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.

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