Raid Comes To An End
Following a home game at Gosport the Wightlink Raiders were forced to resign from the league. It is a brace decision by the owners but won made for the right reasons. A lack of ice time at Gosport and at Basingstoke (a facility itself under pressure) combined with budget chances caused by not playing at home has made it impossible to continue in the NIHL. Yet by making this decision it does leave the door open for the Raiders to return.
Gallantly the junior side the Wightlink Buccaneers will continue aided by their lighter schedule and smaller budget by playing on the road.
It leaves the NIHL South now with 8 teams following the withdrawal of the Cardiff Devils in the summer from the 10 that finished last season. It was once considered the NIHL South was the stable league with few operational changes or structural rebuilds compared to its nothern brother. The events on the island though now leaves British ice hockey with 4 homeless teams.
The Manchester Phoenix in the EPL are currently exiled in Blackpool and looking to return to Manchester in the coming months. Meanwhile Romford and Bristol like the Buccaneers are playing on the road in Lee Valley and Oxford respectively with what looks like little hope of return to their home city. It could be argued too that Sutton in the NIHL North are too with their home rink too small for senior games and playing in Sheffield. Fellow NIHL North competitors Sheffield Spartans were also made homeless this summer after failing to secure ice time in the city and were forced to fold.
Whilst it is good for the senior leagues that some of these teams continue. It offers all the teams a good number of games and some continuity for the fans. However with the loss of true home rinks comes the loss of fans and the loss of opportunity to build new ones. It can also not be easy attracting fans for a side whose name and original has no tie to where it plays.
There is also the loss of the junior teams. Many of the children that played through the systems of those teams are now lost and will be never replacing the senior players. Some will travel but in the case of the Wightlink teams especially is this really feasible given the travel not just across the country but across water as well.
We see the same patterns in British ice hockey time and time again. Owners of rinks and owners of teams and sports clubs using those rinks unable to reach agreement and its inevitable that it’s the users who loose out. It is expensive to run a rink but ultimately it is more expensive to have an empty rink. Public skating is all well and good but it is those sports clubs be it ice hockey, speed or figure skating that provide many skaters with a reason to attend those sessions as well.
Where this leaves British ice hockey is unclear. The NIHL will continue but it will do so with a ticking bomb that more and more of its players are coming from a smaller and smaller pool of junior teams. The solution is hard to find.
Ideally the team owners would own the rink but this is extremely costly and many team owners run their team out of love for the sport than business sense. The government shows no interest in running rinks due to cost of takeover or building new ones. The volunteer sector could provide an answer though but there will still need to be some expertise and paid employees to build the ice and drive the Zamboni.