Friday, August 31, 2012

Better Know A European League: British Hockey-- EIHL and EPL

With the impending lockout doom-- DOOOOOOOM-- it's probably for the best that the actual NHL fans actually get acquainted with some other leagues out there. Yes, that's right, folks-- there's other hockey leagues out there besides the NHL. Crazy, I know. So, here we go. 

For those who know much about the podcast I've been doing for the past 11 years-- Face Off Hockey Show-- you will know that our fan base is far and wide. One of the bigger fan bases is that of the British persuasion and I figured I would help promote their leagues (as wacky as they may be) and maybe get you to look beyond North America.

Great Britain is home of the 1936 Gold Medal Olympic winners and the main league is the EIHL, which has seen such former NHL players like Theoren Fleury (Belfast Giants), Nick Boynton (Nottingham Panthers), Eric Cairns (London Racers), and the late Wade Belak (Coventry Blaze) come over and play; though Fleury was the only one not to play during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. The EIHL allows up to 11 non-British players to be on the ice at one time, which means all imports have to have a British work permit in order to play. Sometimes they are not that easy to get, just ask Mike Danton recently. The limit was raised from 10 of 2011-12, which some people don't seem to like because of it taking a job away from a Briton. Though the league says it's to counteract the departure of top Britons to other European leagues, it stymies the attempt to produce more top-end players by taking a spot away.

Not knowing much or seeing much of the EIHL, I got the help of Anthony Russell, curator of Banners on the Wall, a blog about the Basingstoke Bison-- formerly of the EIHL and now of the EPL-- to get his take on the EIHL. Russell said that because of the influx of North American players who couldn't make it in the North American minors, the league feels more like a low-AA hockey league in North America with a lot of physical play and fighting. The 10 team league has four teams from England, four from Scotland, one from Northern Ireland, and one from Wales.


A league lower than the EIHL is the EPL, which is a semi-pro and developmental league. Only those with European passports, residency, or of British heritage (mother or father with British citizenship) can play in this league. Those players without those key things are imports and teams can sign as many as they want. The import rule only has a team rostering four a game and three on the ice during any time of the game. Russell let me know that there is a two-minute-penalty for too many imports on the ice. About the game play, Russell said, "Because it's easier to sign Europeans, the game has a very European hockey feel to it, but also some touches of British physicality."

Another side to the EPL is the ownership situation. There's a vast difference on who owns the teams and how they could be run. Russell mentioned that the Guilford Flames are owned by a millionaire, while the Telford Tigers are owned by a trust made by fans who pay into it. If you buy one share of the team, you have a say in how they are ran.

There is another newly formed NIHL, which is a Tier 3/4 league that has a lower import rate and all of that-- but more of a development league for the EPL and then EIHL.


The playoff system of the EIHL and EPL are kind of similar, but I'll let Russell explain as to what's the difference is when it comes to the trophy races:

Where British hockey really differs from others is the mentality over trophies. Britain is a football (soccer) country so playoffs, whilst part of hockey aren't the be all and end all. Really in British hockey, the main prize is the league title. You play your 54 game season and the team who wins the league title is generally the team regarded as the best. This is partially because that's how we're wired in Britain; anyone can win 1 or 2 games but being consistently good over 54 is what makes you good.  
Playoffs are the same for EIHL and EPL. Both are 10 team leagues so teams 1-8 qualify. Weekend after the regular season is done you have the Quarterfinals; 1st plays 8th, 2nd plays 7th etc over 2 legs (generally Saturday and Sunday) home and home, highest combined score over the two legs wins. The four winning Quarterfinalists qualify for Finals weekend the next weekend.  
The leagues hold them at different venues and generally on different weekends, the EIHL at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham and the EPL at the Skydome Arena in Coventry. Saturday, you get the two Semifinals and Sunday you get a junior game (generally, the Under-18s National Playoff Final) followed by the finalists battling it out to be playoff champs. It's different and sounds daft to North Americans but fans from all teams in the league will descend on finals weekend to meet up, watch hockey, drink themselves stupid, and have a good time. It's like a big party to end the season essentially, though many would prefer "normal playoffs" for the quality's sake but we enjoy ourselves.

There's that-- a first look at the European side of the game. While I want to take credit-- Anthony Russell is the man. You can check out his work with writing for the Basingstoke Bison over at Banners on the Wall and check out his musings on British/European Hockey, wrestling, and other fun things in his world over at Twitter @84arussell.

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