All the talk this week in the EIHL and UK ice hockey has been about the Nottingham Panthers owner and his comments over the week in the Nottingham Post.
Owner Neil Black spoke out about the financial crises in the sport at the moment but insisted that it was the teams’ fault and that they shouldn’t be spending money they don’t have. This is true but what Black did not touch upon is that other teams have spent more money than they should have because they are keeping up with his sides spending.
Nor did Black mention about the rumoured strict salary cap that would stop teams spending more money. Instead the cost cutting measure that he proposed was for a two-conference system. In his proposal there would one ‘southern’ conference with Nottingham, Cardiff, Coventry, Sheffield and Belfast in and a ‘northern’ conference with Hull, Edinburgh, Dundee, Fife and Braehead.
It is an interesting idea but does have some flaws. Black suggests that under this systems teams play more times against teams in their own conference than in the other. Black argues this would cut costs, as it would mean shorter journeys for teams. However it does not cut costs for either Belfast or Hull. In Belfast’s case they will need to fly more to England instead of catching the boat to Scotland. Hull on the other hand would need to make the 618 mile round trip to Dundee four times and their nearest geographical neighbour in their conference would be Edinburgh which is 506 mile round trip. Whilst there nearest geographical rival Sheffield (120 mile round trip) would only be visited twice.
This could be solved by swapping Belfast and Hull around. However Black sees this system as increasing competitive games and conference title races and if Hull and Belfast were to trade places Hull would be massively disadvantaged by being financially less powerful than their conference rivals. On the other hand Belfast would be the overwhelming favourite for their conference given their superior finances and facilities. This would also have a bad effect on their fan base as Belfast General Manager Todd Kelman said ‘it is easier to sell tickets for tight game than a rout.’
Sticking with the competiveness issue. Black thinks that this system will lead to a more meaningful playoff series and this too will be more competitive. Whilst the playoff series would be more meaningful, as the winners would be classed as the Elite League champions, it will be less competitive as the final will be between the winner of the stronger ‘southern’ conference and the winner of the weaker ‘northern’ conference. Thus leading to a one sided, damp squid of a final.
Black also argues that this system would increase away fan travel. This may be true in the ‘southern’ conference but with increased air travel for Belfast fans this doesn’t seem true for them. Nor with the distances seen for the Hull Stingrays does this seem likely for them. In fact Hull’s away fan attendance’s are likely to fall dramatically as fans of the Scottish teams are more likely to save their money for games more locally.
Away from the conference system, Black also spoke about the hot topic of import players. Black’s argument that teams are paying a premium for top GB Internationals is fair. Coventry’s top earners are GB Internationals David Phillips and Jonathan Weaver. However by getting rid of the import quota will have a negative effect on the national side because less young British talent will come through. For example would Robert Lachowicz as a young British forward have been signed by the Nottingham Panthers when they could have brought in a proven goal scorer from North America?
Black’s words concerning teams spending more money than they have however are more than apt. Teams in Sheffield and Cardiff have been driven to succeed at all costs and by trying to keep up with the Nottingham’s and Belfast’s who have the cash to spend. Black did not mention this in the articles but his reluctance to talk about a salary cap combined with his wanted conference structure sum up what is wrong with the EIHL.
All of Black’s ideas whilst a good talking point and a good introduction into making strong changes actually really benefit one club, his. Nottingham have one of the best financial structures in place and so can afford to pay players a lot more than other clubs, Nottingham is geographically close to all the teams in their proposed conference and would benefit from increased away fan gate receipts. In addition the Nottingham Panthers have not had any league success since the 1950’s but have been playoff champions and the new system would reward playoff success immensely.
This is why the Elite League needs to find a replacement for the now departed chairman Eammon Convey quickly and be releasing ideas such as Black has done on a more regular basis.