Stepping up: Six NIHL coaches with an Elite future?

Aaron Nell has overseen an ever improving Swindon Wildcats team in recent years (PHOTO: Kat Medcroft)

As things currently stand, there’s only one British coach in the Elite League from the nine of the ten clubs who have coaches in place at their clubs right now, but who, in the National League ranks, could make the step up?

The NIHL has shown there’s a great deal of coaching talent within their ranks and as Paul Dixon, Guildford’s coach and Pete Russell have shown, they can step into the Elite level relatively seamlessly.

Russell has gone on to coach in Germany, while Dixon got Flames to a Challenge Cup Final and the play-off finals weekend in 2019 so who’s next from the Brit pack who could make a step up.

Here are six possible contenders who could fancy themselves if an opportunity presents itself to them, in no particular order.

AARON NELL (SWINDON WILDCATS)

It’s quite unbelievable to think the Swindon boss has been in charge at Wildcats for five years after taking over at the age of 25.

Looking at his record, Wildcats have steadily progressed from mid-table team to a league winning outfit last year when they won NIHL 1 South and had a couple of trophies in the bag too.

Nell is still banging them in as a player, after ending 2019/20 in second place of the scoring charts and has played in the Elite League with Coventry Blaze and Sheffield Steelers.  Definitely a possible move in the future, but still has a lot to offer as a player first.

Tom Watkins scooped the NIHL National League title just prior to the coronavirus shutdown (PHOTO: Steve Brodie)

TOM WATKINS (TELFORD TIGERS)

He managed to get his hands on two trophies, including the first NIHL National League and is coming up to decade in charge at Tigers so Watkins definitely could be one to step up.

As a player, Watkins was a big part of the Coventry Blaze team in the early years of the EIHL, winning four league titles and the Grand Slam in 2005.

Three league titles with Telford as a coach, two in the former EPL and cup success is reflective of a man capable of making his mark at the top level and would certainly hold his own there.

Peterborough Phantoms coach Slava Koulikov (PHOTO: Tom Scott)

SLAVA KOULIKOV (PETERBOROUGH PHANTOMS)

Koulikov may have been born in Russia, but is very British in a lot of people’s eyes and has been a staple part of the sport in the UK for a number of years.

He’s been in Peterborough for just over six years now and can point to various successes with the clubs in recent seasons to back up any potential talk of a step up.

An EPL play-off winner in 2015 and further trophies in the NIHL in 2018/19, while also holding consistent second and third place finishes show they are a team that are up there.  A league crown outright would certainly cement the effort he’s put in down the years.

Ashley Tait has just completed his second year in charge at Basingstoke Bison (PHOTO: 5 Hole Photography)

ASHLEY TAIT (BASINGSTOKE BISON)

There’s no doubting the legendary status Ashley Tait has from his exploits as a player for Coventry and Sheffield Steelers.  As a coach, it’s certainly possible to see him move up despite just two years at the helm of Basingstoke Bison.

Following league and play-off winning Doug Sheppard was a tough ask, but Tait has solidified his team and has finished towards the top end of the table in the National League.

We could definitely see him coming back to the Elite League, but after agreeing to stay with Bison for another season, seems to be enjoying cutting his teeth in the NIHL as he looks to make his team title challengers next season.

Jason Hewitt has proved to be a real leader for Hull Pirates (PHOTO: Hull Pirates)

JASON HEWITT (HULL PIRATES)

Hewitt has been at Hull for just over three years and is a hugely popular figure, leading by example as a coach as well as a player putting up some eye-watering numbers.

The 36-year-old was an NIHL 1 North league winner and play-off champion and while the National League proved a much sterner test for him, it will have served as a great education for him.

He knows the Elite League terrain well and would be a good addition to any team willing to give him the chance, but life at the Pirates seems to suit him.

Solway Sharks and GB Men’s Under 20s coach Martin Grubb (PHOTO: Ice Hockey UK)

MARTIN GRUBB (SOLWAY SHARKS)

A bit of a wild card perhaps compared with the others, but Grubb’s work with Solway Sharks and the Great Britain programme makes him a widely respected figure in British ice hockey.

He’s been with the Dumfries side for over two decades and has overseen them in various leagues, with success to show for his efforts.

Fans have linked him with Fife Flyers one day and it would be as logical and sensible move as you could get, considering he was born in Kirkcaldy and retains strong links with the area.  Whether he feels it would be a suitable move would be down to him, but certainly someone who can make the step up.

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