Riley’s Roaring Lions: The Edinburgh Capitals Are This Year’s Feel-Good Team

“Now I feel the fear rising up
Climbing up, taking over my body
And I feel my pulse starting up
Waking me again”

Flyleaf: “Set Me On Fire”

There is, very quietly (although less quietly by the week) a revolution happening in one of Britain’s oldest, grandest cities.

The Edinburgh Capitals have long been a team who have tried to play hockey the “right way”, be it with the guile and graft of Tony Hand coupled with the power of his brother Paul way back in the guise of Murrayfield Racers, the joyful artistry and deadly finishing of the truly breathtaking Adrian Saul-Steven Kaye combination of the BNL years, the silky smooth play of stars like Mark Hurtubise, Colin Hemingway, Curtis Leinweber, Simon Lambert and the Edinburgh and British hockey legend that is Martin Cingel, or most recently under Richard Hartmann signing an artist who used his stick as a paintbrush and the ice as a canvas to create solo, unhurried genius in Rene Jarolin.

The trouble is, in this pragmatic era of budgets and business often being a key factor in how successful a team is, the Caps have found themselves languishing near the bottom of the EIHL table more often than not, and gained an (unfair) reputation as a “boring” team to watch, particularly among fans who preferred their hockey a little more “crash-and-bang North American” than Richard Hartmann’s mix of Slovak-influenced skill with the very North American left-wing lock offered.

However, this year, the Edinburgh Capitals are a team reborn. Under Riley Emmerson, the Caps have been described as “one of the most exciting teams in the league” by GM of Cardiff Todd Kelman, a man who should know a thing or two about excitement given the amount his work has caused in Cardiff recently (and Belfast before that). From a team that bubbled along barely noticed by the rest of the EIHL for long periods of time and rarely set the pulse of the “average” EIHL fan racing when seen on the fixture list, the Caps have become one of the hottest tickets in the EIHL under Emmerson’s completely new approach.

These Caps aren’t patient. They’re not subtle and looking to ease their way through opposition defences through patiently probing at picking at a lock. Their attacking ambition is about as subtle as a punch in the face, they hunt down offensive chances and attack with the hunger and reckless abandon of wolves chasing the last steak in town, and their skill and speed is combined with a healthy dose of good honest lunch-pail work ethic too.

The Caps have also been helped by some truly superb recruiting. In Ryan Hayes (21 goals in 23 games) Emmerson has found one of the most lethal snipers ever seen in the EIHL – the American has the kind of goalscoring killer instinct most teams would kill for. In case you’re wondering how good he is compared to the rest of the EIHL, his nearest challenger in the league has 12 goals. That’s only slightly more than half his scoring.

He’s backed up by Italian international Paul Zanette (11 goals), speedy sparkplug Craig McCallum (10 goals) and Emmerson’s former team-mate in Arizona David Rutherford (9 goals).

Those four players combined have 51 goals. For comparison, That’s two more this season than the entire Coventry Blaze squad. All eighteen of them. The Caps also have two of the top ten points scorers in the league (more than Sheffield, Nottingham, Belfast and Coventry-the only team who have more are Cardiff, with three). They also have Taylor Dickin sitting in 11th, and new signing Brandon Coccimiglio could potentially drive the red-light frequency up even further in Murrayfield…a tantalising prospect.

Defensively, Jacob Johnston has been one of the EIHL’s top sleeper signings. He sits 21st in EIHL scoring and 3rd among defencemen in points (only Cardiff’s Andrew Hotham and Belfast’s Derrick Walser, both of whom far more experienced in pro hockey, sit above him), and is the top goalscorer among blueliners with 8 already this season (again, as many as any Coventry Blaze player, defence or forward, has scored all year).

Last week the Capitals beat Sheffield 7-5 at home to take their eighth straight home win (a new team record in the EIHL) and currently sit comfortably 4th in the EIHL at the quarter mark of the season.

All of this is heady stuff for any team that’s struggled in the lower reaches of the league for the whole of its time in the EIHL, but it’s even more impressive when you remember that Edinburgh are comfortably outperforming many teams running with a far bigger budget at this point, with a rookie player-coach.

Back in August I argued that Emmerson was in the perfect position to potentially make the same sort of impact in Edinburgh this year as Andrew Lord made in Cardiff last year…but I have to admit I didn’t expect that impact to be made so hard and so spectacularly.

