Editor’s note: Jay Whitehead, the newest member of GNGHockey, wrote this article. He is not yet in the system. Once he is, he will show up as the author.
I would be willing to bet that most of what you have heard about British hockey is bad; that is until just a few weeks ago. The Manchester Storm of the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) helped a 2-year old Leigh Syndrome sufferer work through his bucket list, which included a plane trip followed by taking to the ice with his favourite team at their away game in Belfast. I saw this on many North American networks, and once I stopped chopping onions and dried my eyes, it got me thinking; this is a very rare occasion where British hockey is covered in North America for something other than bench clearances and player/fan altercations.
Let me give you an insight to this misrepresented league and the tiers below.
A Crisp Saturday Evening in Basingstoke
Humour me if you will and picture the following scene: a crisp Saturday evening in Basingstoke, England. At the local rink, there is a sellout with fans of both sides sharing a laugh over a beer. Then, the buzzer sounds and the teams step back on the ice for the third period. Conversations stop abruptly, and the chants begin. As the puck is dropped, Dan Lackey (Basingstoke) and Sam Godfrey (Guildford) drop the gloves as tensions boil over from the previous period. The roars are deafening. From this moment on, it is impossible to hear yourself think as 2 goals in the third period decides a 4-2 home victory. Welcome to a rivalry game in the semi-professional 2nd tier of British ice hockey.
There’s a 99.9% chance you’ve never heard of Lackey and Godfrey, but ask their respective teams’ fans, and they will speak about these Brits in a way that many fans would talk about Pierre-Edouarde Bellemare, Matt Read (when he’s playing well), and players that made the NHL out of nowhere. They are fan favourites, if you will. The same can be said of most teams in any tier of British hockey.
Hockey is a small sport here, and as my anecdote above serves to highlight, fans buy in completely even at the semi-pro level. British hockey is home to (probably) the most passionate fans anywhere in the world.
We’ve already started making waves and have attracted the likes of Jay Baruchel (of Goon fame), who has become a fan of Braehead Clan. It’s definitely exciting to watch due to frequent high-scoring games, the North American physicality, and the relative affordability from the fans’ perspective.
The British Structure
The British hockey tier-system consists of 4 leagues, none of whom like to talk to each other. On the top, we have the EIHL (10 teams), with the English Premier League (EPL, 10 teams) on the second tier, and the National League’s (NIHL, 36 teams) division 1 and division 2 making up tiers 3 and 4 respectively. The EPL and NIHL fall under the jurisdiction of the English Ice Hockey Association (EIHA), which has strict import rules and is identical IIHF competitions rules, while the EIHL looks after itself with a more NHL-based rule model and is fairly liberal when it comes to imports.
The EIHL, formed in 2003 and the only fully professional league in the UK, is considered to be on par with the ECHL in both quality of product and rules, and as such we shall be using them for the purpose of comparison where necessary. Currently, the EIHL consists of 10 teams across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (expanding to 12 in 2017-18). The average attendance last season was 2770, which is impressive as only 4 teams had seated capacity above 3000. For reference, the ECHL that same season had an average attendance of 4169.
Rules in the EIHL are based on the NHL, so there’s not anything new for me to tell here. The lower tiers come under IIHF rules, which sees game penalties handed out more frequently with the instigator rule. Drawing blood on high-sticking can result in 2+game as opposed to 2+2 in the lower tiers depending on how the referee is feeling that night.
League and playoffs in the ECHL are very much the same style as the NHL, with a 72-game season and playoffs that include best-of-7 series in each round. Things are quite different on our side of the pond.
Contested over a 52-game season, the EIHL is split by the southern and northern geographies into 2 conferences; the Erhardt Conference – named after Carl Erhardt, who captained Great Britain to their Olympic gold in 1936, and the Gardiner Conference, named after Charlie Gardiner, the Edinburgh-born netminder who captained the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 1934. This gives room for 2 conference champions, with one being the league champion, to give the seedings for the playoffs. The league champion is seeded 1, while the winner of the other conference will be seeded 2 even if they finished lower in the overall league. The remaining seedings, 3-8, are then in league order, and the quarterfinals match-ups are 1v8, 2v7, 3v6, and 4v5 in a 2-match aggregate series played over 1 weekend. The 2-match aggregate system is the same as used in football cup competitions in England: 2 games are played, each team gets a home game, and the total score across the 2 games determines the winner. Those of you who follow the FA Cup and Premier League football will be aware of the away-goal rule in aggregate scoring, but this is not the case here. Overtime and penalty shots (shootouts) are used only in the second game of the series when the aggregate score is tied after regulation.
On the first weekend of April, the winners from the quarterfinals head to the playoff finals weekend at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham, with the single game semifinals (matchups decided by original seedings) played on the Saturday and the playoff final played on the Sunday. This sounds like a strange setup, but the weekend turns out to be a fantastic weekend-long festival of hockey with fans from all teams in the league in attendance. This format is also used in the EPL, with the finals weekend usually held at the Coventry Skydome Arena on the same weekend.
The EIHL: Career Killer?
