the EIHL fanbase is now to the point where any critical examination or questions are deemed “negativity”, any attempt to push the league beyond very narrow club-defined media boundaries is seen as “interfering” or actively resisted.

And as for allowing anyone beyond a very few to actually get involved in the reporting and running of the sport, or any outsiders being allowed to bring in new approaches or new ideas? That doesn’t work well at all.

An EIHL team’s Operations Manager, in response to someone outside the team  (me) posting that they had signed a player this week, argued that anyone (including media) finding out news about an EIHL team should “have the decency” to not report it before the club does. It was part of a debate which saw a large number of EIHL fans basically say that anyone other than an official club source reporting on news “spoilt it” for the fans and ruined the game of hockey.

Essentially, what that debate saw fans and team officials arguing saying is “if anyone, including media, got hold of news about us, they should have the decency not to report it”.

God only knows how such a view would fly in the NHL, in a world where fans salivate at every tidbit written about their team, where opinions are shared, debated and dissected and where news stories are rarely, if ever, “left to the teams themselves”

In short, the NHL media (at least that of the big, independent companies – the one where the big bucks are paid and made and the big stories are broken) follows a criteria of “publish and be damned”. And the hockey world loves it.

Also in the NHL – the embracing of new media, interaction, fan journalism, and anything else that will get their teams out to a wider audience continues apace. I write for one of the bigger Boston Bruins blogs, Stanley Cup Of Chowder. They’re given press credentials by teams to NHL games on a par with the regional and national media – press passes to the NHL Draft. They are given the vast majority of the access “paid” reporters are, bloggers are regularly hired by media outlets, and indeed sometimes these (fan-run) blogs provide some of the best coverage out there. They’re actively courted sometimes by AHL teams, invited to practices, and given any other journalistic privilege despite starting out as little more than fans with a passion for their team.

Ah, but it’s a bigger league” you say. So let’s look at another that’s used blogging and media openness to gain a foothold-Australia’s AIHL. One of the success stories of “minor” leagues, the AIHL has embraced social media and encouraging fans to write about the league and encourage change, up to and including their official websites. And the sport is growing at a meteoric rate from much smaller beginnings-to the point where NHL and AHL stars regularly travel over for a massive “Canada v USA” series…including NHLers like Brent Burns. Indeed, the EIHL has seen a lot of players make their way over there in recent years for the summer, including GB star Jonathan Boxill this season. They have over 6,000 followers on Twitter, free webstreaming of the playoff finals and indeed every game, and TV coverage on one of the biggest TV sports networks in Australia. Not bad in a country truly dominated by rugby.

The EIHL, though…well, this is another team official’s view of the blog writing community in the UK:

Very “NHL media in 2009”, isn’t it? By today’s standards, it’s not just backward-it’s prehistoric. But it appears to be a popular view among many in the EIHL.

That team official, incidentally, also has a history of throwing homophobic abuse at people on the Internet when they disagree, and being publicly defended for it by his employers. Something else that’s prehistoric.

Then of course there’s the EIHL’s attitude to TV – an attitude that saw their broadcasting partner Premier Sports have to fight tooth and nail to get the playoff semi-finals on live television – a state of affairs unthinkable in most leagues yet seemingly actively agreed with in the EIHL, where Nottingham GM Gary Moran can say that he doesn’t think TV is important to the growth of a sport and have fans agree with him – where success is apparently seen as taking ten years to reach a point where a team isn’t in danger of going bust in the off-season. It’s also an attitude that sees TV reporters prevented from interviewing players and coaches during live games, not through their choice but through team officials – and TV crew having to ask several times to be given access to their own filming positions in some EIHL rinks.

And the saddest thing about this? EIHL fans don’t give a shit about the fact that their game is growing DESPITE all of this, not because of any coherent and well-run strategy.

When you have team officials reacting to any criticism with defensiveness, actively arguing that their news shouldn’t be reported by those outside the organisation, one of the most prominent voices in the UK game regularly launching homophobic and misogynistic attacks and being actively DEFENDED by his fanbase and people simply don’t give a crap, then you see why UK hockey has remained a small-time, smalltown sport for so long.

Any progressive influence in the sport, any positive change, any push to grow or include more than the small community of UK hockey fans (and sorry, EIHL – you can kid yourself you’re big time all you like, but you’re medium if that right now) has to fight against an ingrained culture of apathy, NIMBYism, small-town thinkers who not only don’t think outside of the box but are scared witless of even looking beyond the lid for fear that they might see the sun, and downright pigheadedness that means driving change in the EIHL beyond a local level is like trying to swim across the Channel with anchors tied to both legs.

It’s a Sisyphean quest.

But more worryingly, it’s a task that some seem to be actively scared of seeing succeed beyond very narrow, clearly-defined levels. It’s a parochial attitude of isolationism and protectionism disgused as “slow steady change” that, had it been applied by all of humankind might just about have seen us discovering fire by now.

Stop moaning about the cold…it takes effort to go and find that wood and then light it and anyway we don’t have the material in the cave to make matches!

Some officials throw the charge that it’s easy for fans and bloggers to talk in their “darkened bedrooms” about change but much harder to find the means to do it.

It is. But it’s harder still when you’ll refuse to let anyone look for fear they might actually find it.

The very fact that there ARE small oases of active progression and radical change in the British game (Cardiff and Braehead in the EIHL, Telford in the EPL, the Okanagan Junior Hockey Academy and many others at the lower levels of the game) doing it, some functioning on very little resource indeed in comparison to others, mean it is being done.

The fact that there’s a thriving British fan media community despite the efforts of some teams to actively dismiss it is proof it’s being done.

The fact that Premier Sports still want to cover hockey games even after being thrown around from pillar to post by team owners with an inflated sense of their own importance trying to dictate what can and can’t be shown means it’s being done.

The fact there are still people asking questions, looking for ways to improve the game, coming up with suggestions and some team staff performing miracles of turning a team around in a season despite running on budgets around half that of the teams saying “there’s no money” is proof it’s being done.

The fact that the EIHL is still making progress and there are people still hoping to improve it further, pushing for change, and asking “why can’t we be better” despite being mocked, ridiculed, obstructed and having obstacles put in their way at every turn by those they’re trying to help or by the “in-crowd” desperately trying to protect their inner fiefdoms-even the fact it’s survived as long as it has, never mind is still growing even at a slow rate?

That’s a pucking miracle. One that many EIHL fans & team owners/personnel don’t seem to realise is happening DESPITE their lack of ambition, not because of it.

You can talk about “being happy where you are” all you like if you want, EIHL. But being happy to stand still never got anyone anywhere fast.

The sooner you work that out and start embracing change, new thinking and questioning the status quo instead of protecting it for fear the alternative might be better still, the better.

The race is fast. If you don’t keep up, eventually you’ll be left behind.

Right now, you wonder whether the majority of the EIHL is perfectly happy as a back marker in the British sports world – because for all the talk of growth and change, it sure looks like many are.