I suppose it will come as no surprise to anyone that the comments that EIHL Chairman Tony Smith made to the Sheffield Star regarding the roster numbers has caused a bit of a storm.
If you haven’t read it, the 2021/22 Elite League season has being revealed as a 19-player maximum match-night roster with a maximum of 14 imports.
While there was support from some quarters, the vast majority of comments from fans ranged from disbelief to downright anger.
I want to look at some of his comments in isolation, but before I do I want to make clear that it makes absolute sense for the league to look at where cost savings can be made after the COVID shutdown.
I also want to make clear that I have absolutely nothing against import players, although I do think the import limit is too high at 14 (more later). The final thing that I want to make clear is that what I am about to write below is my own opinion.
I also want to say that this isn’t a slight on Tony Smith himself, I appreciate he is the spokesperson for the ten Elite League teams, I’d have felt the same had any of the other owners had Smith’s words attributed to them.
So, let’s move on to Tony Smith’s interview . Firstly, in regard to the roster numbers which have been a cause for speculation for weeks, he said “I think the playing roster is out there, (in the public domain) I don’t think we have made a public announcement.”
— Bob Westerdale (@westerdale10) August 9, 2021
This admission just makes the league’s communication look shoddy, because you have to ask why there wasn’t an article on the EIHL website explaining this?
This must have been known for a while as teams have been assembling their rosters for some time.
Also, fans have been asking for this information for several weeks as rumours surfaced about the make-up of each teams’ playing squad.
As the chairman and a club owner, I would have also expected to Smith to know if the information had been made public or not.
The crux of the matter is cutting costs, which is very much understandable considering the global pandemic that we have all been through.
However, I think that bringing the axe down on British numbers is a false economy.
It is without question that import standard British players such as Robert Dowd, Ben O’Connor, Mark Richardson and Luke Ferrera will be able to command a very good salary from their clubs, it a simple case of supply and demand.
But the number of high-end Brits are few in number and without knowing the individual salaries of players, I would very much doubt that most are on a high wage, and when you consider that 10 of those Brits will be back-up netminders, accounting for around 20% of the entire British contingent in the Elite League, then the cost cutting doesn’t wash for me.
Let’s face it, an import player is not only going to cost a playing salary, there’s going to be associated costs such as flights, ITC cards, accommodation and transport to factor in.
As I said in the opening paragraph, I think 14 imports is too high, but I also think that the imports do bring quality to the line-ups.
Personally, I would have liked to have seen a reduction to 12 imports for this season and a maximum roster size of 20 to allow teams to ice four forward lines if they so wished.
There should also have been an increase in the British presence on rosters. I can’t honestly see how this would increase costs compared to what they would be with a roster of 19 with a 14/5 import/Brit split.
Something else that jumped out from the interview was when Smith said “You bring me the crowds and I will bring you the Brits! But right now they don’t fill Arenas and I’d be the first to say I hope it changes, I hope the standard improves”.
Personally, I’d like to know if the league has done any research on this because pre-pandemic, the EIHL was shouting from the rooftops that attendances were increasing year on year.
Fans come to see an overall package, but to say that British players don’t fill arenas seems to be far too much of a generalisation to me.
Again, speaking personally as a Nottingham Panthers supporter, I’ve been blessed to see some quality import players such as Craig Kowalski, Jordan Fox, David Ling and Sam Herr, but I will always feel more of an affinity with British players like David Clarke, Robert Lachowicz, Ollie Betteridge and Robert Farmer.
I appreciate I’m speaking for myself here, but I doubt I’m the only one
As I have covered many EIHA Conference and National finals, along with Great Britain Under 18’s & 20’s and the Nottingham Lions in NIHL1, I get a great deal of pleasure from seeing youngsters come through the ranks of juniors and into senior hockey.
Take last season as an example, I watched Jack Hopkins and Archie Hazeldine transition to senior hockey seamlessly with the Nottingham Lions and I feel both have the talent to go on to the Elite League and possibly higher.
However, has their path to the top league now been halted by the new rules?
Time will tell, but I think the EIHL have scored a major own goal here, and I hope they see their error and rectify it. British players need to be able to aspire to play at the top level in this country, that aspiration has just been curtailed in the name of ‘cost-cutting’.