Jono Bullard: Who should be the real champions?

(PHOTO: Dean Woolley)

This week I wanted to explore something that has had me thinking for a while. 

It has also come into focus since EIHL Chairman Tony Smith’s comments to the Sheffield Star around British and Import levels in the league, which I wrote about extensively last week. 

The premise is simply this, should the EIHL regular season title be scrapped with the overall league champions being the play-off winners?

There is a caveat before I begin in earnest. There’s no way that this can be considered if the play-off weekend continues as it wouldn’t be fair to award the championship on the basis of just four post-season games after a 54-game regular season. 

The play-offs would have to move to a more meaningful ‘best of’ series, and as we know that could be a non-starter due to arena schedules. 

However, this is still a subject I wanted to explore the viability of and to come back to the premise behind Tony Smith’s interview, in a league format every game is important which puts pressure on coaches to produce results week in, week out. 

If the main prize is the play-off championship, as it is in virtually every other hockey playing country in the world, would that take some of that pressure away and allow coaches to experiment more with their line-ups? 

Belfast Giants were the last crowned champions of the Elite League in 2019 (PHOTO: Press Eye/William Cherry)

There have been a lot comments questioning the EIHL’s commitment to developing British talent after Tony Smith’s interview, would a change in format allow coaches to use more, younger British talent on game-night rosters? 

This would inevitably be of benefit to the Great Britain national team, however I also appreciate that the owners of the ten clubs are more concerned with their own teams rather than Great Britain. 

They are going to concentrate more on what makes their teams successful rather that what is best for the national team. At the end of the day, the clubs are their businesses so that’s fair enough.

I appreciate that it is a big, big question. I posed it on Twitter back in June with a poll and it had an excellent response with over 1,000 votes. 

Overwhelmingly, the overall consensus was to keep things as they are, but of all the replies to the tweet, most were saying that it couldn’t happen without a meaningful play-off series along with teams qualifying early and coasting for the rest of the season.

This would lead to an increase in ‘meaningless’ games, while others said they like the league format as every game means something. 

I also appreciate that this can’t be done in the short and perhaps medium term. A seismic change like this would require long-term planning as it would completely change the landscape of how a season is scheduled.

However, this isn’t without precedent in other British sports. Both codes of rugby contest their championship in a Grand Final game, the participants of which are decided in an end of season play-offs. 

Rugby League’s Super League Grand Final decides the championship after a regular season and play-off competition (PHOTO: Love Rugby League)

There is also the question of the play-off finals weekend in Nottingham which is an important revenue generator for the league. 

Could they afford to lose that spectacle? I’d suspect the answer is no, but does that then give scope to reformat the Challenge Cup to become the big weekend tournament and also is there still a desire to have a ‘Magic Five’ weekend to open the season? 

While it would be difficult to see the Play-Off finals weekend go, there are alternatives that can be explored, the big question with those is can they replace the revenue lost?

From my own point of view, I can see both sides of the argument. 

A league champion is what we are used to in Britain in most sports and it does make every game meaningful. 

On the other hand, without the pressure of having to go for two points every game, would this give head coaches the freedom to blood more British talent in their line-ups? 

I’m guessing this isn’t a question that would have come up if Great Britain were not in the World Championships top group, but do we as a nation have to do what we can to keep them there, or is the EIHL not a development league?

Tough questions and to be honest I don’t quite know where I sit myself on this, and I stress again that this could only happen with a ‘best of’ play-off series, but I think it’s high time that the discussion was started at the very least.

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