In just one summer the big boy from Burnaby has achieved a truly monumental turnaround-as mentioned earlier he’s already broken team records in the first few months of his tenure as coach. Under Emmerson’s influence the Caps have gone from a team derided as “boring” by many to an offensive juggernaut-only Belfast have scored more goals in the EIHL this season. They’ve beaten Sheffield away from home with only 4 defencemen and missing several other regulars, then put seven past a league powerhouse at home-a state of affairs unthinkable as recently as a few years ago when the Steelers were thumping them 18-1 in a game.

Most importantly, though, they’ve restored pride in Edinburgh, not in a slow, careful way but with an absolute vengeance. The team from the Scottish capital are now very much a force to be reckoned with both on and, slowly but increasingly surely, off the ice. Crowds are slowly growing in Murrayfield as word begins to spread about the team setting the old barn on fire weekend after weekend and the joyful abandon with which they play hockey.

Off-ice, the Caps have some of the best PR material in the EIHL and a league-leading website to sell this new, exciting brand to a waiting city, as well as some of the most beautiful jerseys in world hockey in which to show it off.

Whilst the change in Caps’ fortunes can’t solely be credited to Riley Emmerson’s efforts, every single iota of the change on ice is, in some way or another, down to him. Like Andrew Lord last year, he’s taken the club he’s been given to lead and made it his own in a way that few experienced coaches ever manage and settled into the drivers seat like he was born to it. I said before the season that Emmerson had started by making a strong attempt to impose his identity on the Capitals instantly, but now I’d go further and say that his work and that of the Caps are already standing as a shining example of how to do EIHL coaching right.

Where other coaches have struggled when given the chance to make a club their own (again, look at the situation in Coventry for an example), Emmerson has seized his chance with both hands and built a team fit for the Scottish capital…one to get it excited about hockey again after too many years where it was almost the forgotten sibling of Edinburgh sporting squads.

He’s done better than anybody gave him a chance to do – and in the process he’s turned Edinburgh into the biggest feel-good story of this season by some considerable way.

And you get the feeling, reading the interviews, looking at this Caps squad and seeing what it’s doing, that this is only the beginning.

Get excited, EIHL. Times are good right now in Murrayfield…and all the indications show that if Riley Emmerson and his team of swashbuckling warriors with lions on their chests have anything to do with it, this could only be the beginning.

The Caps are back from the shadows. And it’s Riley Emmerson who’s led them here.

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Death, Taxes & The EIHL – A Chasing Dragons Guest Post

No matter how things change, they always stay the same.
I’m in self-imposed exile from the Elite League. Anyone who was aware of my acrimonious break-up with the Steelers will probably know I’m staying away from the product as much as possible, which is fairly hard when you’re a hockey fan in the UK with friends who still attend games.

I keep a passing interest in what happens, mostly because of said friends who follow teams and want the best for them, mostly. The thing is, I could write the script for the Elite League season and it would play out almost verbatim year after year.

Let’s have a look at it:

One team starts on fire, looks unstoppable, loses one game to unlikely conquerors and season starts to crumble. Check.

Nottingham stumble early on but somehow still keep getting results despite Cage forum members declaring this year’s squad the worst in living memory. Check.

Belfast fans think the walls are falling down but somehow are still a pretty decent hockey team. Check.

DoPS make some questionable decisions that bring claims of bias and favouritism, even if there isn’t. Check.

A top team really struggles early on. Check.

Coventry fans have unrealistic expectations and so are surprised when things don’t just fall into place. Check.

A Gardiner team makes waves early doors, prompting yet more conversations about the easier conference and scrapping the system. Check.

Edinburgh kick and claw but ultimately languish beh…oh. That’s new. That’s different.

The point I’m trying to make is, Edinburgh aside, the story of the EIHL is the same every year. You know, come March, the title will belong to one of Belfast, Cardiff, Nottingham or Sheffield. Coventry will sneak into the playoffs because they always bloody do, and Fife will just be there, happy to be invited, glad to be with the big boys at all (from a business standpoint at least).

Fans keep saying teams are improving year on year, but the teams all seem to be improving at the same level. If Sheffield have become 10% better, then so have Belfast, so have Nottingham, so have Dundee, so have Fife. So sure, the on-ice product might be a bit nicer to watch, but in terms of overall results, it just leads to the same old, same old.

There’s no chance of a Calgary-like charge up the league and into contention. Sure, a team could fluke their way into the playoffs, play well for four games and win that title, but with our obsession over here with “league title is everything”, that’ll be passed off as tinpot if it was ever to happen. Imagine the reaction if Hull had beaten the Steelers in the semi-final last year, then gone on to beat Coventry. “Well done little guys, but you won’t win the big one.”

