Revolution By Inches: Everything You Know About The EIHL Coaching Hierarchy Is Wrong.

Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?”

C.S Lewis: “Prince Caspian”

The UK Elite League is a league where opinions don’t change very quickly. Import hockey is the best way to develop Brits, “teams know best” even when they don’t, and as for the style of hockey…it’s North American crash and bang or be damned.

But there is perhaps no area more intractable in EIHL fans minds than when it comes to the debate of EIHL coaches. Here the logic is simple. If you’ve won the league in the EIHL, you’re a good coach.

Whilst this is undoubtedly true, the EIHL coaching landscape has changed over the past few years, in attitudes, preparation and approach. Budget and recruiting are more important than they’ve ever been before, and so is getting the most from it.

Attitudes towards styles of play have changed, too.

Perhaps the example of Chuck Weber and his universal praise as a coach is the best example of this. Weber’s style of coaching is very regimented. It’s systems-based, with a lot of thought put into it, every player having their specific role and the whole team needing to know and do their jobs working hard and well in order for it to work.

Apparently, this is a “new approach” to hockey that the EIHL hasn’t seen before, and thus it was hailed as a revolution when Weber came in and did what he did with Coventry last season.

The trouble is, it isn’t really a revolution. It’s exactly the same style of coaching as that used by another successful EIHL coach previously – one that was often criticised by EIHL fans, even those of his own team, for being “boring”, “negative” and “overcomplicated”.

But then, that coach was Doug Christiansen, who some in the EIHL seemed to have it out for from the moment he arrived. It was the same system, in fact, that won Belfast a championship and allowed Edinburgh to perform above their station at the time Christiansen was coaching there.

The only difference between Weber and Christiansen, in fact, is that Weber came in after such an atrocious coaching job from Marc Lefebvre that this system suddenly seemed like Nirvana compared to the chaotic, headless-chicken approach the Blaze had had before. Oh yeah, and Weber didn’t have an insidious drip-drip-drip of character assassination being fed to a friendly media/willing audience by “insiders” with their own agenda.

Chuck Weber is essentially Doug Christiansen with a better PR team. He is an excellent coach, but everything he’s being praised for is the same approach that Christiansen was villified for, mocked or we were told by those purporting to be in the know was “disliked by players”.

Either that or the EIHL has finally caught up with modern times and realised that all the best leagues in the world play systems-based, intelligently-thought out hockey rather than the blood-and-thunder but utterly chaotic style previously accepted as the norm and even encouraged because apparently the EIHL is the last place in the world (outside some outposts in the NHL) that still thinks that hockey can purely be won by WORKING HARDER, no matter what that work is in aid of or if it’s the right people doing it.

So, one sacred cow slain. Let’s move on to the next one, that of Ryan Finnerty. Conventional EIHL fan wisdom would have you believe that Finnerty is a bad coach. A “bottler” whose teams often win despite him, not because of his efforts. This is a myth that has been gleefully shared by those in Sheffield after he was unceremoniously stabbed in the back there by Tony Smith, and also by opponents of Braehead, too.

But when you look at Finnerty’s record, the opposite is true. In three years coaching in Braehead, he’s seen attendances nearly double, the Clan themselves rise from an 8th place team (in his first season) to a Champions Hockey League squad and title challengers.

Yes, the Clan have come very close to several competition wins before ultimately falling short the past two years, but you know who else did that but never had his coaching called into question?

Paul Thompson, with Coventry in the early 2000s.

Yes, the same Paul Thompson held up by some as a paragon of all that is good in British hockey coaching. Here comes that third “sacred cow” opinion.

Thompson is also praised as a “winning coach” & “best in the EIHL”. Which is a bit strange when you consider he hasn’t even won the most competitions in the EIHL era & left Coventry arguably after their peak as new, younger coaches like Corey Neilson (who incidentally IS the most successful coach in the EIHL era but never seems to enter the conversation because he “hasn’t won the league as often”) figured his style & lack of ability to adapt out.

Now, Thompson is back in Sheffield having recruited a serviceable but uninspiring CHL roster with the pressure of having to emulate a league-winning coach who was fired to bring him in, hyped to the skies by Sheffield PR based on several uninspiring seasons in European hockey.

And yet those two seasons, backed up by winning in an era when he also happened to have a recruitment advantage other teams didn’t (university places) and one of the bigger budgets in the league, apparently mean that he’s worthy of canonisation as a coach.

