The Elite League has ratified some of the biggest changes in its history. The owners and league officials met on Monday to discuss the changes and ratified what will be seen as controversial measures to say the least. But its fans will feel the changes are a case of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Top of the list was the ratification of an additional import. All Elite League clubs will now be able to sign and select an 11th import. It had been mooted for a number of weeks that an additional import in the EIHL may be allowed for next season much to dismay of much of the public. The EIHL has said that the additional import is to due to the British talent being diluted by players moving overseas. It is true that recent seasons have seen Great Britain internationals move offshore to play. Colin Shields went to France last season, David Phillips moved to Denmark in mid-season and Ben O’Connor has been a hit in Kazakhstan. This summer Mark Richardson and Robert Farmer have joined O’Conner in playing in the former soviet republic but both Shields and Phillips are returned to the UK.
The move to an extra import though will be seen as the bad of the changes as it will hurt the chances of younger British talent coming through the ranks. Teams will now be able to play 2 lines of imports and have an import goalie in a tactic often seen by clubs who cannot compete financially for top British talent. It will also be a blow the national squad who will no longer be sure of counting on the services of O’Connor, Richardson and Farmer for the World Championships and with no Brits coming into the EIHL to replace them.
The rather ugly of the changes will be the switch to a conference system. The 10 team league will be split into 2 conferences of 5 teams. The members of each conference are yet to be decided. The split is seen as a way of reducing costs for the teams. It is unlikely for example that Cardiff will have to travel the 900 mile round trip to Dundee 4 times next year. Whilst that seems promising and it would also pave the way for future expansion of the EIHL there is an ugly twist waiting.
It is hard to see another conference split than a North/ South divide. This however would put either Belfast or Hull in the ‘Northern’ conference alongside the weaker Scottish clubs. The Belfast Giants will be hoping for a southern draw as GM Todd Kelman has stated in the past that it is harder to sell tickets for the so called easy games against the sides at the bottom of the league.
Hull on the other hand will stuck between a rock and hard place. If they are to be placed with the 4 Scottish clubs, who Hull finished in amongst last season, they will find a 500 mile round trip waiting for their nearest conference rivals. However if they Hull are placed in the ‘Southern’ conference they will find much tougher games against the Sheffield Steelers, Nottingham Panthers and the Cardiff Devils (sides that finished 2,3 and 4 in 2012) much common next season.
The final conference structure is yet to be announced but some details have emerged. Teams in each conference will play each other 4 times at home and 4 times away whilst playing the sides in the additional conference twice at home and twice away. There will be a prize for the two conference winners as well as the league championship, which will be decided on total points accumulated in all games played. The two conference winners will also be seeded 1 and 2 in the post season play offs.
There was some good to cheer about. Following on from comments made during the play offs last season the ties for the play off semi-finals will be reseeded. Therefore the highest seed left in the competition will always play the lowest seed in the competition. With the conference structure in place it will be the top 4 in each conference that make the cut and then play a cross conference quarterfinal to make it to the NIC in April for the finals weekend. But with fans liking to travel to playoff games would it not have been better to keep quarterfinal match ups within the conferences.
The Challenge Cup also got a mention in a busy day. There will now be a quarterfinal stage after the initial group stage. This means that the top 4 will now make the cut from each group. This will eliminate meaningless games at the end of the group stage but it does mean there will be 2 more fixtures added to an already crowded calendar that somehow has to allow for the Great Britain team to travel to Japan in November. The Challenge Cup changes also avoid the biggest problem in making it a bigger spectacle. That is there will not be a set weekend for the final meaning the finals will once again be stuck in midweek as an after thought.
On the whole it is a mix bag from the EIHL. However they should be credited for actually making changes. For a long time EIHL has plodded on regardless even after losing Manchester, Newcastle and Basingstoke. Whilst these changes if made earlier may not have changed anything it is good see that the EIHL is trying something new. Whether these changes are seen by the majority as good or not will be down to how well Great Britain perform and whether they can keep their division 1 group A status. The conference structure will be loved by some and hated by others because either Belfast or Hull will be left disappointed.