For the past 5 years or so, I’ve been good friends with Anthony Russell, a diehard hockey fan hailing from Southhampton, England. We share a mutual love of hockey, the Milwaukee Admirals and Pekka Rinne, but have always butted heads on that age old question “Sid vs. Ovie” ( I swear, I’m surrounded by Caps fans!).
Russell, like myself, is a sportswriter, covering the EPL (English Premier Ice Hockey League) Basingstoke Bison. His blog, Banners on the Wall, is wildly popular (and one of my favorites, don’t forget to bookmark it) and gives an interesting insight into hockey in England.
Back in late June, Russell interviewed me for his website (in case you missed it, check it out here). Now with the 2011-2012 season fast approached on both sides of the Atlantic, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get his thoughts on the upcoming year.
So Anthony, I’ve got to ask. How does a Brit like you fall in love with hockey?
Longish story; I was living in Germany as part of my university course and started watching it there. It was so different from everything else on offer and, because it was around single a standard, was cheap.
When I moved back to Britain I hunted out hockey to watch here. I realised I was hooked.
What is the popularity of ice hockey in the UK? What kind of crowds do teams pull and do find there to be any intrerest in the NHL in the UK?
Lets make no mistake here; ice hockey is a minority sport in Britain. That said crowds aren’t too bad. The teams in the Elite League (our top league) range from 1000 up to 7-8000 depending on who is playing whom. The lower it goes, the lower the audience. The team I watch is in the 2nd tier and we get 600-1200 people on a game night.
There is a fair amount of NHL interest amongst hockey fans. Most people will have the team they watch week in, week out here and an NHL team. The reasons why they support them are many and varied. Some because they saw them on holiday, some because they played NHL computer games, some for other reasons. I’m a Capitals fan because of Olaf Kolzig. When I lived in Germany it was during the lockout and he was playing for Berlin. Goalies are special people and I thought I’d see how he did when the NHL started up again.
Tell me a little about the team you cover, the Basingstoke Bison, and the league they play in. Also, which are the teams to watch in 2011-12?
The Basingstoke Bison play in the English Premier League which is the 2nd tier of hockey in Britain. Essentially the team is semi-professional and mainly made up of British players. Clubs can dress 4 “import” players for any game and only 3 can be on the ice at any one time. Because the league is deemed semi pro by the authorities, it mainly has import players from Europe because players with work permits can’t play. There are North Americans in the league but they have European passports to allow them to sidestep work permit rules.
The Bison have played in a few different leagues in their 20 + years of existance. They used to play in the Elite League until a run of two bad owners put an end to that. The team was taken over full time by the company that owns the rink and they dropped to the EPL. It’s a lower standard of hockey but we’re a competitive team that can compete every night and challenge for the title. Doesn’t mean they won’t put us loyal fans through the ringer every week!
In terms of who to watch in the EPL in 2011-12, I’d say the whole league will be interesting to watch. The standard of the league has risen the last 2 years and looks like it will again. That said the top 5 sides in our league will play the best hockey.
The NHL has Ovie, Crosby and Stamkos, who are the top players in the EPL?
It’s a bit tough that one. You cover AHL hockey so you appreciate that teams change every season and it’s the same here too. Players move about a fair bit in minor hockey.
That said there are obvious stars; former Oilers draft pick Tony Hand, the best British player ever to lace up a pair of skates is the player/coach of Manchester Phoenix and scored close to 130 points last season.
The other person expected to be a big scorer in the EPL this season is Slough Jets forward and one time Milwaukee Admiral, Adam Calder. He’s been in British hockey for a while now and has been a big scorer everywhere he’s played.
There’s tons of young, up and coming talent in our league as well. It is technically a “development” league. Without being too bias towards the Bison, one person to watch is Sam Oakford. He’s a very good, very solid stay at home defenceman. The sort of guy who if he’s doing his job you don’t notice him. The scary thing with him is he’s only 21 and plays well beyond his age.
That said every team in the EPL has their star players, I could be here all day lol.
What are the general thoughts on US and Canadian players coming to the UK to play?
It depends who you ask really. In the Elite League, teams ice 10 imports and because they’re deemed a pro league they can have players with work permits so they’re teams are mainly North American imports. As such the hockey is much more the style of AAA and AA hockey in North America.
Some fans want to watch British players in a British league so the lower leagues with fewer imports are their thing. With the lower leagues having more European imports it’s more European in its style.
Personally I don’t mind having North Americans over here but it’s having the right balance. I think 10 imports in our top league is too many in the long run but we need a certain level to make the hockey competitive and worth watching. Ultimately our leagues should allow British players to play at a good enough level to make the national team competitive. Canadians and Americans are 2 of the top hockey nations on Earth. It makes sense to have players from those countries here.
It’s been a tragic summer for hockey around the world. The NHL had three separate players pass away over the off season, and then of course there was last weeks plane crash involving Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Talk a little about the effects of these events on the British hockey community.
There weren’t any ties for UK hockey directly to the Lokomotiv crash bar the loss of members from our worldwide hockey family.
Wade Belak‘s death for example resonated with people on a more personal level with some here because Wade played here during the lockout for Coventry Blaze. He was a real warrior for the Blaze and they won all 3 trophies on offer. Winning the regular season here means as much if not more than the playoffs and Blaze won the league, the cup and the playoffs with Belak on their blueline and to lose him really hit people hard.
As for the crash itself it got some coverage on the national news. To an extent for some Brits it was a season of deja vu for a sports team to be lost this way.
Most casual sports fans will know of the soccer club Manchester United. In 1958 on their way back from a game in Europe, the plane they were on crashed near Munich, Germany on take off and killed or injured most of the team. Some of the finest young footballers of their generation died and it’s one of those things that still has an impact on British sport. So whilst we didn’t have much of a connection to what happened in Yaroslavl, Britain has seen and felt that sort of tragedy in the past.
Let’s end with a prediction, shall we? Who are the teams to beat next season in the NHL?
Teams for this year in the NHL? The Capitals obviously look good again due to McPhee’s great moves he made. Philly look…interesting shall we say. They could go either way.
I personally think the Lightning over achieved last season so I don’t think people should get their hopes too high on that front.
The one team that could be dark horses are the Kings IF they can get Drew Doughty signed up. There’s a lot of pieces already in place and with the regular season to fine tune things they could be an outside bet for the finals.
Thanks again to Anthony for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat about hockey. I’ll end this post with a little something for the Admirals fans out there. Yes, that is Anthony, and yes, that is Pekka Rinne in bobblehead form. Proof that Admirals fan span far wider than the great state of Wisconsin.