THE END of the ice hockey season is fast approaching, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Fife Flyers want a new challenge.
A four import league is the talk, involving the likes of Fife, Edinburgh, Dundee, Whitley Bay and others in a Northern equivalent of the current English Premier League, with a play-off for a British Championship at the end of each season.
I know what you’re all thinking, we’ve seen these blueprints before. We could dig them out of the waste bins of the last six summers. A one-team mission going nowhere while former allies skate off into the distance heading for the promised land of Elite League hockey.
The general manager of Fife Ice Arena Ronnie Herd, however, insists Flyers are RIGHT to stick to their guns.
This week, Ronnie gave his exclusive take on the current predicament facing one of the oldest and most famous clubs in the land in its constant behind-the-scenes battle to bring high quality competitive hockey back to Kirkcaldy.
He re-iterated the belief the Flyers organisation has held since day one – that Elite League hockey is neither financially sustainable or good for the game’s grassroots, and that a unified governing body should oversee the entire game.
The more cracks that appear in the Elite ice, the harder it is to argue with this view. Edinburgh and Newcastle have already plunged into financial ruin and their futures are uncertain, while others have been rescued by the millionaires who run the EIHL.
Flyers will make yet another attempt in the coming weeks and months to convince such struggling clubs that the Fife philosophy is the best route for them, and British ice hockey as a whole, in time for a vibrant new league to take shape by the start of next season.
But Ronnie admits that the puck is not in Flyers court.
“Why would Fife want a four import league?” he asked. “Simple. The philosophy within Kirkcaldy Ice Hockey Club, which includes Fife Flyers, is that we develop ice hockey from the grassroots and bring it right through.
“If we’re sitting in a league with 12 imports, the amount of kids who would get that opportunity would be very limited. If you play in a league with three or four imports, three-quarters of your team is made up of local guys.
“Over the years, and still to this day, Kirkcaldy is bringing through good quality players. It was proven in the past during the Heineken era that it works. Kids need to have something to aspire to.
“At the moment we’re trying to get teams to form a league with four imports. But if these teams say no, what do we do?
“We’re ready to go – the problem is getting teams to come with us.”
Some fans would argue that Flyers belong in the top league regardless of the risks, but Ronnie admits Flyers cannot compete with the big arena teams, either on the financial or playing side.
“Would we compete in the Elite League against teams like Nottingham, Sheffield and Belfast who get capacity crowds of over 5000?” he asked. “That’s big arena hockey.
“I quote one of the owners of a certain Elite team in Scotland who admitted that they are simply there to make up the numbers, and they will never finish any higher than sixth in the league.
“Why would we go into a league where we could never compete for the top position? If that were to happen, fans would stop coming.
“The Elite League is in a mess. Hull collapse so Coventry buy them over. Newcastle collapse so the Elite League buy them over. Braehead is run by Nottingham.
“They are buying games. These teams have got the population base to be able to do that.
“I can’t see the Elite teams in Scotland surviving much longer in that league. It just isn’t sustainable.
“We can’t jump into something we cannot afford and collapse halfway through the season. We know the capacity and we know what can be done. A lot of the fans don’t understand the finances.”
Ronnie accepts that the current Northern League format is not satisfying the thirst of Fife’s hockey fans, but stressed that club can only make the best of the situation it is in.
“Will we be playing in the same league next season? Not if we can help it, but we need the support of other teams,” he said.
“We’re constantly working on it, the same as we have every year, but things have been a bit more positive than normal this season.
“A lot of effort is getting put in, but if other teams don’t come on board, we’ll be sitting in no mans land again.
“Dundee would like Fife in their league for the local derbies. The old rivalries between Murrayfield, Fife and Dundee will bring fans back into all three rinks. We should all be in the same league – but a sustainable one.”
Fife’s cards are on the table – but they are relying on other clubs to give them a winning hand.