Defining moment for Fife Flyers & ice hockey in the Kingdom

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Fife Flyers really are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The directors have to do what is right for the club, but there is much more at stake than whether they stay within the EIHL.

Fife Flyers celebrate trophy success circa 1997. Bill Moody with the cup, flanked by Mark Slater and Daryl Venters (Pic: Peter Jones)

Fife Flyers celebrate trophy success circa 1997. Bill Moody with the cup, flanked by Mark Slater and Daryl Venters (Pic: Peter Jones)

The decision the club makes this week will impact on the sport locally for a decade or more to come.

Short-term protectionism, or long-term vision?

It’s easy to throw words like those around when you aren’t the one footing the bills.

Flyers have always maintained they were only in the EIHL for as long as it worked for the club.

We seem to have reached an impasse in the summer of 2017.

But the options in front of the club are worryingly limited.

On Thursday, the club has to make a call whether it is in, or out, of the Elite League.

It’s sudden death overtime in the boardroom.

Three conferences of four – Fife’s favoured structure – IS on the table, and, I understand, always has been. Indeed, it possibly has more support round the boardroom than perhaps even Flyers may think ...

The league absolutely wants Fife to stay, but it also wants a decision.

When the meeting breaks up, the structure will be set in stone for season 2017-18; hence Neil Black’s ‘’in or out’’ line in the sand.

The league wants all 12 teams to ice, but it has clear plans to run with 11 should Flyers quit, 10 if they take Dundee with them, and even nine if Edinburgh also jump ship.

For all the brinkmanship, the smart money remains on a top flight of double digits with a strong Scottish presence.

‘’The Scottish clubs will be happy’’ said one source ahead of this week’s meeting.

But the past fortnight has been mired in ‘’what ifs?’’

What if it goes pear shaped?

What if Flyers quit the league and then have nowhere to go?

What if they stay and end up facing a huge increase in running costs?

The much discussed two conferences of six – which Neil Black, owner of Nottingham and Braehead, outlined at the fans forum – is Plan B, and one Flyers don’t want.

They can, I understand, come away from the meeting with exactly what they want if they box clever and consider the bigger picture. Compromise is the name of this game

Pitch it wrong, and they may end up with a conference of six clubs, fewer regional derbies, and more travelling costs.

And if they cannot swallow that pill?

The only door is the one with an exit sign above it – and Flyers would be walking away from the EIHL with no Plan B.

Suddenly, the big picture becomes positively panoramic.

The prospects of a return to grassroots SNL hockey holds zero appeal to a fanbase rebuilt almost entirely on the back of six years of top flight, import-led hockey.

It was a needs-must safety net last time round.

To try to do it again would cost the club a massive portion of its support, and, with it, would go a huge revenue stream, not to mention the presence of star imports.

Ice hockey in Kirkcaldy would be changed for the remainder of the decade, possibly even longer.

The option of parachuting into the Premier Ice Hockey League (PIHL), seems to have crumbled to dust.

The English-based league was renamed with a view to becoming a UK-wide second tier with much tighter limits on import numbers - the semi-pro platform that may appeal to teams such as Fife and Dundee, plus a host of others keen to play on a national basis, but not in an import-dominated Elite League .

But, now its seven remaining members have been advised by the EIHA to seek membership of the National Ice Hockey League (NIHL), the sport’s third tier.

While it has north and south sections, it has just one Scottish club, Solway Sharks.

So, another ‘’what if’’ emerges.

The league’s AGM isn’t until early May - what if the response is a polite ‘’no thanks’’?

Where would Fife go from there?

Can they really pull the plug on the EIHL with no firm commitment from another league to take them in?

Ice Hockey UK, the sport’s over-arching body, is working on a tier two set-up, but it’s hard to see something competitive and viable being pulled together quickly enough to then let clubs, such as Fife, build a new roster in time to face-off in September and hit the ice in a new format agreed by all its new constituent members. Unless someone is beavering away very diligently, and very quietly, in the background …

So we come full circle; EIHL or …?

If the theory that three conferences of four is on the money, then the hiatus of the past fortnight will have been pretty much for nothing.

Teams across the EIHL have spent that time selling season tickets, unveiling returning players and beginning the preparatory work that has yet to even begin in Kirkcaldy or Dundee.

And there is much to be done.

Flyers have traditionally taken April off – time out to re-charge the batteries before re-grouping and looking ahead to the next season.

The approach worked in the BNL from the 1990s onwards, and Fife’s in-house model remains pretty much unchanged since those days.

The sport, however, has evolved beyond recognition, and Fife’s attempts to do things as they have always done them puts them at odds with the full-time, fully pro approach of the Elite League it has been part of for six seasons.

So, perhaps the summer of 2017 could be a watershed in more ways than one.

What if Fife decide better the devil you know, and go with the EIHL, even with two conferences and fewer head to heads with Clan, Stars and Caps? Those extra costs will have to be absorbed.

Not all of them can be passed on to the paying customer, and neither can they be soaked up by the directors.

Can they be quantified?

And if so, what can we all do to help?

The loss of local derbies would sting, but any deficit could be at least minimised with a real drive to get locals into the rink.

Flyers have a huge catchment area and have demonstrated in the past they can pack the barn.

That needs a clear PR strategy and hell of a lot of hard work – but, done well, it can have a big impact on the numbers coming through the doors.

So, what if the the club really tapped into its greatest asset – the fans?.

Get them involved, make them feel more included, and challenge them to be part of the funding solution.

They may be the club’s fiercest critics but, they are also its biggest champions.

And what if the club decided it was the perfect time to shake up every aspect of the operation from dressing-room to boardroom and really make this work?

To become elite in every aspect of its business and throw off the ‘sleeping giant’ description used by more than one person in the sport?

The absolute key to filling the seats is a team that entertains, and plays with a bit of fire in its heart; one that plays for the jersey for 60 minutes, not the unacceptable 11 minutes identified in one game by the coaching staff this season.

The staleness of the match night last season – on and off the ice – saw folk drift away, and pick and choose their games. Some gave up. Money that could easily have gone into Flyers’ coffers went elsewhere.

Turn that round, and suddenly the pressure starts to ease on the budgets.

As a club, Flyers are naturally risk averse.

The directors came into the sport not to make a fortune, but to ensure the club continued, remained competitive within its means and and was able to develop its local talent.

Three of the original four directors – Tom Muir, Jack Wishart and Tom Muir Senior – have been there since day one in 1996 when they came together to take over the running of the club after the rink decided it had reached the end of the road.

They have operated as a trio since John Waring left the board in 2004, and with little recognition of the huge commitment involved in running a hockey club while also managing their own businesses.

They have remained constant while the other faces around the boardroom table – coaches and off-ice figures – have all come and gone. They’ve seen the team Grand Slam in the BNL, disappear into the grassroots of the SNL seasons, but stuck with it until the time was right to take a leap of faith back into top flight hockey.

Number of thanks received during that time? Probably fewer than the number of times Flyers have made the finals weekend…

It’s worth recalling the words of Tom Muir – a man rarely quoted in any media, which is just the way he likes it – when he took over: ‘’Too many people care about this club to let it die.’’

Those words from 1996 remain as relevant in 2017.

It may not be ’EIHL or bust’ this summer, but Flyers stand at a huge crossroads this week.

Whatever road they choose – EIHL or destination unknown – it could be hugely challenging, but the club has endured across the past eight decades when ice hockey as a sport has embarked on a rollercoaster ‘boom and bust’ ride.

There is no doubt Flyers will be around to celebrate their ninth decade too, and hopefully still playing top flight hockey. That, in a nutshell, is where they belong.