As we said it was going to ugly and the Elite League’s conference structure is more ugly than we thought. Just hours after the announcement that the EIHL was going to switch to a 2 conference structure Sheffield Steelers owner Tony Smith spilt the beans on the details.
Smith did not divulge the names for the conferences but there will essentially be a North and South divide amongst the 10 teams. In the North will be Fife Flyers, Dundee Stars, Braehead Clan, Edinburgh Capitals and the Hull Stingrays. That leaves the Sheffield Steelers, Cardiff Devils, Nottingham Panthers, Coventry Blaze and the 2012 champions the Belfast Giants in the Southern Conference.
It is system that has had fans up in arms but this will produce more competitive games and intense games as local rivals face each other more often. On the whole it will also cut travel costs with the Cardiff Devils and the Dundee Stars only having to cover the 900 miles between them 4 times instead of 6.
But nothing is ever that straightforward and this certainly isn’t. Whilst the benefits above apply for most clubs there is the Hull Stingrays. Hull will now have to make the 500 mile round trip to Edinburgh (their nearest conference rivals) 4 times in the season whilst only travelling the 60 miles to Sheffield twice. That is a negative but if the EIHL was going to go ahead with this plan Hull were always going to be stuck. This is because the alternative is for Hull to replace Belfast in the ‘South’. This would mean that high spending Belfast get to host low spending Dundee, Fife and Edinburgh 4 times which is bad for their attendances whilst low spending Hull get to play high spending teams in Nottingham, Sheffield and Cardiff more often which will affect their competitiveness.
But where this plan gets really ugly is that the league winner will be the side with the most points at the end of season regardless of the conferences and the uneven parity of games each club plays against every other club. This is despite the fact there is a playoff structure that could sort out that discrepancy.
Just when you were hoping it was safe to look in the mirror there is more ugliness lurking in the form of the Challenge Cup. Smith let slip that the groups for the Cup will be the same as the conferences. This means clubs will play each other at least 10 times before the playoffs and knockout rounds are added on. Those knockout rounds and playoffs are rather a contradiction as they will be interconference and so goes against the cost cutting travel ethos of the league competition.
Ugly it may be now but the conference system could work. There will be many more meaningful games and the level of intensity and competitiveness should also be higher. Many fans have spoken about not needing a conference system unless there is expansion but at least there is now a system that allows that to happen. The Sheffield owner summed it up by saying that fans for many games knew the outcome of the game before they entered the car park but with the conference system they don’t. And it is true and true whether you are at the bottom or top of the league.
Fans should be open-minded about this new system. The league has tried to change the competition to make it more competitive and it may well work.