Ice hockey: Scottish teams at crossroads this summer

Ted Russell, Fife Flyers with Jesse Hammill (Peterborough Pirates), and linesman Rab Cowan. November 2000
Ted Russell, Fife Flyers with Jesse Hammill (Peterborough Pirates), and linesman Rab Cowan. November 2000

How to make a small fortune out of ice hockey? First you start with a big fortune...

It’s an old gag, but one that underlines the huge challenges of funding a team to ensure it can compete in the EIHL.

Fife Flyers v Guildford Flames, 2000, Steven King (right)  Derek deCosty (Pic: Ian Alexander)

Fife Flyers v Guildford Flames, 2000, Steven King (right) Derek deCosty (Pic: Ian Alexander)

It’s an import-laden league that is built around arena teams playing out of big cities.

That clubs such as Fife Flyers, Dundee Stars and Edinburgh Capitals have embedded themselves within it is a testimony to their hard work and commitment.

That all three should now stand at the crossroads once again defines this summer as a watershed – for the sport as well as the teams.

While some clubs launched themselves into immediate season ticket sales and marquee signings, Fife and Dundee halted all plans pending a board meeting at the end of next week.

Fife Flyers
Civic recepotion at Kirkcaldy Town House after team won Grand Slam in 2000

Fife Flyers Civic recepotion at Kirkcaldy Town House after team won Grand Slam in 2000

Neither said, outright, they were leaving, but both made it clear everything was on hold; Stars spoke of an update of their position ‘’within the league’’ while Fife were a bit more vague, saying they ‘’hoped to be able to make plans’’ regarding their future.

Caps have said nothing, but neither have they distanced themselves from being associated with, what would amount to, a potential Scottish exodus from top flight ice hockey if next week’s meeting fails to deliver a way forward they can all sign up to.

Clearly, a huge bargaining chip has been tossed on to the table – and Tom Muir is the last man you’d want to play at poker.

He has run Fife for 21 years, and, in all that time he has put the club’s interests first.

You can criticise Flyers’ progression over the past six years, and many individual aspect of its operations, but from BNL to SNL. and now EIHL, the board has done what it takes to keep the club going on its own terms, while others have folded, phoenixed or passed the hat around to pay the bills.

There will be no change of tack this summer, but the off-season does present Flyers with a major challenge.

If not the EIHL, then where?

A league that gave equal weight to each voice round the table would be moving heaven and earth to addressing the concerns raised by the Scottish teams and ensuring everyone leaves next week’s meeting ready to start planning for the September face-off. The smart money still sits on this option.

If common ground can be found and compromises made, then the wobble will be forgotten the minute the first signings are unveiled.

My own view is Fife belong in the EIHL. The question is – at any cost?

The league is far from perfect, import numbers plain ludicrous, and its lack of independent, transparent leadership is woeful.

But it’s the the only show in town.

If there was a credible, sustainable, competitive and viable second tier then I suspect all three of the Scottish clubs would decant.

Ice Hockey UK is talking of a ’unified pathway’’ leading to that very structure. The chances of it even having the foundations in place for September seem unlikely.

The only other pro set-up is the five-import, Premier Ice Hockey League (EPIHL).

Launched in 1997, it has gone through 27 clubs, has just lost Guildford and MKK to the EIHL, and Manchester Phoenix who folded mid-season

And the clue to the biggest drawback is in its title - E for ‘English.’

This isn’t a UK-wide league – it was never intended to be one – and neither has it the geographic spread to transform at such short notice.

The BNL was the safety net unfurled to catch the clubs left behind as the big guns departed with almost indecent haste to the land of the Super League.

It was created largely by the late John Brady who had the experience to knock heads together, and know when to cut a deal and when to stand his ground. Above all, he had the respect of all, and that was key to making it happen.

The sport could do with someone like him this summer.