The league is far too predictable, and far too stagnant, but nothing will change while people just accept it. I’d love to see Edinburgh finish top three, but if they did, the league would revert back to even fixtures and every barrier would be put in the way to stop it happening again.

Look at it another way. I’m covering the NHL now, and in another league where there’s supposedly the big boys and the rest, the goddamn Arizona Coyotes, of all teams, have been shocking people left, right and centre. Will they win the cup this year? Probably not, But it’ll be a hell of an exciting ride.

The same last year, with my Calgary Flames. People wrote them off at every opportunity but they still made the post-season dance. You just don’t get that over here.

“Aww look at Edinburgh, they’ve got a couple of wins. That’s cute. They won’t win the league.”

“Yeah but all they need is a few wi…”

“Let me stop you there. No.”

And they’re right. Edinburgh won’t win a 52-game league. They’re better than they were, but the big boys have too much. Now, put them into a playoff position. Maybe the league is shorter, over 40 games. All they have to do is finish top four in their conference, or top eight in the league? That’s doable.

Now, put them in a series of games against other teams. Maybe over the course of a season they wouldn’t beat Sheffield or Belfast to the league, but over 3-5 games? Any team can beat another on any night, and they’d only have to do that three times out of five, or twice out of three.

Ha, look at me. Wanting revolution when many people are happy with what already exists. Fair play, that’s your opinion. But to me, the league is too predictable. You know what’s going to be the ultimate outcome, and that just doesn’t appeal to me.

For those of you who have a passing interest in the NHL, I now write for Matchsticks and Gasoline, the Calgary Flames blog on SB Nation. Follow me on Twitter @LiamPMcCausland to watch me regularly melt down over Bob Hartley’s coaching.

Process Of Elimination: How The Coventry Blaze Have Destroyed Themselves From The Inside

Anything you ever did was strictly by design, but you got it wrong…”
CHVRCHES: “Leave A Trace”

There was a time the Coventry Blaze were one of the powerhouses of the EIHL. In the early to mid 2000’s, buoyed on a wave of optimism and aided by advantages like being one of the first teams in Britain to offer a university partnership-one that gave it a competitive advantage over the opposition, they rose to the top of British hockey like a meteor.

The scouting and ceaseless promotional efforts of the club and a fanbase that was joyful at every success and happy just to be a part of it combined to create a feel-good factor that was unparalleled – one that was replicated recently by the Braehead Clan and is being used again this season to great effect by the Manchester Storm franchise this season – if you treat fans like the most important resource a club has, constantly feed them information and give them a window into every part of the team, that tends to build one hell of a rapport together, and in Coventry, they did. A wave that carried the team to the EIHL Treble in 2004/05.

And that, in retrospect, was possibly the worst thing that could have happened to hockey in Coventry.

Over the following few years, the titles came and went, the ups were sill high but the noose began to squeeze as the rest of the EIHL began to look at what Coventry had done in the early years of the EIHL while successful, take the best bits from it, and add to them, while the Blaze stood still.

The decline was far from obvious. In fact, the mid-to-late 2000’s were just as successful. Combined with a combination of great recruitment from Paul Thompson and a parade of some of the greatest players the EIHL has ever seen through the doors of the Skydome, including those cherry-picked from other EIHL teams (names like Sylvain Cloutier, Trevor Koenig, Neal Martin, Dan Carlson,  Danny Stewart, and many more) the Blaze rode the wave of that treble title and the reputation built from it to success after success. Even when great players left, there was a production line to take their place, often plucked from EIHL adversaries. After Jody Lehman came Trevor Koenig. After the likes of Reid Simonton and Brian Lee came Jason Robinson.

The trouble is, that as the trophies and prizes got bigger, so did the egos. The sense of invulnerabilty. And most importantly, the detachment from all that had made the 2004/05 Coventry Blaze great in the first place.

The will to innovate and challenge simply disappeared as those off the ice bathed in the adulation and salad days of a team at the height of its powers. Victory no longer became something the fanbase hoped for, but something it demanded. And the ownership, for all their big talk of pushing forward and continuing to evolve, simply didn’t.

They believed the good times would never end, because, after all, this was the Coventry Blaze.

