The Return

Hockey is back in the UK. With the NIHL competitions in full swing, the Elite League joined the party with the announcement of a four team tournament starting in April. Jonathan Bullard looks at hockey’s return in the UK, what it could mean for fans and what it has meant to him personally.

I’ll be perfectly honest. I wasn’t missing hockey in the months that followed the first national lockdown in March 2020, albeit there was some disappointment that the season ended so abruptly and there would be no play-off finals weekend, which is always a highlight of any hockey season. After three years of solidly watching and broadcasting hockey at all levels and in many different countries, I perhaps needed a break from the game, even it was enforced by a worldwide pandemic.

Even when what would have been the start of the 2020/21 season came around in September, I still wasn’t too fussed about the hockey season not starting. At that time though, the weather was still nice, the nights were still light and I was working on the live streams for Notts Cricket at Trent Bridge, so I had plenty to keep me occupied. As the nights drew in and the weather got colder though, I began to miss the game more and more. There were some nuggets of hope as talk over the possibility of government grants seeing the introduction of a short format season were banded about, plus the Nationals League’s November Streaming Series was a great success, but the lack of being able to go to a rink and watch a live game was starting to affect me.

Into the New Year and yet another lockdown really had a profound affect on me personally. Home schooling a five year-old, less work available, trying to lose weight (I had rather over-indulged during the first lockdown) and giving up alcohol, processed sugar and chocolate to help with the weight loss didn’t have a great affect on my mental health. I’ve always considered myself pretty strong mentally, but I knew my temper was getting shorter and my stress levels higher. Going out for a walk every day helped, but I was often getting the feeling that there was no way out of pandemic, even with the great news about vaccinations. I started to feel pretty low and I was really missing hockey.

Thankfully, I was given some news that filled me with a bit of much needed joy. The Nottingham Lions were to return in  a four team tournament with the Sheffield Scimitars, Blackburn Hawks and Widnes Wild. As I am in the privileged position of being half the Lions media team with Chris Gadsby, we would be returning to the NIC to commentate on the games. This gave me the lift I needed and my mood instantly lifted. Returning to the NIC on Sunday to commentate on the Lions return against Sheffield Scimitars was immense for me, a sense of some sort of normality in what has been a difficult year for everyone. The fact that Lions and Scimitars then produced an absolute classic game of hockey was just a massive bonus. The highlights are below, have a look if you haven’t already, I promise you won’t regret it, if only for my rather high-pitched tone as 3 goals are scored in the final 63 seconds of regulation time!

More good news followed on Wednesday as The Elite League announced that four teams would compete in a five week tournament series in Nottingham starting 3rd April involving Coventry Blaze, Manchester Storm, Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers.

The BBC’s Peter Spencer interviewed League Chairman Tony Smith, who revealed that a deal had been agreed with Sport England, however Smith didn’t reveal what the details were with regards to a grant or a loan. What was revealed is that each team will be allowed to ice 8 imports in a maximum squad of 20. Teams will be allowed to protect 5 British Players on their rosters, with the rest being available in a draft where the order of the picks will be Manchester, Nottingham, Coventry, Sheffield and then reversed for the following round. All games will be played at the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham but spectators will not be allowed, so they will be live streamed for fans at home.

It’s clear that this will be a much needed warm-up for the Great Britain team ahead of the IIHF World Championships in May, but the addition of a draft adds an exciting and surprising element to the building of rosters, which could look very different for some teams when the 20 man line-ups are completed, especially as dual-national players eligible to play for GB will count as British players, not imports, for this tournament. I hope GB Head Coach Peter Russell has been involved in some way as to who will be available in the draft. It is imperative that any player who he is considering for inclusion in his World Championship squad is included in one of the four rosters. The draft will take place on Monday 8th March and has already created a great deal of interest for the fans of the four clubs involved. Is this a possible pre-curser to a formal draft every season? I guess time will tell.

The fact that each game will be streamed has also led to many questions, mainly around cost and what packages will be available. Having worked on several hockey broadcasts over the past few years, I do have some insights on this. First of all, a multi-camera broadcast of any sport isn’t cheap, especially when you add in production values such as replays, graphics, interviews and pre-recorded inserts. To produce an acceptable quality broadcast with 4 cameras, graphics, replays and interviews you are going to be looking at at least £12 per stream in my opinion. I believe Visionmix will be providing the streaming and they are the company who provide the streaming for Sheffield Steelers, regarded as one of the best streams in the country but also the most expensive at £15. As with everything in life, you get what you pay for, you can have a stream that costs £5 for sure, but don’t expect multiple cameras, replays, HD and top-notch production values. Having said that, it has to be priced for people to buy and I’m hoping that team packages, season tickets and a NHL Gamecentre style offering is being considered. Let’s face it, with all games taking place at one venue, there will never be a better opportunity to trial it.

You also have to consider that six Elite League teams won’t be taking part. Therefore will the fans of those teams be interested? It can be difficult to be interested in a tournament where your team are not involved. Again, to attract those casual fans or the fans of EIHL teams not involved, the packages will have to be priced attractively. On the flip side, there are fans who will be keen to see this level of hockey again so there is the chance of attracting the more casual observer, even if it is only for a game or two.

This tournament will no doubt peak the curiosity of fans of the teams involved and possibly beyond, especially with some new (to the EIHL) processes taking place such as the draft. This is a great opportunity for the league to try new things and see if they work, as well as pushing forward with how the game is broadcast in the future. Although we can’t be there, I feel exciting times are ahead and hopefully a return of fans to rinks and arenas all over the country in the Autumn. Interesting times are ahead.

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