Wembley Return on Horizon
London has become the latest name to be in the market for an expansion of the EIHL. Following rumours of franchises in Dublin and Aberdeen, Nottingham and Braehead owner Neil Black is targeting a London franchise in the next two years playing at one of British ice hockeyâ€™s most iconic venueâ€™s Wembley Arena.
Wembley Arena is currently undergoing an ownership change with arena operating giants AEG looking to takeover the building. AEG currently own Londonâ€™s o2 Arena but it is their sports wing that will catch the eye. Whilst being involved in the London Knights of the Superleague era the company was critical of the way the sport was ran but since then AEG has become at least part owners of several hockey clubs including the Los Angeles Kings, Swedenâ€™s Djurgarden and Germanyâ€™s Eisbaren Berliner and many smaller sides as well. Their acquisition of Wembley if it is completed could be an expansion of their sporting assets even if Black is also involved.
Whoever it is that gets the most involved in a London franchise will face the age old question of how to engage a London audience. It has baffled many sports over the years and even the now long established London Broncos RL team hasnâ€™t gotten it quite right. London is a sprawling city with many boroughs and often there is a greater association with the borough or area than there is with the whole city. Soccer is an example of this. London has no soccer team but every area does for example West Ham, Crystal Palace, Chelsea, Fulham and so on. Traditionally ice hockey in the capital has followed this with teams such as Lee Valley, Harringay, Streatham and Romford but they have struggled to gain enough support to be viable at the top levels of the sport.
The London Knights, which were owned and operated by AEG from 1998 to 2003 during the Superleague era, did have something of a break through but they were backed with money that made them an instant success at a time when big arena ice hockey was still new.
This new team does have a long way to go before it hits the ice but the involvement of Neil Black does give it some credibility. But with Black potentially owning 3 EIHL teams then there is the question of influence within the league. Blackâ€™s stance on topics such as salary capping, imports and league format is not widely welcomed by all owners and what is good for Blackâ€™s teams is not always good for other teams; the Hull Stingrays conference situation for example.
On the whole it would be a good thing for the sport in the UK. The lack of top flight teams in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and the capital has damaged the reputation of the UK game internationally and perhaps hindered more corporate involvement. It would be nice for the history of the sport as well to return a venue that hosted so many British league finals in the 1980â€™s and 1990â€™s. This interest in a London team may by 2015 also renew interest from other cities and teams to join the top-flight in order to keep the league at a balanced number of sides. Most of all though this expansion has to be done right and Blackâ€™s involvement is a significant in making sure it is.