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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