Nice To See Tony Hand At Blackburn – Shame He Wasn't On The Ice….

When I first heard about the plans for pitching the top NIHL teams in against much stronger EPL sides in the new English Challenge Cup competition, I admit that I had a few misgivings. I have seen numerous one-sided games over the years – a 27-2 drubbing of Grimsby Buffaloes by Peterborough Pirates in HBL1 and, later on, a 1-20 home defeat of the Pirates by HBLP league champions Durham Wasps being some of the earliest examples.

But, at least those matches were played between teams of supposedly equal strengths, in the same league and with the same number of imported players allowed in their relative rosters.

Fast forward a few years to the advent of the (alleged) super League, British National League, EPL and so on and we then ended up with completely separate levels of competition and varying numbers of imports on each team. This brought us the rather odd concept of cup games between teams of hugely differing strengths.  The most prominent of these in my memory was when I dragged my now-wife to Sheffield Arena to watch her first ever game of ice hockey in September 1998 and we saw the heroic BNL Peterborough Pirates side trounced 15-2 by the import-rich Superleague Steelers team in the old Benson & Hedges Cup! A couple of months later, the Pirates were doing a similar thing to the EPL Blackburn Hawks in the “BNL plus EPL” Christmas Cup with the Hawks match announcer reminding spectators after every goal that “they play in a different league to us by the way…”

I was, therefore, pleased that the EIHA decided to bring in measures this time around to ensure that these games between the modern day EPL teams and their NIHL counterparts would be less of a whitewash but, as we have seen so far, there is still a huge gap in playing standards. The EPL teams have been dropping two of their 4 imports for the games against the NIHL sides – and in some games in the ECC South, playing with no imports at all – and still winning by a comfortable margin.

However, once you take on board the fact that this competition was basically put together to recompense the EPL clubs for the loss of 6 matches following the withdrawal of Slough Jets from the league, and that nobody is really expecting much more from the NIHL teams than to put up a spirited performance, then you can just sit back and enjoy the hockey – win lose or draw – and that ice certainly what all the NIHL players and fans seem to be doing!

Now: the point that I am slowly getting round to here is not really to do with this overall concept at all because I applaud the idea of it but, having established a formula for balancing out the teams, the powers that be had to fiddle with it – and Manchester Phoenix’s 47 year old BRITISH player coach Tony Hand was “asked not to play” against the NIHL teams.

The inference here is that, despite being 47 years old, he is too good to play against the other Brit players in the NIHL teams and is therefore actually being penalised for that! I find it rather ironic that, while the EIHA keeps desperately trying to label the NIHL a “development league”, they don’t want to allow those developing players and their fans the opportunity to see the best ever home grown player make a rare appearance on their home ice.

I saw Tony Hand play lots of times in the past when he was at his “annoying” youthful best with Murrayfield Racers in the British League and he was also in that Sheffield Steelers team that I mentioned earlier who won everything in the mid to late 1990s and that will also be true of most Whitley Warriors and Billingham fans of a certain age. But – to the best of my knowledge – Tony Hand has never played in a competitive domestic fixture at Blackburn ( I may be wrong  and if I am I’m sure somebody will tell me..)  and has only ever played there at all in a couple of GB challenge matches in the mid 1990s.

That means that there is a whole generation of ice hockey fans in Blackburn, Solway and Billingham who have never seen the British all-time top points scorer and the first GB born/trained player to be drafted by an NHL team in action on their home ice. OK he still plays for the Phoenix in the EPL so still graces the rinks of that league but this would have been a great opportunity for those NIHL fans and players to catch a once in a lifetime glimpse of former GB international Tony Hand before he hangs his skates up for good, which is bound to happen sooner or later.

Good though he undoubtedly is, I doubt Hand’s inclusion would affect the result to such a great extent. Manchester Phoenix won 12-5 in their home game against Blackburn Hawks and then beat them 8-0 away.  Would it have been so terrible if Hand has played and they maybe won by a couple more goals?  Surely the good PR to come out of it would have been worth it? Hawks fans who I have spoken to have all said that it was a shame they didn’t get to see him.

And why couldn’t they have had a special “Tony Hand Rule” for this one competition? They could have said “OK just play one import and play Tony Hand as well”.

In fact, it would probably have been much better for all concerned if they had used my new “1+1 Tony Hand Rule” for the game away at Blackburn last Sunday. I am told that at one point, due to a mix up over the rules, the Phoenix had two imports on the ice at the same time – which isn’t allowed in NIHL matches or the EPL teams’ cup games against NIHL opposition.

Also there was an unsavoury incident in the third period where an altercation between Phoenix import Frantisek Bakrlik and Hawks’ former Phoenix player Jake Nurse turned rather nasty and left the latter with a fractured eye socket and looking at a 6+ week recovery period.

So now, instead of talking about how good it was to see GB international playing legend Tony Hand on the ice at Blackburn, all post match debate was centred on the Jake Nurse injury…… Not the best outcome for British ice hockey.

Paul Breeze is editor of the ICE HOCKEY REVIEW NIHL yearbook – new 2014 edition available now by mail order from www.icehockeyreview.co.uk

Photo: Tony Hand running the Phoenix bench at Blackburn – photo by John Milton www.eventog.uk

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