It’s been another typical week in British Ice Hockey – rink sales, financial issues and more rumours than you can shake a stick at.
Silver Blades’ purchase of Blackburn Arena set the ball rolling, especially following their recent takeover at Solihull Ice Rink, with discussions aplenty about what it might mean for hockey.
Blackburn Hawks and Solihull Barons to the EPL? Elite League? A completely new league? There’s some Billingham Stars fans who’d say the NHL is on the cards for Blackburn, but that’s another story.
The Silver Blades’ statement didn’t help matters: “We are not looking to make any changes initially and can assure customers that it will be business as usual.”
Initially? A day? A week? A bit longer? Who knows, but the question people need to ask is why would any changes be necessary?
In Blackburn the new owners have inherited a team who are the reigning NIHL North Moralee D1 league and play-off champions and look on course for more success this season.
After two successful years in Laidler D2, Solihull have quickly established themselves in the higher division.
Attendances on the rise, winning teams and a buzz surrounding the clubs which is a throwback to days gone by – why would anyone want to risk it all by chasing ‘higher-level’ hockey?
Putting the Elite League aside as that’s a completely different discussion, let’s consider a club stepping up to the EPL.
Last season’s ill-fated EPL/NIHL cross-over cup competition was proof, not that any was needed, of the gulf between the two leagues.
Four (sometimes more) decent quality imports and paid British players is the minimum requirement for an EPL team. Expensive. A willingness to spend the odd midweek night on a motorway somewhere near Milton Keynes is a necessity for any players wanting to play EPL.
Contrast that with the NIHL, where teams can attract a couple of half reasonable imports to help put a few extra bums on seats, whilst providing a stage for talented local hockey players to strut their stuff and still tackle some plumbing or joinery on a Monday morning.
Yes, it’s a world away from EPL and beyond, but (whisper it quietly to the EIHA haters), NIHL hockey works. Is it perfect? No, but it’s sustainable, entertaining and improving every year.
Not convinced? Ask fans at Chelmsford, Invicta and Wightlink whether they’d rather struggle to survive in the EPL or flourish in the NIHL.
For those who argue the presence of the ‘bigger teams’ in NIHL affects ‘development’ need only look at Sheffield Spartans in the North and Oxford City Stars in the South.
Sheffield – with a limited fanbase and budget – reached the play-offs last season without compromising any of the club’s principles. Oxford – it’s not long since they were a D2 club yet they recently demolished ‘big spending’ Invicta Dynamos.
Do Blackburn and Solihull have players who could play EPL? Of course, but how many of them would want it? While Solihull is based in an area where they could probably attract enough British players to fill an EPL roster, it’s a different story in the North West.
Not convinced on that one? Check out the Manchester Phoenix roster. There simply aren’t enough players in the region to make stepping up a viable or sensible option.
Given the current troubles at Manchester and Bracknell there’s even an argument to say they’d be better served cutting their cloth accordingly, but that’s a discussion for another time too.
Attendances and gate income are also an issue. Blackburn pull in around 800 for home games with a top ticket price of £7. Would they maintain that at £15 a time in the EPL to watch what would most likely be a losing team? Gates of 300-400 when the team was struggling a decade ago suggests otherwise.
There isn’t a hidden core of fans waiting to come crawling out of the woodwork to watch EPL hockey in the North West. It’s probably the same at Solihull. In the absence of a rich owner any move would be risky in the extreme.
An EPL with North and South conferences is simply a pipe dream – something we’d all like to happen, but something which just isn’t workable at the moment.
NIHL teams across Britain are doing a great job developing and improving their respective sections and that’s where the likes of Blackburn and Solihull need to keep focusing their attentions.
National play-offs, a decent cup competition and better pathways for players to progress up the scale are some improvements the NIHL could make, but with the league working on so many levels you’d have to question the wisdom of anyone suggesting a move away.
As the headline says…
(Image permission: Keith & Jenny Davies)