In the world of ice hockey, the Elite League playoffs are almost unique. Fans of the NHL are used to the best of 7 games series. This model is followed in several countries around the world – the German DEL, the Russian KHL, the Finnish SM Liiga & the Swedish Elitserien to name but a few.
In the Elite League, and the Superleague before it, the league has always been the focus with the winners of the regular season being considered the national champions and qualifying for European competition. Since 2007 the top 8 sides in the EIHL have played in a 2 legged aggregate score quarter final to qualify for the finals weekend that has, since the latter days of the ISL, been held in the Nottingham National Ice Centre. This is where the unique point of British hockey’s playoff system can be seen and is mirrored only by the NCAA Frozen Four finals.
So while the playoffs may lack the prestige of other leagues due to their shortened nature, there remain many positives. For one weekend a year fans from every team are brought together. While only four teams can qualify fans of every side along with fans of teams that are defunct or have moved to play in other leagues tend to turn out to celebrate. If your team isn’t there, well, no harm in giving your vocal backing to another side for 2 hours only.
With the Elite League now in its 11th season is it time for a change? An issue that must be considered is the cost and value for money. The weekend consists of three competitive games – the 3rd/4th place playoff holds no prestige for players and fans whose season has effectively ended the day before – and costs £74 early bird or £85 full price after March 3rd. That equates to over £25 per game. The average cost of a regular EIHL ticket sits around £16 across the league. Can this price jump be justified while the extras around the event have diminished?
In the now distant past the league (ISL and EIHL) seemingly put more effort into the overall product with the NIC’s second ice pad used as a hockey village, stalls selling all kinds of hockey merchandise around the NIC and various other entertainment options. Even the England v Scotland junior match was taken more seriously than the 3rd place playoff. Indeed in the first year of the EIHL the EPL played their final on the Sunday morning as then Giant Leigh Jamieson represented Milton Keynes and claimed a title while his Belfast team mates watched on from the stands.
From an on ice point of view a perception exists amongst EIHL fans that the Nottingham Panthers are at a distinct advantage playing on their home ice. While they clearly will be more used to the ice surface and boards, use of their home dressing room no matter what their seeding has led to resentment amongst many. Looking around the various social media and forums shows further resentment, in particular from fans of the Gardiner Conference sides, about the seating allocations with fans of all but Braehead shoe horned into one block while Panthers and Steelers season ticket holders get first pick on seats in the premium areas of the arena.
So what can be done to change this? A playoff series of the likes used in the NHL and around Europe can be instantly discounted. The Arena based sides are at the whim of the Arena operators and as such arranging the 7th game in a series and paying any holding fee for a night when not certain of needing the arena does not make good business sense. This leaves only one other real option; it’s time to take the playoff weekend on the road.
The first thing to look at is finding a neutral venue. In the 1980s and 1990s the playoffs were regularly held at Wembley Arena. While this makes sense as a neutral arena, the costs of hire and putting teams in hotels in London immediately preclude this as a viable option. The 17,500 capacity Manchester Arena is another that invariably comes into discussions. Since the demise of the Manchester Storm and relocation of the Manchester Phoenix, the arena reportedly no longer holds a permanent ice plant. The capacity is a lot higher than would attend an EIHL playoffs weekend. Shutting off the upper bowl would concentrate fans in the lower bowl, but possibly at the cost of atmosphere in the more open spaces. Perhaps in the future, should more joined up thinking occur in British hockey, the EIHL and EPL could once again combine their playoff weekends and fans of both teams may come closer to filling Manchester.
So with neutral venues discounted the only viable options within the EIHL are the Belfast Odyssey and Sheffield Arenas. Todd Kelman has spoken recently of a desire to bring the playoffs to Belfast but one argument against this is whether fans of the other 9 teams would be willing to travel to the city at an increased cost of flights and accommodation. On the contrary, the price of petrol/car parking/train/bus to Nottingham may not be much less than a flight, and hotels in Belfast are as affordable as those in Nottingham. Surely the novelty value of a weekend across the sea would add value also and make it more of an event for the other 9 sides. The slightly lower capacity of the Odyssey is bound to mean the arena is filled and the organization has shown its ability to run events - recently receiving plaudits for and incredible crowds at the World Police and Fire Games tournament.
The Sheffield Arena also has positives and negatives. It holds a larger number of fans, and if marketed correctly could bring in a larger crowd and increase revenues. However the Arena in Sheffield is located in a much less favourable area than both Nottingham and Belfast which are both a short walk from the bars and eateries of the respective city centres. Sheffield does have the Centretainment complex nearby but catching a movie or playing a quick game of ten pin bowling between the semi finals is not the kind of entertainment preferred by many hockey fans.
Bringing this article to a conclusion I feel I must emphasise the uniqueness of the playoff weekend and to lose that aspect of bringing together fans from all around the league would be incredibly sad. This final four system should absolutely be retained. I am willing to admit that I have opted out of going to the playoff weekend for the last few years having been a regular attendee for many years in the 2000s. The reasons behind this are two fold. Primarily I feel the weekend has become stale and unimaginative. Secondly, and compounded by the staleness, the cost of the ticket does not give me what I feel is value for money.
To me, it is worth a try to spice things up and move the weekend in 2015. Ideally a suitable neutral venue could be found and I would like to see the league try and work with Manchester Arena. If a neutral venue is unobtainable, selfishly, I’d like to see the EIHL give Belfast a try. I know that it would encourage me to try it again and who knows, in 2016 I might make a trip to Nottingham or Sheffield for the weekend.