The slide began in 2010/11. That Blaze team, and the one following it, were the last gasp of the Paul Thompson era…two teams built by a coach in his comfort zone and overtaken by new blood. Even as other teams became better, overtook them, and the Blaze began to drop slowly, inexorably down the standings over the next few seasons the club ownership trumpeted that all was well, ruthlessly trying to (privately) suppress any disquiet or indeed anything that went against the message. Warning signs were ignored – criticism was greeted with anger and petulance from team staff (notably Thompson himself reacting to booing in one loss by telling fans they could “**** off and not watch it if they didn’t like it”).

Then Thompson left, and arguably the only thing holding up a crumbling ship simply caved in. In the two and a half seasons since his departure, the Blaze have had four coaches. Two, Matty Soderstrom and Marc Lefebvre, have been fired. One, Steven Goertzen was an interim head coach. The current head coach, Chuck Weber, has been in charge of the team for just under a year.

In those two and a half years, the Blaze have had to wait until the last day of the season to qualify for the playoffs (a state of affairs that was unthinkable only a few years before) and languished in the lower reaches of the EIHL table. They have seen coaches and players thrown under the bus in spectacular fashion (the most notable being Soderstrom, who as the man following one of the most successful coaches the EIHL has ever seen was always going to be a sacrificial lamb however his team performed, and Chris Lawrence, who was rounded upon as all that was wrong with Coventry’s team this season but has been productive in Sheffield since being cut – ironically under the returning Thompson).

They have also won a playoff title-a four-game winning streak at the end of the 14/15 season that may be the only reason Chuck Weber is still in a job right now after his much-vaunted team this season have won 5 games in 16 in the EIHL (their worst start in EIHL history), as well as throwing away a two-goal lead and qualification in 20 minutes in the Continental Cup.

The Blaze, a team that once looked down upon the EIHL from a lofty perennial perch at the top of the table, are now, for the first time in their history, looking up at it. They are bottom, and out of the Challenge Cup at the group stage after a must-win game against Manchester was greeted by one of the worst performances a Coventry team has ever produced at the Skydome.

The fall from grace is complete. There’s nowhere further to fall now.

This Storify perhaps sums up just how far the Blaze have fallen – it’s a set of tweets posted the other night by my fiancée, someone who’s watched British hockey for years, and came into the sport right when the Blaze are at their peak. It does a great job of summing up just how the fall has happened:

The Coventry Blaze right now are a shambles. They are an organisation where mediocrity isn’t just tolerated, it’s actively sought upon as an improvement right now. An organisation where a team going .500 is seen as “on the way up”.

It’s also an organisation that refuses to accept that this is no longer the organisation or the league which it dominated through the mid-to-late Noughties. It’s a group whose owners would rather make excuses for the position they find themselves in rather than build themselves out of it – where cronyism is encouraged, the fans are seen as walking wallets, players, coaches and employees are thrown under the bus and any suggestion of change is met with indecipherable business speak of “processes” and “execution”.

It’s an organisation that has disappeared so far into a protective self-repeating echo-chamber in which cronyism and SUPPORT THE TEAM-ism run rampant, that you now have situations like the BBC CWR Faceoff programme this week, which saw a wonderfully horrific moment where team owner Andy Buxton spent five minutes essentially saying that the team was tired followed by player Jordan Pietrus nervously disagreeing and a post-game interview with Chuck Weber that was almost Mourinho-esque in its disdain for the attitude of some of his own players and the press. It was a program in which ownership and playing staff were delivering two completely different messages, the ownership that “all is OK, it’s tiredness and injuries causing poor form” and a clearly frustrated coach basically saying that his players were skiving and that the message his OWN OWNER was pushing just 24 hours later was utter crap.

It’s a team in disarray. A month ago I wrote that the Blaze were running out of excuses. The slide has been slow and gradual as the team have rested on their laurels, stood still and gone to a point where even their much trumpeted mantra “OK is not good enough” is an absolute mockery – because it’s far better than they can hope for at the moment.

Now, they’re bottom of the EIHL (for the first time in their history) out of the Challenge Cup. And the team and their owners have nobody and nothing to blame but themselves.

The fans of people who run the Blaze, and whose efforts once brought them such success in the past, are now reaping the whirlwind of their refusal to adapt and change as the EIHL has – to choose to bury their heads in the sand, surround themselves with yes-men, and hope nobody would notice the world changing around them to a point where what they were doing simply isn’t enough.

The Blaze are now a walking corpse of the team they once were. The only “process” that has hit in Coventry is the process of decay – the only “execution” that of a legacy.

And the tragedy is, there was every warning. This is a self-inflicted destruction.

Whatever the team want you to believe.