Arriving NHLers Show Improvement in EIHL
With NHL lockout in full force and players scrambling to find jobs across Europe the EIHL has now become a destination for the third and fourth liners of the NHL. Even a Stanley Cup winner has found a temporary home in the UK. Currently there are 4 NHLers on a contract in the EIHL and if rumours are to be believed more are on the way. But 4 are actually double the number that made it in 2004 during the last lockout. Nick Boynton and the late Wade Belak strapped the skates on then for the Nottingham Panthers and the Coventry Blaze. So what has happened to make the EIHL at least twice as popular with the top players in the world?
It certainly isnâ€™t the opportunity to play in a named European league. The EIHL was overlooked by the organisers of the European Trophy for instance as were the leagues of similar standing in France, Denmark and the Netherlands. The EIHL was also overlooked by ESPN in a feature on British ice hockey during the 2007 NHL Premier. The famed sports channel announced that the top league was the English Premier League whilst visiting the Basingstoke Arena (at the time an EIHL arena). The EIHL was also overlooked by the Hockeywriters.com list of the top ten leagues in the World. However that list was based more on players reaching the NHL and as such the Slovakian Extra League beat the likes of the Swiss National A and the German DEL. The later only receiving a notable mention.
It also isnâ€™t the stability of the league and its clubs. Since the last NHL lockout the league has lost 4 teams, (London Racers, Manchester Phoenix, Basingstoke Bison and Newcastle Vipers) and teams in Coventry, Cardiff, Sheffield and Hull have had financial and ownership issues. Of course to an NHL player who will probably only be in the league for a season it is not a huge issue especially as his contract with his NHL side is there to fall back on.
Even the prospect of playing in front a packed house every night is not on the cards. Whilst attendances in the UK have picked up there are still only the Nottingham Panthers and the Belfast Giants that are in the top 100 European clubs for their average attendance.
The UK has though always attracted North American skaters to its hockey leagues. Mostly it has been due to the language barrier or rather the lack of one compared to other league Europe. After all if there is one country less willing to learn a new language and culture than the British it is the Americans. The wages are okay and many teams such as the Cardiff Devils offer tie ups with universities to offer educational opportunities as well. But all of this has always been true so the EIHL must be offering something else.
One of the reasons is that the EIHL has one the highest import quotas in Europe making it easier for North Americas to be accommodated and they are more likely to be with other North Americans than in other countries. Since 2004 many leagues have lowered their import quota and with one eye on the Olympics in 2014 many leagues have imposed tighter restrictions on signing those locked players. But this cannot be the only reason.
The standing of the EIHL in North America has never been that high but with players coming during the last lock out and Theo Fleury icing for a season with Belfast Giants does help to boost the profile. Also a contributing factor is the success of the Great Britain team in recent World Championships. Whilst the IIHF may still rank Great Britain below the Ukraine in the world rankings the GB team has steadily improved since the last lockout out beat the Ukrainians the last two years. In terms of promoting the league overseas the win in 2011 in Kiev was the critical one as the Ukrainian side were coached by Dave Lewis a former Detroit Red Wings head coach.
Whilst you cannot judge a league by its NHLers alone it is a notable to see that the NHL is taking note of the EIHL. And it is a sign of the improving competition in that the EIHL is making ground on the world stage.