America: Get to Know the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League
Editor’s Note: As part of our increasing coverage of ice hockey in the United Kingdom one of our newest writers, Dylan, continues to take us all on a journey around European hockey. In this edition, he explores the EIHL and what makes it such an interesting and entertaining league to follow.
Further to this, don’t hesitate to take a gander at David Elson’s Mid-Season EIHL report for an update on the league as it stands.
When my journey into international hockey began, it began with the Elite Ice Hockey League (UK). Hockey is my long time sport, but a few years back I was getting more into soccer and reading up on Premier League and Football League Championship relegation practices; I was specifically interested in Nottingham Forest.
After some YouTube searches for football highlights, I stumbled upon a reel featuring the Nottingham Panthers – I think it was a summary of a playoff match against Sheffield, well known rivals. The footage panned across the crowd and I was impressed to see such a showing of enthusiasm for the game in a country not exactly known for its hockey prowess.
I studied Sociology in college and have always been intrigued by culture and geography, so it was a natural fit to combine that passion with my love of the game. Sports in the United Kingdom were always an interest of mine, but how did I not know they had such fantastic professional hockey?
League Alignment and Team Information
I think it’s time an American got to spreading some love for the league on this side of the pond, with just a short introduction for this week. I’ll make it a point to expand some more in the weeks ahead. Starting off, it’s not entirely difficult to get to know all of the clubs, as there are only ten. Also without a promotion/relegation setup, there isn’t a chance for new ones to be introduced. There are other leagues playing in the UK as well, such as the EPIHL (English Premier Ice Hockey League) but we’ll leave those for another time.
When I started supporting Nottingham, there weren’t any conferences, but as of 2012/13 the EIHL introduced a two conference alignment. The Erhardt Conference, featuring the Belfast Giants, Cardiff Devils, Conventry Blaze, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers; and the Gardiner Conference with the Braehead Clan, Dundee Stars, Edinburgh Capitals, Fife Flyers, and Hull Stingrays. I posted a league map on my blog a week or so back, with a good visual for those not as familiar with UK geography:
The Conferences: Homage to the UK’s Ice Hockey History
A little background on why the EIHL chose the conference titles. The Erhardt Conference is named after Carl Erhardt, born in 1897 in Kent and the captain of Great Britain’s 1936 Gold Medal winning Olympic team in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
(For the record, Canada won Silver and the US took home bronze that year, and the Chancellor of the Third Reich was Adolf Hitler.)
Erhardt became a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame, posthumously in 1998.
The league’s Gardiner Conference is named after Charlie Gardiner, an Edinburgh-born net minder who played in the NHL for the Chicago Blackhawks from 1927-1934. He died young at age 29 in Winnipeg, MB in June of 1934 following complications brought on by a tonsil infection. He had a short but illustrious career, winning the Vezina Trophy in 1932 and 1934, as well as leading the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 1934. Gardiner, along with only Joe Hall of Staffordshire, England are the only UK nationals to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame.
NBC Sports Network might not know always what a rivalry is (See their so called “Wednesday Night Rivalry Night” match-ups for my point…), but the EIHL does.
The first derby I became familiar with was Nottingham/Sheffield, naturally as a Panthers supporter. These games are always physical and the PIMs tend to rack up. With the two cities situated just 44 miles apart (about an hour’s drive) and the fact that they both have the largest arenas in the league; it can make for some of the loudest and most frenzied matches in the league. Nottingham also shares a spirited, but newly found rivalry with Coventry, just a 53 mile drive from the National Ice Centre.
Fife and Edinburgh is one of the finer rivalries. I didn’t know much about this one until doing some recent reading. Paul Wheeler, a writer for the Coventry Blaze and reporter for Premier Sports (The primary television carrier for the EIHL, as well as carrier of multiple NHL games each week for the fine folks of the UK), wrote in his blog “Chasing the Dragons” on 12/10/2012:
“This is a PROPER local rivalry. Murrayfield and Kirkcaldy (Referring to Murrayfield, a neighbourhood in west Edinburgh where the Capitals play their home matches and Kircaldy, the town in the borough of Fife where the Flyers are based.) kids are fed hatred for the other team with their mothers’ milk. It’s Lothian v Fife, the Scottish capital vs an ancient kingdom, tribe vs tribe. Every time one team makes the short trip across the Firth of Forth to face the other one, you’re guaranteed a war, and you’re guaranteed a packed rink.”
