Is EPIHL Future in Doubt?

epihl_2015-16-2The EPL was set up with the purpose of providing a level those capable of playing higher than National League but not at the higher British National  League level. With the BNL gone the EPL has filled the void between the National League and EIHL. With the MK Lightning making move to the EIHL, Guildford and Telford again rumoured to be joining the EIHL and questions around the future of Bracknell and Manchester is the the future of the EPL in doubt?

That question may be a bit alarmist and premature but there are concerns. The EPL’s role in the British set up has always been difficult. It has occupied a small middle ground between the high spending EIHL and the amateur National League. With the MK leaving and noted struggles at the bottom it could be argued that middle ground is shrinking as the those with the cash join the EIHL and struggling either drop into the National League or out of business.

There is though a demand for the middle tier. Peterborough, Basingstoke and Swindon have built their sides in the EPL and have a growing fan base yet their rink and/ or income is not yet able to compete at the EIHL level. Hull Pirates are also trying to do the same place after the Stingrays failed at the EIHL. Also all that work would be lost by joining the National League. The issue is though that the EPL can not be sustainable with 4 or 5 teams and at present it seems there are few candidates to move into the EPL.

Edinburgh moving down from the EIHL is very unlikely and Blackburn or Streatham moving up seems to have not gathered much traction especially given that Silverblades/ Planet Ice are willing to put a team in the EPL to cover the MK whole if no other side makes the move to the league. For the EPL to continue they will need 10 teams realistically. The 2014-15 season showed the difficulty of having 9 teams and a league with fewer than 9 would also hit problems.

There are rumours the EPL could become a new tier to the National League with promotion and relegation between leagues. This is risky as promoted clubs would need to find the funds to compete at the semi professional higher level and as the EIHA’s English Challenge Cup proved there is a big gulf between the top of the EPL and the top of National League.

The other option is to address the EPL’s role. The Sheffield Steeldogs have done an amazing job in recent years of promoting talent from within and given local players a chance to play at the semi professional ranks. The EPL could use the Steeldogs approach to make the EPL move developmental and lower costs. This is also not without risks as even a development league can not compete with 5 teams and those changes would need to encourage the top sides in the National League to move up.

Whilst this does seem all very negative it is actually a very good opportunity to address the league issue and set out a plan for the league moving forward. A plan that can encourage teams to make the step up and continue to develop and press forward not just on the ice but off of it too.

In my view the EPL’s future is not quite in doubt yet. Rumours over Guildford and Telford joining the EIHL have long been around and to no fruition although Bracknell and perhaps Manchester’s situation is worrying. This summer is an important one for the league as it plans for life without the MK Lightning and I hope the EPL clubs and the EIHA do take the opportunity to look at the role of the league in the UK and what that role will be in years to come as well as making it more attractive and open to teams at the top of NIHL to make the jump forward.

Neil Tucker

Neil has written on ice hockey for many websites concentrating on British ice hockey mostly. Neil also covers ice hockey in other countries and organises his Blueliner Hockey Tour. A graduate of the Manchester Metropolitan University Neil turned his hand to hockey writing in 2009. As well as contributing on Blueliner Hockey Neil has contributed to Get Real Hockey and Slapshot Magasine.

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