I noticed Jonathan Phillips’ words in The Star earlier this week about the conference system the EIHL will be using next year – I couldn’t agree with Jonno more.
Despite the toughness of the Steelers groupings with Belfast, Cardiff and Nottingham, I see the eventual winner of the league coming from the big four.
Yes, we will hammer each other night-in and night-out and have points taken from us by our closest rivals but I still think there will be more than enough out of conference games for one of us to clinch the most valuable prize of all – the league championship.
The play-offs are great to win, easily the most fun and certainly the most exciting because we are all there for the big final four weekend.
Give me the league title, though, every day of the week. The pressure is on for 56 games, for 30 weeks.
People say they want the play offs to be longer. Well, I say winning the league in the UK is like a 56 game play-off series. The best team always wins.
This year the likes of Braehead and Coventry will fancy their chances because of the conferences they are in - but for them to go all the way, they will need winning records against the likes of Sheffield, Nottingham, Cardiff and Belfast - do you see that happening? I don’t.
The one thing the so-called “Big Four” have to be careful of is that whilst on one hand any one of the four of them could win the league, any one of them could actually miss out on the play-off’s – it’s hard to think but true.
You see all three conference winners are guaranteed a play off position. That’s three of the eight.
Will the team that finishes fourth in the big conference carry enough points to make the top eight?
Let’s say, as expected, Coventry win their conference and Braehead succeed in Scotland again. That only needs say Fife and Manchester to give the ball a good kick in their conference games and they could pick up enough points to knock one of the big guns out of the post season.
It could happen, don’t expect the likes of the new boys to be a walkover.
Milton Keynes haven’t announced anyone yet but they have some very good players already signed and joining them. Guildford the same, they have already confirmed former GB international Ben Davies in their ranks. So the play offs, a big club could be on the golf course before the end of March.
Is that right? Is that fair? Well in a perfect world, of course it isn’t. But if we lived in a perfect world with total sporting integrity we would have a standard three home and three away league season. If we had that, a third of the teams would go bankrupt and that isn’t what we need as a sport. So conferencing to limit travel, reduce costs and make the league more exciting is what we have and that’s why I think its brilliant. Because come March there will be something to play for at the top, middle and bottom of the pile.
We could be chasing a championship, a conference title or facing elimination from the play offs despite a great year. It’s the crazy world of British Hockey but it’s why we love it. Conferencing was the saviour of the Elite League, we were brave enough to bring it in and that’s why our league has gone from strength to strength, improved in quality and in the number of teams within it.
Other leagues have crumbled because of a lack of vision, that has seen the second tier of our sport collapse this summer and leave clubs like the Sheffield Steeldogs with nowhere to play. If you can’t give kids a pathway that they can see to get to the top they will lose interest. The governing body of our sport has been remiss over decades in sorting out that pathway and deserve most of the headaches they have right now. I bet they wish they had listened three summers ago when the Elite Under 20s league was proposed and backed by the likes of the Steelers.
No, the Governing Body let, once again, the tail wag the dog. Where do the kids play now? A glorified recreational league called the NIHL (North or South) - it’s a beer league, you can dress it up all you like but it’s a beer league. A pig in a dress is still a pig at the end of the night.
The second tier has to have age restrictions with a handful of overage players. It has to be a pathway to the EIHL, not an end stop for journeymen or a last pay day for the veterans. But that’s just common sense, isn’t it? And when did that ever work?