This despite regularly signing players to play out of position, a recruitment policy that missed as often as it hit (particularly in later years in Coventry) and a loud and open willingness to champion the promotion of British players and a drop in EIHL import limits that strangely became most vociferous when that league wasn’t paying his wages.

(Note – before you break out the pitchforks, I am not, for one minute, saying that he is a bad coach. Quite the contrary. Nor am I saying that Chuck Weber is a bad coach. I am, however, saying that in Weber’s case he’s only doing what others have done in the past and in Thompson’s case that the hagiographic treatment of him (look that word up) is possibly overdone.

Paul Thompson was probably the best coach in the EIHL in 2010 (although even then, that was debatable, with Corey Neilson, Gerad Adams and Doug Christiansen all having legitimate claims at that spot – claims which have only strengthened with the passage of time while Thompson’s has stood still. It’s a lot harder to argue for him now in that company).

But this isn’t 2010 any more, and all those wanting to put him on some sort of pedestal need to remember that. You can talk about trophies all you like, but even then Corey Neilson has won more. Saying a coach is the best in your league without the most trophies won is almost as silly to accept as “conventional wisdom” as a fan as saying that winning three out of the four trophies available counts as a Grand Slam in your lea…actually, let’s just leave that analogy there and move on, shall we?

The best coach currently in the EIHL, in fact, is one that nobody is really putting out there as the best coach in the EIHL. It’s a coach who managed, with the help of his ownership, to take a team from the basement to the verge of a league title in one season while at the same time rejeuvenating the love of a crowd for his team and being one of the best two way forwards in the league.

It’s the coach who was the only one who consistently managed to out-coach Chuck Weber AND Corey Neilson – as a rookie.

His recruitment of his team this season has built upon the foundations laid last season, retaining key pieces and improving the team where needed while keeping what made them so effective in the first place. Many similar coaches would panic and look to hit a home run…this coach hasn’t.

Yup – the best coach out there is Cardiff’s Andrew Lord (with a big side nod to his sometimes-unheralded but massively important assistant Neil Francis, who has truly come into his own in the past few years).

But the key thing about Lord (& Francis)  is that they’re not just great coaches. They are the standard-bearing partnership for the way the EIHL coaching game is changing-of the fresh young pack of challengers making waves and making names for themselves.

Ask yourself this…if you’re looking to build a new team in the league-who do you take on? Do you take on a coach like Paul Thompson – an experienced old head, and a great motivator but one coming back to his comfort zone after trying to build a career abroad and not setting the world alight? 

Do you take Chuck Weber-an excellent coach who could and should be coaching in a higher league in North America but lasted less than two months in a “top” European league & seems comfortable tempted back to a mid-size team in a backwater to play a style designed to win but suffocate the life out of those watching as well as the opposition while doing it?

Or do you look at the likes of Corey Neilson, Ryan Finnerty, Andrew Lord, and Omar Pacha – young, hungry coaches who are either still playing or recently retired – players who seem to be incredibly popular with their teams, show passion and pride in their work but also know that the game is changing and are looking to incorporate new ideas, new thinking and a new approach to the league while also playing exciting hockey?

Do you look for those who think the game as it is used to be & do things because “well, it’s always worked before”?

Or do you look for the coach with something to prove who think the game as it is now & will be, not as it might have been? An innovator willing to drive themselves & their team forward?

The game is changing faster than EIHL fans and the received wisdom about coaching would like to admit. With the EIHL becoming more competitive and more attractive to a higher standard of player thanks to world economics, simply recruiting a good team or “getting players to play for you” isn’t enough. What might have worked or been true in 2012 isn’t true any more.

The EIHL coaching game is evolving. And at the same time, the old order is being destroyed right before our eyes by a new, young, vibrant group.

And they’re shattering a lot of illusions and slaughtering a whole lot of EIHL sacred cows along the way.

Long may it continue.


Gathering Storm: Manchester Join The New “Gang Of Four” Rocking The Boat in The EIHL

“Sometimes there’s no other way. Sometimes, Desmond, people have to die for things to change.”

Rebecca Crane, “Assassin’s Creed: II”

vita mutatur, non tolliatur (Life is changed, not taken away)”

First words of the Catholic Mass For The Dead.

This has been a summer of change in British hockey.

Those ten words could lead pretty much any article over the past ten years – British hockey and the EIHL is not known for being a stable, solid base at the best of times. However, this season more than any other has seen change on an epic scale, with one team dying and two returning from the dead.

Firstly, let’s deal with the death. Hull Stingrays’ exit from the EIHL was quick and sudden, with an announcement coming from the blue one morning that the Hull club, which had begun to build for the 2015/16 season under Omar Pacha, were to fold.

