|Current season or competition:
2009–10 EIHL season
The current EIHL logo
|No. of teams||8|
|Most recent champion(s)||Sheffield Steelers|
|TV partner(s)||Sky Sports|
The Elite Ice Hockey League is a professional ice hockey league in the United Kingdom. Formed in 2003 following the demise of the Ice Hockey Superleague, it is the highest level of ice hockey competition in the United Kingdom. Unlike its North American counterparts, the Elite League is not divided into conferences; teams compete in a single division.
Ice hockey is a minority sport in the United Kingdom and the EIHL, like its predecessors, faces a constant struggle to remain afloat. The league currently consists of eight teams, with representation from all four Home Nations. In six completed seasons, the league has been won by three different teams.
Several competitions fall under the jurisdiction of the Elite League. In 2006–07, the EIHL ran a total of four competitions: the league, playoffs, Challenge Cup and Knockout Cup. The league consists of a single division, each team playing three home games and three away games against the other teams in the league. Two points are awarded for a win and one for an overtime or penalty shootout defeat. Overtime consists of five minutes of four-on-four hockey and ends immediately if a goal is scored. The team that has most points after all fixtures are completed is declared champion.
After the regular season is complete, the teams with the best regular season records enter the playoffs, the winner of which receives the British Championship. The number of teams competing in the playoffs has varied, the first two seasons saw six teams qualify, while the demise of the London Racers in November 2005 saw all eight teams qualify. Prior to the 2006–07 season, the teams were divided into two groups, with the members of each group playing on a round-robin basis. The top two teams in each group qualify for the semi-finals, which are straight knockout matches. However, since the 2006–07 season, the top eight teams of the regular season have qualified for the quarter-finals with the team finishing 1st playing the 8th placed team, 2nd vs 7th, 3rd vs 6th and 4th vs 5th, with all ties being played on a two-legged, home and away game basis with the four winners qualifying for the semi-finals. Both the semi-finals and the final take place over a single weekend in April at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham.
The Challenge Cup has taken a number of different formats, ranging from a table formed from the results designated league fixtures to four team groups played on a round robin basis at the beginning of the season. The semi finals and final are two-legged games, the winner being the team with the highest aggregate score at the end of the second game.
The Knockout Cup was created in 2005 after the London Racers withdrew from the league. The Cup is a knockout tournament in which teams are randomly drawn to face one another in two-legged games, with aggregate scoreline determining the winner of each tie.
The Elite League is governed by a Board of ten Directors: the owners of the eight participating teams, plus the owners of the London Racers and Milton Keynes Lightning, who maintain the right to join the league without making an application. The day to day operation of the league is overseen by chairman Eamon Convery and Director of Hockey Andy French. Disciplinary matters are handled by Director of Discipline and former referee Simon Kirkham. The level below the Elite League is the English Premier Ice Hockey League. A system of promotion and relegation is not operated by the Elite League; teams enter the league on the basis of a decision by the Board of Directors. In 2006 the Hull Stingrays, the club which finished eighth in the EPIHL during the 2005–06 season, were elected into the Elite League.
British ice hockey's structure underwent major reorganisation in 1996. The British Hockey League (the highest senior competition since 1982) was disbanded and replaced by the Ice Hockey Superleague and British National League. The BNL pursued a The loss of the Cardiff Devils and Newcastle Jesters in 2001 reduced the membership of the Superleague to seven and when the Manchester Storm and Scottish Eagles collapsed within a week of one another at the beginning of the 2002–03 season, there were just five remaining teams. In December 2002 the Bracknell Bees announced their intention to resign from the league to join the BNL at the end of the season and uncertainty surrounded the future of the London Knights and their London Arena home. Owing a large debt to Ice Hockey UK and facing the prospect of having only three members, the league put itself into liquidation on 30 April 2003.
