Ever improving teams and rising gates has seen the league blossom into something fans could only dream of just a few years ago.
Coast to Coast spoke with EIHA Chairman Ken Taggart and NIHL North Manager Charles Dacres to get their thoughts on the current state of play.
Ken Taggart: “I’m pleased with how the new Conference system worked. We had a situation where some teams were happy to travel long distances, while others wanted something more local. Moralee and Laidler gave us that. It’s important to remember not everyone has the same budget available to them.
“We have some with larger fanbases who are able to use the income that generates to fund their operations, while others have players paying their own way. Forcing clubs to live beyond their means isn’t what we want.
“There are other considerations at this level too. We have to remember we are essentially dealing with community clubs. We have 32 weeks to get fixtures completed and there’s a constant battle for ice time. For some rinks the economics of losing public skating sessions can be damaging, so the clubs end up being hit in the pocket. Start adding in the cost of long journeys and you can see the problem.
“Last season the new set-up provided us with two successful play-off final weekends which produced some great hockey. There were complaints about where these were staged and the format (in Laidler), but the only teams who submitted workable plans were Solway and Solihull.
“All of our teams are encouraged to discuss things and find a solution which works. The Conferences and play-offs were voted on by the clubs, so that’s the way we went. Complaining about losing promotion/relegation or gate money from home play-off dates after a meeting isn’t the way to get things done.
“It’s the same with re-introducing National finals between North & South. Last time we had them the EIHA lost money, but if it could be done without that happening then perhaps they could be brought back. Everything comes down to how much the clubs are prepared to risk in order to keep playing.”
Charles Dacres: “The Conferences were set up and agreed by all teams. The name change recognised two gentlemen who put a lot into this sport and it was felt this was a fitting way to recognise that. The Moralee teams were happy to travel and had resources to support their players, while Laidler teams wanted reduced travel. They were also happy with the level of competition offered in this conference.
“On the whole I think the new set-up worked, but we still have a long way to go. Hopefully the feedback at our pre-season meeting will be positive.
“I don’t think we can get ahead of ourselves – we have to build in a very sure-footed way. You have to take the teams with you. We’ve had a very good season and the level of competition has improved across the board. The results have been tighter as the season progressed, with no one team running away with games by rugby scores.
“The play-off weekends gave the teams something to work for in fighting for the top slots to gain a spot. I really wanted to try something different this season and overall they were a great success. Some people were reluctant to get on board because they’d lose their gates from their own spectators, but teams were given the opportunity to host the play-offs. Thankfully Solway and Solihull came up with the goods.
“We have to remember cost is a major factor in whatever decision we make – all our teams have to be prepared to buy into any suggestion of play-offs and weekends away. Some players pay their own way, whilst others have their costs met – either way someone has to spend money.
“I think there’s a place for National finals and would love to see North v South. The downside is we’d need more ice time and we have so little as it is. We also have teams reluctant to travel, even when they’re in top positions, so the important thing is forward planning and firm commitments from all concerned. We’ve asked teams from both sections for their thoughts, so watch this space.”