Difficult Time for the Difficult Middle Ground
It looks like for now that the Manchester Phoenix have played their last game. Sunday’s first game at Widnes it was hoped would save the side until the end of the season however a statement from owner Neil Morris during Saturdays game spelt the end as he announced he was stepping away.
It leaves the middle of the British league structure in a difficult position. With the Phoenix gone and Milton Keynes leaving for the EIHL in 2017-18 their are just 8 teams in the EPL. Of those Bracknell and Telford have both had money troubles been close to folding. It is not a good situation to be in when you start a season not being confident that your teams are going to end the season.
The middle ground has always been difficult for British ice hockey. There have been many changes in the make up of the EPL since it started in 1997 and of the 27 teams that enter the league Swindon are the only ever present. Even the move to EIHL and the end of the BNL in 2005 has failed to stabilise the league with Hull, Wightlink, Chelmsford, Solihull, Romford (now London) and Slough leaving. Changes to the EPL have been tried such as the increased import number this season but with falling numbers does their need to a bigger overall change involving all leagues?
If you are to introduce a new middle league for British ice hockey there will need to changes at the EIHL and NIHL level. There are stable sides in the EPL at the moment but not stable enough to enter the EIHL. At the same time those sides are not equipped financially or otherwise to be competitive with the likes of Cardiff, Sheffield and Nottingham. This means that there would need to be a financial restrict at the EIHL to allow those teams to enter for example Basingstoke, Peterborough, Guildford and Swindon.
If they could move up that could leave Telford, Sheffield Steeldogs and Bracknell Bees to form a new middle with the top of the NIHL. For example Solway, Chelmsford, Invicta, Blackburn, Whitley Bay, Billingham and Streatham. Again here would need to be some financial restrictions to allow all to compete together and help with travel costs especially for the 742 mile round trip between Gillingham and Dumfries.
The downsides are that that method does leave more restructuring below in what is now NIHL 1 and 2 in what is a competitive and (rink issues aside) stable league. Also teams in all leagues are reluctant to introduce any financial restrictions such a salary cap or lower limits with the EPL having raised it and the EIHL on a high with the Nottingham Panthers winning the Continental Cup. Basingstoke are also questionable with question marks on their arena.
It is immensely difficult to please all teams but it is clear there are teams that need to occupy the middle ground. An 8 team EPL is not the worst thing with possibilities for a more independent cup competition a possibility to fill the void. However stability is the key going forward and for the long term good. It seems financial restrictions backed by strong league leadership are the only way to save that middle ground and by default the player progression that comes with it.
It remains to be seen what happens. Who knows Silver Blades may still ice a team in the EPL and we may see Slough return with their refurbished rink this is British ice hockey after all.