Look across EIHL Twitter right now and once of the most common concepts and descriptive terms floating around that you’ll see is “new approach” or “new era”. Whether that be Sheffield beating it into the ground, teams talking about atoning for the mistakes and errors they made last year or simply trying to get better at what they’re already doing, the buzzword is “change”.
Nowhere is this more apparent, it could be argued, then in one of the EIHL’s most storied rinks.
The Edinburgh Capitals are coming into this new season with an approach and a mentality very different to that seen in the Scottish capital the past few seasons. Gone is the European approach and quiet efficiency preached by Richard Hartmann and the silky smooth skating of Rene Jarolin, and in is the all-North American style and the big (in all senses of the word) personality of fan favourite and now new player-coach Riley Emmerson.
The 6’7 winger was one of the feel-good successes of the Elite League last season both on the ice and off it. On the ice he scored more points in 50 EIHL games than he had in the 600+ games of his whole career up to that point, including 14 goals (his career total before last year, incidentally, was 19), becoming one of the most popular players the Caps have seen for a good few years with the majority of their fanbase.
Off it, too, he became a key figure in the Caps organisation, quickly becoming one of the faces of the Caps PR and the fans’ choice to replace Richard Hartmann when the Slovak and the Capitals parted ways at the end of last season.
Emmerson has wasted no time in putting his stamp on the team, recruiting a roster massively changed from Caps rosters of the recent past. Whilst Richard Hartmann’s rosters showed a strong European flavour (including one of the most skilful players ever to grace the EIHL in Rene Jarolin), Emmerson’s roster bears the unmistakable stamp of the man himself, it’s big, built to do a job, passionate and unapologetically North American (of the 11 import players currently signed, eight are Canadian, the other three American).
Lost in the reshuffle are some undoubtedly very good players in the likes of Rene Jarolin and Tomas Hialdlovsky in net, but what the Caps have gained is a roster that’s built very much to deal with the popular style in a league which has always been slightly uneasy welcoming European players. It’s also a roster that knows very clearly what it is-skill with a healthy side of grit and aggression.
The recruitment has also been impressive, not least because it’s well-known in the EIHL that the Caps are working with a slightly smaller war-chest than some other teams. Players like prolific ECHL scorer Ryan Hayes and smooth-skating two-way defenceman Jacob Johnston jostle for space with a mixture of established role players in the ECHL and hungry young forwards like first-year-pro Trevor Gerling. Many of them could probably grace many other EIHL rosters.
But what’s really notable here isn’t so much the changes on-ice in personnel (after all, those happen every year, although often not quite on so heavy a scale). It’s the change in emphasis and more importantly, what it could do for the Capitals.
It’s no secret that British fans tend to prefer a gritty, fast, North American style to the (perceived) slower, more patient European style of play. Leaving aside what this says about how European-style hockey is viewed in Britain, giving the paying public what they seem to want is always a sound strategy. If you can do that while also building a team that will bring a great British hockey city back into the minds of people as more than a team perennially fighting to avoid being eaten by much bigger fish, so much the better.
Edinburgh are a hockey club with a huge amount of potential-an established hockey city that in recent years has fallen on hard(er) times as budgets have got bigger elsewhere, the competition for top British players has got tougher, and crowds in Edinburgh have drifted. However, a gritty, hard-working squad led by a charismatic coach who has already become an honorary member of the city in the eyes of his fanbase is a heck of a building block to begin with when looking to start putting together a new era in Caps hockey.
Nobody knows how Riley Emmerson’s first season in charge in Edinburgh will go – and nobody is expecting miracles. However, in building his roster the 29-year-old Burnaby native has shown himself to be a savvy recruiter with an astute mind and sharp awareness of how to get the most bang for his buck. That alone, coupled with the fact the man himself is a PR natural, means that the Caps are arguably in a better position to begin building than they have been in a long time.
Remember how Andrew Lord stepped into the breach in Cardiff last year? That’s a lofty standard to live up to as an EIHL rookie coach, but there’s nothing to say that it’s an unfair one, nor one that the Caps man can’t reach, given time and space to do so. Emmerson himself has talked of “changing the culture” and “falling in love with the city”. He’s a man who understands the way the Capitals need to be sold to potential players, and he comes into the job with the hunger and drive to make some major waves and an understanding of the kind of “team-first culture” that has already paid dividends at Cardiff.
Essentially, while they’re very different players, the parallels between Emmerson this year and Andrew Lord last year are striking-and Lord is a man I recently named as “best coach in the EIHL”.
If Emmerson can achieve half the impact in the Scottish capital this season that Lord did in the Welsh one last year, he’ll have had a very successful season indeed, and nothing in the off-season is arguing against him being able to do that.
The Caps have a big man making big changes in his first season as coach, and it could lead to big success down the road given time.
We shall see.