The three remaining clubs (the Belfast Giants, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers) began considering the formation of a new league with a lower wage cap and larger commitment to British players in order to attract other clubs into joining them. In the weeks that followed they were joined by the Basingstoke Bison, Cardiff Devils and Coventry Blaze of the British National League and two new organisations from London and Manchester. A team based in Glasgow was also planned, but did not come to fruition. The new league met considerable opposition from the British National League and the governing body Ice Hockey UK. IHUK wished the remaining Superleague clubs to integrate themselves into the BNL and initially refused to grant the new league affiliation. The Superleague clubs were reluctant to join the predominantly British trained league after several years of playing in an import-dominated league where British players were seldom able to step up to the standard of their North American and European counterparts. The Elite League instead preferred a twelve import limit with the rest of the team comprising British trained players.
The refusal to grant affiliation caused a bitter row to ensue that showed little sign of being resolved. Despite not having the support of the governing body, the new league continued their plans regardless. No affiliation would have meant that the clubs would have problems attaining work permits for their signings and finding officials to referee their matches. The row also threatened the future of the Nottingham Panthers, as the National Ice Centre were reluctant to allow a team from an unaffiliated league hire their arena. The issue was resolved in August 2003 when the Panthers and the NIC announced an icetime agreement. The EIHL finally agreed affiliation in August 2003, with only weeks to go before the beginning of the new season.
The new league began on 12 September 2003 when the Sheffield Steelers, who went on to become the inaugural league champions, defeated the newly formed London Racers 6–1 at Alexandra Palace. The Racers endured a difficult first season, moving to a different rink only weeks into the season and having to wait 40 games to record a win, a 3–0 victory over the Cardiff Devils. The Racers finished the season with ten points, thirty-eight points behind second bottom Basingstoke. The other new team, Manchester Phoenix fared slightly better, qualifying for the playoff finals after finishing sixth in the league, where they were defeated 6–1 by Nottingham in the semi final. The club played at the 17,500 capacity MEN Arena which had been home to the Manchester Storm, but Phoenix crowds averaged 2,250, well below the break-even mark of 3,000. Late in the season, the Phoenix choose to play a game at IceSheffield rather than pay the considerable cost of hiring the arena for a mid week game (which usually had lower attendances). In the close season they allowed fans to vote on the option of either suspending playing operations while a new rink was constructed or playing in exile away from Manchester while a new rink was built. Supporters opted to suspend playing operations pending the construction of a new facility.
The second season of the EIHL saw a series of games between the EIHL clubs and the members of the BNL. In addition to three home games and three away games against their Elite opponents, each club also played one home game and one away game against the BNL clubs in crossover matchups. Results in these crossover games would count towards a team's points tally. The NHL lockout also saw a number of NHL players join British clubs. Coventry won a Grand Slam of all three titles, winning the Championship with an overtime victory over the Nottingham Panthers.
The crossover games with the BNL clubs were seen by many to be the first stage towards the amalgamation of the two organisations into one league. However, early in the season it was revealed that teams including the Edinburgh Capitals and Newcastle Vipers were seeking to resign from the BNL and join the Elite League. A withdrawal of the these clubs would leave the British National League with only a small number of participating teams. This situation led to the resigning teams temporarily withdrawing their Elite League applications and entering into collective discussions on the entire BNL joining the EIHL instead. The Elite League offered the BNL clubs invitations to join the EIHL structure, which were declined due to unfavourable terms. Subsequently Edinburgh and Newcastle resubmitted individual applications to the Elite League, both of which were accepted. A combination of this and Bracknell Bees owner John Nike's announcement that he was withdrawing funding from the BNL team prompted the collapse of the BNL at the end of the 2004–05 season.
With the Edinburgh Capitals and Newcastle Vipers becoming the ninth and tenth members of the league, the 2005–06 season began with nine clubs (Manchester had opted to take another season out with no rink yet constructed). However, in November 2005 the London Racers withdrew their team from competition and immediately ceased operations. From their formation the Racers suffered problems finding a rink with comparable facilities to those of their rivals and maintained only a very small fan base. The club had made the Lee Valley Ice Centre their home after playing only a small number of games at the Alexandra Palace in their first season. The facilities were very basic, seating only 900 people with an overall capacity of barely 1000. In November 2005, during a game against Nottingham, Panthers player Blaz Emersic suffered a serious facial injury after colliding with a protruding object in the boardings. Further concerns were raised when a game against the Sheffield Steelers was abandoned after a piece of plexiglas shattered in an irregular manner, injuring a spectator. When a similar event took place during practice a few days later, the Racers management began to question seriously the safety of the rink. With the Ice Centre unable to ensure the safety of players and spectators at Elite League games, the Racers were forced to suspend team operations with immediate effect.
