The Eclectic Becomes Elite: The NIHL’s Finest
Image courtesy of billinghamstars.co.uk
By Emma Hill
As one of the biggest talent pools in British ice hockey, the National Ice Hockey League, or the English National League as it was formerly known, prides itself on the production and deliverance of up and coming talent to the EPL and the Elite League. The question is, just how successful is the NIHL as a development league and exactly how much talent has it integrated into the highest tiers of British ice hockey over the last few years?
Starting out as the English National League, the lower divisions of British ice hockey are an illimitable talent pool, designed to nurture and convey the strong and skilful into the English Premier League and the Elite League. Over the years, the ENL, or the NIHL, as it is now known, has produced a great deal of talent which has been recognised by some of the most established ice hockey clubs in Britain.
A recent example of this is none other than defenceman Declan Balmer. First icing with Bradford Bulldogs in ENL 2, Balmer shared his time between Bulldogs’ Under 18 squad and their senior side. Earning his team six goals and nine assists to tally fifteen points in just twenty four games, Balmer’s worth did not go unnoticed and, in the season that followed, he was signed by English Premier League outfit, the Peterborough Phantoms. Here, Balmer played twenty two games in which he achieved two assists before slotting back into the National Ice Hockey League with Solway Sharks in the same season.
Gaining experience and ice time in Dumfries, Balmer made his return to the Phantoms at the beginning of their 2013-14 campaign and quickly improved on his previous points tally, claiming seven assists in fifty games. Having made the switch to fellow EPL side Basingstoke Bison, the NIHL has successfully developed Balmer’s talent; his thirty nine appearances last season alone suggesting that he is one of Bison’s most reliable defencemen.
Showcasing the skill of junior players is a key characteristic of lower tier ice hockey and one which was advantageous to former Billingham Bomber Robert Dowd as his inclusion in Billingham’s senior line up enabled his rapid progression to the Elite League in 2006. Icing for the Sheffield Steelers for a third consecutive season, Dowd’s career spans thirteen seasons during which he has also featured for Belfast Giants and played for Swedish outfit IF Troja-Ljungby in the Allsvenskan, making him one of the Steelers’ greatest assets.
The success of such development leagues is further evidenced by the achievement of former Whitley Warriors Sam Zajac, Thomas Murdy and Nathan Salem who have all made it to the Elite League in recent seasons, and continue to ice with EPL clubs. Making the switch to the English Premier League in 2008, Zajac featured for both Telford Tigers and Basingstoke Bison before making the step up to the Elite League with Newcastle Vipers. From there, the resourceful defenceman featured for Braehead Clan in three consecutive seasons before returning to the Tigers in 2014.
The longevity of Zajac’s professional ice hockey career is testament to the effective development of players in the lower tiers of British ice hockey which has allowed home grown players to progress to the highest level of the game. Similarly, Salem made the jump from the ENL to the Elite League, playing for the Vipers and the Edinburgh Capitals in 2009-10, whilst dexterous netminder Murdy iced for Coventry Blaze in the Elite League before establishing himself as a sturdy EPL shot stopper, appearing for Swindon Wildcats, the Phantoms and eventually reuniting with former Warriors Zajac and Salem to star for the Tigers.
Also influencing the progression of ice hockey players from the NIHL to Britain’s higher divisions are feeder teams. Whilst Telford Tigers attract the adept and expert from the lower tiers of British ice hockey, they also have their own feeder team in the form of Jason Parry’s NIHL side. Notably, GB Under 20 squad player Macaulay Heywood divides his time between the NIHL and the EPL courtesy of a two-way contract with the Tigers, making his integration into the Premier League as smooth and gradual as possible. The beginning of Heywood’s career shares similarities to that of two-way player Jared Dickinson. Starting out with NIHL side Trafford Metros, Dickinson made the climb into the EPL with Manchester Phoenix and now shares his time between the newly founded Manchester Storm in the Elite League and the rebranded Altrincham Aces in the NIHL’s Laidler Conference.
Comparably, forward Jason Hewitt also began his playing career with Altrincham Aces back in 2002 and has since progressed from the EPL side Telford Wildfoxes to the Elite League, where he played for London Racers and Basingstoke Bison before taking up a long term position at Sheffield Steelers. Now in his eleventh season with the club, Hewitt’s career further evidences the success of the ENL as, founding his talent in the lower tiers of British ice hockey, he is now a highly experienced player, maintaining his adroitness, continuing to build on his knowledge of the game and carving offensive opportunities for his team.
This co-operation between NIHL teams and Britain’s top divisions is vitally important. A particularly good example of such partnerships is that of Solway Sharks and Braehead Clan. With netminder Calum Hepburn, defenceman Stuart Kerr, youngster Duncan Speirs and forward Ross Murray making it onto both rosters, they are available to train and play for the Clan when Sharks’ league schedule allows. This deal is one which will make an impact in the long term as the Dumfries outfit bridge the gap between the NIHL and the Elite League for those players ready to make the leap into the world of professional ice hockey.
It can be argued however, that the biggest success of the NIHL is that the channel between this league and the highest divisions of British ice hockey allow experienced players to return to their former clubs to share their knowledge with new talent when the time is right. This is true of Stuart Brittle who enjoyed eight seasons in the EPL with the Steeldogs, before returning to their NIHL feeder club, Sheffield Spartans. Brittle is the Spartans’ third highest points scorer this season, tallying twelve goals and twelve assists whilst also fulfilling the role of player-assistant coach. A valuable member of Martin White’s team, Brittle has experienced the cyclical nature of British ice hockey; with such players making their return to the NIHL, the dissemination of their knowledge and experience to those breaking into senior teams can enhance the chances of an EPL or even an Elite League career for a fellow hockey player.
On the whole, this cycle suggests that the NIHL is highly effective as a development league; it sustains itself by producing high quality players who subsequently become high quality coaches, often making their return to the Laidler and Moralee Conferences to aid the development of other worthy players who are aiming to be the best that they can be.
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