British hockey fears virus could put sport on thin ice

·5 min read

Ciaran Long found work delivering books to Northern Ireland's libraries. Luke Ferrara caught on with a team in France before switching to a squad in Poland.

Both would prefer to be skating with their British ice hockey teams — Long for the Belfast Giants and Ferrara for the Coventry Blaze.

If the Elite Ice Hockey League is unable to squeeze in a condensed season in early 2021 after suspending its scheduled start in September, the players fear that British hockey could be set back years. Time is running out.

“Everyone would be grateful if we can get something going within the next couple of months,” said Long, a 29-year-old left wing. “For the future of the league, I think it would be great if anything happens.”

British hockey had been on a roll before the coronavirus. The league, with its feisty, physical style that relies heavily on late-career North American imports, boasts of rising attendance. The national team broke into the top level of the world championship alongside the likes of Sweden, Russia and Canada.

Liam Kirk became the first player born and trained in England to be drafted by an NHL team when the Arizona Coyotes drafted him in 2018.

Right on cue, Ferrara ended last season as the first British player to lead the EIHL in goals. The right wing scored 33 by the time the season was abandoned in March.

“People are starting to recognize British hockey more than they have in the past,” the 27-year-old Ferrara said.

With the world championship still scheduled to start in May in Belarus and Latvia, Ferrara worries his national team won't be prepared to compete against game-ready opponents who are playing in domestic leagues across Europe.

“We can't go into the world championships playing against Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic if we've had half our team not playing for over a year,” said Ferrara, who now plays for a team in Krakow. "That's the main reason why I've been bouncing around teams and trying to just play wherever I can.

“There's a line or two of our national team just not able to play. They're probably really hoping for the UK league to start back up again."

Unlike soccer's Premier League, the 10-team EIHL doesn't have lucrative TV deals to underwrite a season without fans and ticket revenue.

So when Britain’s government announced a financial rescue package, fans and players readied virtual high-fives.

Then came the details.

It turns out the 4 million pounds ($5.3 million) are earmarked for only the five English teams. Three teams are from Scotland and one each from Wales and Northern Ireland.

While the UK government maintains decision-making power in areas of foreign policy or defence , the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments handle other policy decisions — often referred to as “devolved” powers — in areas including sports.

The EIHL's current plan — subject to change like most things pandemic related — is for the five English teams to hold a condensed season beginning in late January or early February using fewer foreign players to reduce expenses.

League chairman Tony Smith told The Associated Press that the likelihood of 10 teams playing was “probably not going to happen” because of the dependencies on all four governments.

“We started a process of lobbying the devolved governments and it quickly became clear that every government has a different idea as to what's best for the sport," Smith said this month.

Since then, the Scottish government announced its own sports rescue package, though it may not be enough to make a difference.

Plus, not every team advocates for a return this season. Omar Pacha, general manager and coach of the Dundee Stars in Scotland, opposes a shortened season.

“As much as everyone associated with the club are thirstily anticipating a return to action, it is our belief that this approach is unfeasible, with the ongoing health and safety risks,” Pacha wrote to fans.

Government support, he said, should help teams stay afloat until the 2021-22 season begins.

Smith, however, said the English clubs can use the government funding only “if we put an Elite League-level product on the ice," and not to simply cover losses.

“Players can't be off the ice for 18 months and be expected to put a show on when we start again," he said. “It could set the sport back a few years, so we need to get our players playing. Even if it's only 12 weeks this year, we need to give them something.”

Cardiff Devils season-ticket holder Glynne Dummett said he would get his “hockey fix” if the season happens but he also worries about more stoppages.

“I'd rather watch whatever they can put together than watch nothing, but I'm not sure for 10 weeks or 12 weeks if it's really worth it,” said Dummett, who was at the team's first game in 1986.

Any reduction of imported players would create more roster spots for Long and other homegrown players.

“For Brits, it could be good,” said Long, who previously played for the Manchester Storm.

“I'm missing it massively. Everything about it, the feeling you get stepping out on the ice, the boys in the room, everything.”

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Ken Maguire, The Associated Press