In January 2006, the Manchester Phoenix were granted planning permission to construct a new rink in Altrincham. A few weeks later the Cardiff Devils also received planning permission for the construction of a new rink. The Wales National Ice Rink was earmarked for demolition and a campaign for the council to provide a new facility proved successful. With both clubs confirming their intent to take part the following season, speculation began about the possible inclusion of a tenth team to replace London. After the season was over, rumours about the possible admission of either Hull or Dundee became more and more widespread. On 22 June 2006, the Hull Stingrays were formally elected into the Elite Ice Hockey League as the tenth active member.
In June 2006 the EIHL announced the adoption of the 'zero tolerance' interpretation of the rules with regard to holding, hooking and interference implemented in the National Hockey League during the 2005–06 season. These rules had proved highly successful in the NHL, increasing the pace of the game and leading to a rise in spectator numbers.
On 25 August 2006, the Elite League announced a sponsorship deal with the low cost airline bmibaby. The agreement sees the company's name incorporated into the league's title and the airline's branding at each of the league's ten arenas. The deal is set to last for seven seasons. The sponsorship deal ended prematurely, during the 2008-09 season.
On 30 April 2009, the Manchester Phoenix announced that they would be withdrawing from the league, and would play instead in the English Premier Ice Hockey League, due to cost issues.. This news followed the announcement that the Basingstoke Bison were also leaving to play in the EPL for the 2009-2010 season.
|Belfast Giants||2000||Belfast, Northern Ireland||Odyssey Arena||10,500|
|Braehead Clan||2010||Renfrewshire, Scotland||Braehead Arena||4,000|
|Cardiff Devils||1986||Cardiff, Wales||Cardiff Arena||2,500|
|Coventry Blaze||2000||Coventry, England||SkyDome Arena||2,800|
|Edinburgh Capitals||1998||Edinburgh, Scotland||Murrayfield Ice Rink||3,800|
|Hull Stingrays||2003||Hull, England||Hull Arena||2,000|
|Newcastle Vipers||2002||Newcastle, England||Metro Radio Arena||4,500|
|Nottingham Panthers||1946||Nottingham, England||National Ice Centre||7,500|
|Sheffield Steelers||1991||Sheffield, England||Sheffield Arena||8,500|
Elite League teams rely heavily on players from outside the United Kingdom (termed imports). The majority of these players are from North America, and typically played in the minor North American leagues such as the ECHL before coming to Britain. For example, of the 21 players to play for champions Belfast Giants in the 2005–06 season, 10 were Canadian, 8 were British and 3 were American. The league restricts the number of import players which can be on a team's roster at any one time, with a current limit of 10 imports. Player turnover is high, with a large proportion of players spending a single season at a team before moving on, and multi-year contracts are uncommon.
As would be expected in a league dominated by North American players, the style of ice hockey in Britain is similar to that played in North America, and has a more physical style than that played in other, technically natured European countries. This was demonstrated during the 2004–05 NHL lockout. Of the NHL players to join Elite League teams, the majority were players noted for physical strength rather than puck-handling skills, such as Wade Belak and Eric Cairns.
While British players account for a minority of Elite League players, the league supplies the majority of players for the Great Britain team. 20 of the 22 players in the Great Britain squad for the 2008 World Championships played for Elite League teams in the preceding season.