The EIHL has had a reputation in the past of the league where careers come to die, and if you are a cynical individual, you could say that is still true. The very physical North American style of play offers up a great opportunity for players from the AHL and ECHL to spend time overseas with little culture change and even play with scholarships to study.
There is a limit of 13 imports per team in the EIHL, which is controversially high and leads to a lot of problems in the development of homegrown British talent. The majority of goaltenders in the EIHL are imports, and the starter/backup system is very different. If you are a starting goalie in the UK, expect to play every game and not be pulled even if you let in 8 goals. Backup goalies are more like ‘backup plans’ for when the starter is injured, and they very rarely see any ice-time. As it stands, there are only 2 British starting goalies in the EIHL (Belfast’s Stephen Murphy and Cardiff’s Ben Bowns), with most being backups or opting to play in the lower tiers to get more ice-time.
A North American Comparison
To give an idea of how players fair in the EIHL, here are some comparative numbers from import players who came to the UK after stints in the ECHL in the past 5 years that are currently sat in the EIHL top 20 scoring:
- Vinny Scarsella (F):
– 134 ECHL games for the Utah Grizzlies and Stockton Thunder, 2013-15: 28G 59A for 87pts (0.65ppg)
– 99 EIHL games for Manchester Storm and Dundee Stars, 2015-present: 45G 91A for 136pts (1.37ppg)
- Mathieu Roy (F):
– 53 ECHL games for the Florida Everblades (captain), 2013-14: 26G 30A for 56pts (1.06ppg)
– 52 EIHL games for Sheffield Steelers, 2014-15: 36G 43A for 79pts (1.52ppg)
- T.J Syner (F):
– 172 ECHL games for the Reading Royals and Utah Grizzlies, 2012-2016: 57G 83A for 140pts (0.81ppg)
– 36 EIHL games for Coventry Blaze, 2016-present: 15G 26A for 41pts (1.14ppg)
- Jacob Johnston (D):
– 120 ECHL games for the Evansville Icemen, Greenville Road Warriors, and Utah Grizzlies 2013-2015: 15G 45A for 60pts (0.5ppg)
– 78 EIHL games for Edinburgh Capitals (captain), 2015-present: 22G 43A for 65pts (0.83ppg)
While this is, of course, a tiny sample, this trend of higher scoring by both forwards and defensemen is representative of the majority of players bringing their careers to the UK.
Players coming over from North America often get quite a shock with the variations in rink sizes and ice quality within the UK, as a lack of funding often requires teams to take what they can get and not be too picky about rink sizes. This is even more apparent with the lower tiers, ranging from the IIHF Olympic-sized Ice Arena Wales in Cardiff to the tiny, frozen puddle that is Solent Arena on the South Coast (honestly, it’s so small you can shoot from anywhere and score).
During the 2012-2013 season, the EIHL was able to secure a few active NHLers during the lockout: Paul Bissonette (Cardiff), Matt Beleskey (Coventry), Anthony Stewart (Nottingham), Drew Miller (Braehead), and Tom Sestito (Sheffield). Being 3rd/4th liners in the NHL, this gave them an opportunity to play top-line minutes. This did, however, highlight the lack of money in the EIHL as additional sponsors were required to pay the insurance on these players’ contracts. This was not the first time insurance issues played a role, as during the 2004-05 lockout, it was rumoured that Mike Modano was headed to Guildford Flames, but his contract insurance was double the entire team’s wage bill at the time (though this rumour has neither been confirmed nor denied).
Since then, the standard of imports has been increasing in the EIHL, with multiple ex-NHLers making their way across the pond to see out their careers. This includes Cam Janssen and Brian McGrattan. When they signed in the UK, I was thinking we would get the opportunity to see their hockey skills as opposed to the enforcer roles they adopted in the show. Much to many fans’ delight, this hasn’t been the case; it took McGrattan nearly 30 games to get his first goal after fighting in almost every matchup. Fighting skill sets are still seen as very important in the UK as it attracts fans who are tired of seeing footballers earning millions just to trip over themselves and act like they’ve been shot.
Finally, what is the salary comparison like. Well I don’t have exact figures, but imports to the EIHL can expect salaries somewhere between AHL and ECHL. The big difference is that all imports to the UK get accommodation and a vehicle free for the season as well as food allowances. This can mean the take home from an EIHL season is a noticeable pay rise from the ECHL and even the AHL in some cases. Most of the British players in the EIHL, apart from the top few, do tend to have second jobs to make ends meet, though this is certainly something that has been improving as attendance and sponsorships have allowed more money to be available for salaries.
As I write this, the final weekend of the regular season is coming to a close, with the Cardiff Devils securing the league title with 3 games remaining after a 6-2 win away to Sheffield Steelers. I urge you to go forth and watch the EIHL playoffs if you can, with all teams providing highlights on YouTube and live webcasts for most teams via their websites. Britain is not the biggest hockey market out there, but it is improving every year and deserves to be noticed for it’s positives and not only its negatives.
Jay Whitehead is a writer and the EIHL reporter for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @whitehead48.
Elite Ice Hockey League logo – Elite Ice Hockey League