It was an announcement that happened so quickly that Stingrays players who had already signed up, including returning local hero Davey Phillips, only found out the news the same way as everyone else…via Twitter.

However, even as the EIHL was processing the news that one of their members had died, another came to life…and it was one coming back from an unjustified grave.

The Manchester Storm are back.

They’re not messing about, either. Backed by Planet Ice and playing out of the Silver Blades rink in Altrincham, the amount of work already done by Mark Johnson, Peter Russell and the ownership group in Manchester already is frankly phenomenal. From nothing in June the team now have several players signed (including two top Brits in ex-Hull star Matty Davies & GB international Davey Phillips) – and although this has been helped a little by cherry-picking the top stars from the dead Stingrays roster there’s been some exciting import signings made, particularly Zane Kalemba in net, who has the potential to be among the best in the EIHL.

What’s really showing about the Storm, though, is that they’re not intending to be a distant rumble of thunder on the horizon slowly building over the next few seasons. Quite the opposite. With engaging and active social media presence, league-first moves like offering the growing UK hockey blogging and fan-media community press credentials (the first in the UK to do so to fans outside their “approved” or “team specific” media, and the very astute hiring of one of those media personalities as GM in Premier Sports commentator and possibly most famous Belfast and UK fan-media’s Neil Russell as team GM, the team are looking to get the right people in place early.

Of course, all of this is not cheap. British hockey has traditionally been run on something of a shoestring, with everyone knowing who the financial powerhouses are – the arena teams. The Storm have signalled their intention to compete with them from the outset, with a reported £16,000/week wage budget and, more revolutionary still in a league where marketing strategy even at the big teams relies a lot on “just get a few people to yell about the games to friends and the rest will take care of itself” a concerted and focused marketing campaign that’s already seen a team podcast put in place.

The fact that the team are reportedly looking at spending six figures just on marketing throughout the year is a big refreshing stance, too – apart from anything else, it gives an idea that they’re here for the long haul and looking to have a similar impact to the likes of Braehead and Belfast in their respective big-city media markets.

Unsurprisingly, any mention of these figures have been scoffed at by the “old guard” in the EIHL. Teams just don’t spend that much. It’s not even half that. It’s all empty boasts.

It’s very interesting that the teams currently making a splash in the EIHL and genuinely growing (as opposed to treading water) are those who aren’t running around telling everyone about a “new culture” or “wanting to connect with fans” or even how they’re “the biggest club out there”. They’re just doing it. Cardiff, Belfast, Braehead, Manchester…what’s notable about their PR efforts and their approach in general is that it’s about getting the fans engaged and feeling part of a family rather than talking up their achievements, living on past glories or constantly promising change. Storm are saying little about what they’d like to do – just what they ARE doing.

The Storm have come into the league following the template that has given Cardiff, Belfast and Braehead much success, only they, too, are backing it with financial resources possibly not seen in the EIHL era before. 16k a week on team wages and a six-figure marketing budget are, in the EIHL context, big money for big ambitions. It’s also a warning shot that will probably shake up the complacent fat-cats at the top of the tree even further, just as Cardiff and Braehead are doing. Only Belfast are responding with any concerted effort so far-and we’re not beginning to see the effects.

In short, the death of Hull and arrival of Manchester and their efforts this summer have already forced the teams already being proactive to raise their game even further. There is at least one EIHL team looking to form links with You Can Play to promote the inclusion of LGBT people in the UK sport, which has not always been the most welcoming of places – and it’s noticeable that teams coupled with the continuing strides being made by Cardiff, Belfast & Braehead in looking to evolve, try new things (like Braehead’s “Socckey” merchandise, for example) are also the ones growing fastest.

The Storm have seen what’s been done in Belfast, Cardiff in Braehead already and learned from it. Early indications show that they’re riding on the crest of the “new wave” of EIHL thinking seen in the other cities and looking to take it further. The “second wave” of growth is going to be brought in by the teams like them that are willing to commit resources and speculate to accumulate, just like Braehead, Cardiff and Belfast are doing.

And it’s exciting to watch. The Gang Of Four, one in each country in the British aisles, driving the EIHL forward.

There will be those who knock it in the EIHL, and there will still be challenges and questions for the Storm to answer this season – lots of them.

But by following in the footsteps of the innovators rather than looking at the “tried and tested” (read “safe and boring”) path being followed by other teams, the Storm have already made a good start.