Ice hockey receives little national media coverage in the United Kingdom. Some national newspapers list results and provide short summaries of the league's news but more extensive coverage remains minimal. There was a small surge in interest during the 2004–05 season when newspapers such as The Times reported on the NHL players playing the Elite League as a result of the lockout but since the lockout ended, coverage has returned to its previous levels.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Sky Sports and the BBC's Grandstand programme covered the British Hockey League and Superleague and their important games and competitions regularly. However, in 2001 the Superleague sold its broadcasting rights to 'Premium TV Ltd' who planned to set up a new sports channel, which never materialised. British ice hockey was left without coverage from any television network. This situation continued through the final seasons of the Superleague and into the first seasons of the Elite League. In 2005, Elite League officials concluded an agreement with the North American Sports Network to provide a weekly highlights and news programme. These usually provide highlights from a game recorded the previous weekend and are an hour in length. In September, 2007 the Elite League announced a deal with Sky Sports for a weekly show of Elite League highlights.
Coverage in the towns and cities where Elite League clubs are based is more extensive, and local newspapers have dedicated ice hockey reporters who cover the local team. Local radio stations such as BBC Coventry & Warwickshire, BBC Radio Nottingham and BBC Radio Sheffield all provide live commentary of matches. These are either broadcast live on the stations themselves or are webcast through the stations' websites. Radio Sheffield also provides a weekly ice hockey programme Iceline while Radio Nottingham has broadcast a similar programme, Powerplay since the later stages of the 2005–06 season, and has a fifteen minute weekly preview of games on a Saturday evening during the ice hockey season after the station's coverage of the local football teams is completed. BBC Coventry & Warwickshire have also followed suit with Faceoff, a program broadcast on the first Thursday of the month during the season. Video footage can also be viewed from the website.
The Edinburgh Capitals and Belfast Giants also provide webcasts on match nights.
|Season||League||Play-Offs||Challenge Cup||British Knockout Cup|
|2003–04||Sheffield Steelers||Nottingham Panthers||Sheffield Steelers||Nottingham Panthers||Nottingham Panthers||Sheffield Steelers||—||—|
|2004–05||Coventry Blaze||Belfast Giants||Coventry Blaze||Nottingham Panthers||Coventry Blaze||Cardiff Devils||—||—|
|2005–06||Belfast Giants||Newcastle Vipers||Newcastle Vipers||Sheffield Steelers||Cardiff Devils||Coventry Blaze||Sheffield Steelers||Coventry Blaze|
|2006–07||Coventry Blaze||Belfast Giants||Nottingham Panthers||Cardiff Devils||Coventry Blaze||Sheffield Steelers||Cardiff Devils||Coventry Blaze|
|2007–08||Coventry Blaze||Sheffield Steelers||Sheffield Steelers||Coventry Blaze||Nottingham Panthers||Sheffield Steelers||Coventry Blaze||Basingstoke Bison|
|2008–09||Sheffield Steelers||Coventry Blaze||Sheffield Steelers||Nottingham Panthers||Belfast Giants||Manchester Phoenix||Belfast Giants||Manchester Phoenix|
|2009–10||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||Nottingham Panthers||Cardiff Devils||TBA||TBA|
In terms of international quality, the EIHL is one of the lesser European Senior Leagues. Certainly, the quality is far below that of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, the SM-liiga, and the Elitserien. It is most probably on a par with the Ligue Magnus in France, or the Eredivisie of the Netherlands.
The EIHL champions are invited to play in the Continental Cup, Europes 2nd level club competition. For the 2009-2010 tournament, the EIHLs entrants are entering the tournament in the penultimate (3rd) group stage.
When compared to North American leagues, the calibre of play is probably equivalent to that of the lower end teams in the ECHL even though the league has attracted the likes of top players from the AHL and even the NHL including number 5 draft pick Ed Courtenay, former Atlanta Thrashers Goaltender Scott Fankhouser and former Calgary Flames star Theo Fleury.
Another main criticism is that the league is too expensive, an accusation given credence by the collapse of the London Racers mid season in 2005, and the continued financial problems experienced by a number of other member clubs (most notably Basingstoke Bison and Manchester Phoenix in 2008-2009). Recently both the Edinburgh Capitals and Newcastle Vipers have made public statements about their potentially perilous financial situations, casting further doubt over both their own, and the leagues sustained viability.,