“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.