Breeze: NORTH – SOUTH DIVIDE #1 Bring Back The Autumn Cup!
When I started following ice hockey again in ENL North, it was great to see a lot of the teams that I remembered from the old days â€“ Solihull Barons, Trafford Metros, Whitley Warriors, Bradford Bulldogs and so on.Â This was an exciting 2-division league with teams vying for promotion and relegation and it was â€œgood old British Hockeyâ€ with mainly British players and a strict limit on â€œimportsâ€ as we used to call them.
I will talk about the league structure another day – the point that I am gradually working up to discussing for today is the North/South divide when it comes to the League cup competition.
Last season there were good cup competitions in both north and south.Â Each had two qualifying groups from which the winners met in a 2-legged final.
In the north, the two groups were geographically based â€“ east and west â€“ with Deeside Dragons from N2 joining Blackburn and Solway in the West group.and Billingham, Whitley and Sutton in the East group
When the North divisions were restructured during the summer, we were told that they was a possibility of expanding the Northern Cup to include all – or at least most -Â of the N1 and N2 teams for this year.Â I really liked the sound of this. It seemed to be Â the next step in a natural progression to build up the competition and, at the same time, acknowledge the leap of faith that north-east based company KD Flavell Welding have shown by generously sponsoring it for the second year running.
However, while the Southern Cup this year has 13 teams playing out in 3 groups â€“ South 1 with 5 teams and 2a and 2b with 4 teams each, the Northern Cup has only 5 teams in a single group â€“ all of them taken from the Moralee Conference i.e. last seasonâ€™s N1.
Now, Iâ€™m sorry, but where is the interest value in just playing the same teams over again that you are already playing 4 times in the league?
Youâ€™re potentially going to end up with, say, Billingham â€“ or, indeed Whitley Sutton or Manchester travelling to Solway twice in the league,Â twice in the cup group,Â once in the cup final and then again for the play off weekend.
Whereas, if weâ€™d been able to have the hoped-for expanded competition, it could have remained split into geographical groups, which would make the travelling a bit easier, and varied with, say:
West: Solway, Blackburn, Manchester, Widnes, Deeside
East: Whitley, Billingham, Hull, Spartans, Sutton, Nottingham Lions
â€¦with Solihull, Telford, Coventry and Senators fitting in somewhere as well.
OK, the big teams nearly always beat the little teams but thatâ€™s not the point.Â There is always the chance of an upset and it also gives the fans an opportunity to see different opposition.
Also, the top teams wouldnâ€™t meet until the final so there would be more of an occasion to look forward to.
Now I hold my hand up here straight away and readily acknowledge that I merely sit on the sidelines and watch â€“ I am not the coach who has to try and get 22 players together for a Sunday night away trip to Hull â€“ or Whitley â€“ or wherever and I am not the guy who has to worry about club finances for the cost of these forays.
But while I am on this subject – Iâ€™d also like to see the winners of the Northern Cup take on the winners of the Southern Cup to decide an overall NIHL Cup winner. You could still have a Northern final and a Southern final and then have the respective winners meet – either home or away or in a one-off match at a neutral venue and give both sets of fans a memorable day out.
Hockey fans of a certain age will know that they used to have a completion like this and it was called the â€œAutumn Cupâ€.Â It was played out at the start of the season and gave teams a chance to get their squads ready before the league campaign began. It always pitted lower league sides against higher opposition and, due to the make of the groups in the early days, there was an English Final featuring the two winners of the north and south sections who then played off to decide who would meet the Scottish group winners in the cup final itself.
Back in those days, the Autumn Cup featured all the top teams in the country and attracted sponsorship from huge companies such as Norwich Union and Benson & Hedges.
Obviously, we are talking about the NIHL and not the top teams in the country. The Elite League and EPL attract the vast majority of the media coverage and sponsorship revenue. But it would be nice to think that, with the support of forward thinking companies such as KD Flavell Welding, we might be able to take the Cup forward as a national competition (the N in NIHL does, after all, stand for â€œNationalâ€â€¦) and build it into an important part of the ice hockey calendar for players and fans alike.
Paul Breeze is the editor and co-author of â€œIce Hockey Review 12/13 Northâ€ – the ONLY book that covers all teams in NIHL North Divisions.Â
Copies are now on sale at Â£6 each plus p&p and there is also a special offer for clubs to buy copies at a reduced rate to sell for their own fundraising purposes.
For more information and purchase options, visit the publishing website at www.poshupnorth.com