Challenge Cup: find new format or put EIHL’s dog-tired tourney out of its misery

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If the Challenge Cup was an old dog, a kindly vet would have put it to sleep a long time ago, and suggested the family go get a bright, energetic new puppy.

Its format is beyond tired and out-dated. A competition that starts in September and only reaches a conclusion sometime at the back end of February or early March is just nonsense. The sport can - and must - do better.

Just 822 souls were at a numbingly cold Fife Ice Arena on Wednesday night for Fife Flyers’ quarter-final tie first leg with Guildford Flames. As a stand alone game, it felt worryingly remote from the qualifying stages of the competition.

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Flyers’ historian John Ross noted it had been 54 days since Flyers’ last qualifying game - 7.5 weeks during which a heck of a lot of hockey has been played, rosters changed, and momentum garnered and lost. The semi-finals aren’t until late January with back-up dates in early February. Hugely important knock out ties become midweek fodder to be shoe-horned into busy schedules when the focus is the league title and play-off places.

Fife Flyers and Guildford Flames faced off in front of just over 800 fans (Pic: Jillian McFarlane)Fife Flyers and Guildford Flames faced off in front of just over 800 fans (Pic: Jillian McFarlane)
Fife Flyers and Guildford Flames faced off in front of just over 800 fans (Pic: Jillian McFarlane)

Any cup competition has to excite fans and players alike. The Challenge Cup is dragged down by its woeful format where ten teams are split into three leagues simply to eliminate two clubs. There has to be a smarter, sharper way of starting the season.

I don’t recall the Autumn Cup or Benson & Hedges Trophy - in effect previous era’s versions of this tournament - dragging so badly, so it cannot be beyond the imagination of the clubs to create a simple format that breathes new life into this cup. If they can’t then it needs to be binned completely, and maybe use that time to expand the play-offs beyond the lottery of one weekend.

Any curtain-raising competition has to be done and dusted long before December’s chronic schedule kick in. Flyers have 12 league games this month. Factoring in the cup quarter-finals takes the total to 14 - that’s one every two or more days. There isn’t a professional football team in the UK that would tolerate such demands, and hockey, as a sport, is far more demanding and more punishing in players’ bodies.

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Add in countless hours spent on the road, plus training schedules - not to mention the cost to fans of buying tickets - and you start to wonder why this has gone on for so long. One visiting coach described the scheduling as “relentless” but added, with a shrug, we all gotta do it - but that doesn’t make it right or reasonable. Tom Coolen is spot on when he asks why we are playing back to back games, often hundreds of miles apart. As the sport changes, as standards rise, it’s a question we may yet have to address, and sticking with tradition and “that’s the way it has always been” won’t hold up to scrutiny.

The league’s own fans’ survey generated more negativity around the Challenge Cup than any other issue. It said this year’s format had been locked in by the time the findings were digested. That gave it one season to get its finger out and create a new structure. It’d be good to hear, several months on, that work has started and there are ideas on the table - heck, how about even throwing it open to everyone to contribute?

The league already has its caveat in place which will probably temper most alternative set-ups, namely that the format has to be one that works equally for all 10 teams. Fair enough, but that cannot be used as a barrier to change. Let’s get creative and re-imagine the Challenge Cup for 2024/25 - and if a new format doesn’t quite work in reality, tweak it for future seasons.

And if we can’t find a new look for it, maybe we should find a friendly vet …