I am always learning more about the finer points of the league, so if I’m leaving any major derbies out, forgive me and fill me in!
The Challenge Cup
A unique addition to the Elite League season is the Challenge Cup, which is held each season and the winner is awarded a separate title from the playoff champion. From its establishment in 1997, through 2003, the layout was different than in the modern Elite League era. Those were the days of the Ice Hockey Superleague. Specific fixtures throughout the regular season are designated as Challenge Cup matches, and separate standings are kept.
For the final, the two top teams play each other in two legs and an aggregate winner is chosen, much like UEFA Champions League or Europa League in soccer. I would really enjoy seeing the NHL shorten up their regular season and add an equivalent of something like this, perhaps involving the top AHL teams as well. It would without a doubt add a little bit more to league play and enhance some already ferocious rivalries.
Especially since there’s very, very little chance of seeing the NHL send the Stanley Cup Champions and runners-up into the newly founded IIHF Champions Hockey League in coming years. One could only dream…
Keeping Up With the League
Staying on top of the EIHL from North America isn’t always easy, but I’ve found some great sources for managing a working knowledge of the clubs and knowing who’s top of the tables. The official site is a must. Many “official” sites are sometimes lacking and hard to navigate, but they do an excellent job making it easy for new fans and die-hards alike. They’ve got a handy “History” section and the front page has neatly labeled tables divided by Conference, Elite League and Challenge Cup standings. My personal favourite resource are the Podcasts, which come out each week and will give you a nice succinct run-down of fixtures and all things current. It’s also an easy jump-off to each teams official site, all of which share the same aesthetic.
One of the easiest ways I’ve been able to stay in the know is through Twitter. Some of my favourite feeds include:
Additionally, each team has their own account and all do an awesome job staying up to date. A bit of searching will turn up countless other EIHL related tweets. I was amazed coming into my fandom of the league at how accessible information was and it is one of the reasons I’ve stuck around and invested in a team!
YouTube provided an excellent way for me to get to know more through being able to watch highlights from league and team accounts and is still the primary way I manage to keep up. Head over and punch in the teams you’d like to see and there is always a trove of video! For live matches however, Belfast, Cardiff, Coventry, Edinburgh, Hull and Sheffield all have outlets on their official sites where users can pay per match. Other than this, I haven’t come across any other reliable ways to see games from this side of the pond.
Professional hockey in the United Kingdom has gone through many changes in its history. Many organisations have bowed out, including the Newcastle Vipers. The Manchester Phoenix left for a number of years and resurfaced in the English Premier Ice Hockey League, now playing in the smaller Altrincham Ice Dome rather than the 17,500 capacity MEN Arena, which proved a financially unsustainable home.
A London franchise known as the Knights folded after the demise of the Superleague in 2003. Admittedly, as an American, I hope the city hosts a club (or two or three.) in the future. That’s just me and my Keane, Coldplay and Bastille loving-self being a tad hipster, nostalgic and cliché for London-town though. (Another guilty Yankee right here, so sue me…)
From what I can tell, hockey is gaining popularity in the UK, though it may never achieve such great heights as the NHL or pro-leagues in other European nations, to see it getting stronger, including landing a more broad television deal is really encouraging.
Someday I hope to make it to England and sit in on a GMB Panthers match. What really, really gets to me about the EIHL is the unbridled passion and fandom. The NHL is huge, yes. I’ve been to my fair share of pro-games here in the states and yes, they are awesome. BUT, I will tell you some of the most electric and exciting hockey events I’ve attended are NCAA games, ECHL and AHL games where the crowd never exceeds 5,000 or 10,000. The smaller arenas hold in the noise best and those in attendance aren’t there because it’s a “professional” match, they’re there because they want to be and because they are devoted to their club, win or lose, they just…love…the game.
That’s what I see in the Elite Ice Hockey League, that’s what drew me in and what still keeps me going to the extra lengths I have to go, to stay in touch on a weekly basis.
So America, can you give the EIHL a try?