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.

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