LONDON, UK – The NIHL South season starts this weekend and Pro Hockey News gives you a full preview of every team in the league. There has been a lot of transfer action, shock signings and turbulent times so sit back, relax and let us introduce another year of NIHL hockey.
A guide to the teams:
Development continues for Hughes
More of the same is expected from Bracknell as they continue to promote youth through their team and be a thorn to bigger name sides in the league. The Hive has been a conveyor belt of talent in recent years with the coaching staff doing a great job of giving youth a chance yet at the same time remaining competitive in an improving league.
Now one of the NIHL South’s (or ENL as it was previously known) oldest members, Bracknell have managed to retain star names like Peter Jasik along with quality players such as Carl Thompson, Richard Wojciack and of course player coach Danny Hughes.
In addition to retaining exciting prospects like Ben Paynter, Jordan Gregory, Ryan Webb and Harvey Stead, the Hornets have also managed to pick up some quality new signings such as former Invicta tough guy Brad Watchorn, former Invicta goalie David Wride and also the return of hard hitting Canadian forward Matt Ovenden.
A quick well drilled outfit, the Hornets will be tough to beat on their home ice and if they can improve on their patchy away form they may mount a challenge on the top four this season.
Their strength will also depend on how many call ups their players get to the English Premier League Bracknell Bees during the season with at least ten of the squad on ‘two-way’ deals including the exciting Antonov brothers Ivan and Ilya.
Key Player – Peter Jasik
Whilst he may not be the flashiest import in the league, Jasik has that quality that is invaluable to a young team like Bracknell. Second behind his Coach Danny Hughes in the points charts last season, Jasik played a lot of minutes and had to endure a tough time against some of the rougher teams in the league. This year he has the luxury of a bit more toughness around him so if he takes advantage of the space that gives him it could be a good year for him and therefore the Hornets.
The Coach – Danny Hughes
Known for that slap shot that always seems to find the top corner, Hughes has done a good job combining the roles, with Lukas Smital taking over the bench at times during home games. Hughes has managed to assemble a squad with real depth this season so his job will not get any easier when it comes to making sure everything is organised on the special teams.
An unforgiving large Olympic sized ice pad means that any teams turning up to the Hive not physically fit will be punished. Part of the Hornets success comes from their youthful well drilled corps driving wide past defensemen used to having less space to deal with.
The extra ice to cover is made all the harder by the tropical temperatures inside the rink that often see the crowd strolling around in shorts and flip flops in the depths of winter. Who needs a winter sun break in Tenerife when you can pop down John Nike Leisure Centre and bake in the seats.
Bracknell perhaps lack that cutting edge to be a top four side but they have some excellent players and so much depth. The availability of players may be an issue but they have to be aiming for at least fifth position in the league given their roster.
Cardiff NIHL Devils
The Conveyor belt is tested again
Most teams struggle if they lose their top scorer but how about losing their top three scorers and one of their better defensemen? That is the challenge facing Devils boss Mark Cuddihy as he prepares for the 2013/14 season.
The much vaunted Cardiff under 18 team will no doubt contribute some players to the NIHL side this season with hot prospects such as Callum Buglass likely to be one of the beneficiaries the extra ice time available will bring. Stalwarts such as defenseman Gareth Dixon and goalie Mike Brabon will contribute to the spine of the team with the dependable Rob Sedlak, sniper Louis Lockwood and ever dependable Ricky Deacon all back for more.
Experience and character will come from veterans Alan Armour, James Parsons and Jason Stone with the latter also signed up to help with the coaching.
A number of the Elite League Devils such as Rupe Quiney are also registered with the NIHL side so when fixtures allow, the NIHL side could be significantly strengthened during the odd game here and there.
Undoubtedly this will be a tough season for the Welsh side who constantly seem to replace outgoing players and never seem to weaken as much as expected.
Key Player – Mike Brabon
The volatile goalie has calmed down a lot on the ice from his previous antics and will need to be on hand for the extra shots that are likely to head his way. Sharing the pipes with Luke Takel again this season, the pair both finished in the league leaders in terms of stats last season and will be vital to any success the team has. Now that Invicta stopper Andy Moffat has left the league, the days of seeing Brabon mid ice windmilling are likely to have passed.
The Coach – Mark Cuddihy
Offered a full time role with the Cardiff Devils organisation last season, the long-time servant of the club is now firmly embedded in the fabric of the Big Blue Tent. A committed bench coach in a league of Player Coaches, Cuddihy has the distinct advantage of directing his team from the side-lines alongside assistant Ben ‘Stinger’ Smith.
The Big Blue Tent sits on the shoreline of Cardiff bay and is the Devils temporary home whilst they await a new permanent facility. A nice ice pad, spectators on three sides of the ice and well lit, the BBT is a nice place to play and watch hockey in comparison with most other facilities in the league. The only problem for every other team in the league is the distance to travel and the usually late face-off time. This helps the BBT in its deserved reputation as a fortress.
It is said every season but this really is Cardiff’s toughest season yet and they will do well to repeat the heroics of last season where they caused the top four teams trouble all season. The aim has to be fifth but depending on availability, much like Bracknell they could end up finishing lower than that. They may struggle for goals and on any team that is not a good situation to be in, however someone may step up to the plate and change all that.
Champions get stronger
The league and Play-Off champions look extremely strong again and start as favourites. Player Coach Gary Clarke has kept the nucleus of his side together and has added quality to replace the outgoing firepower of Danny Hammond and Julius Sinkovic.
Strong defenseman Tibor Schneider gets the nod for the second import slot whilst high profile signing and former NHL draftee Daniel Volrab takes the other import vacancy after joining from French league side Neuilly sur Marne.
The quality local Brit pack of Ross Brears, James Ayling, Darren Brown, Alex Green and Alex Staples all return, as does powerful agitator Michael Ranby.
It is perhaps Clarke’s Brit signings that have been most impressive with the classy former Romford forward Matt Turner and previous Pro Hockey News All-star defenseman Julian Smith also joining him at the Riverside. Surprise capture Luke Brittle from Telford also adds potency to a Chieftains line-up that sometimes had to grind out results last season, especially on the road.
Dependable net minding tandem Ben Clements and Ryan Bainborough leave Clarke with no worries in that department.
Key Player – Daniel Volrab
Previous import Sinkovic divided opinion amongst fans in the league but his goal scoring record was superb and he provided a real cutting edge to a team not short on flair. Much like the guy he replaces, Volrab will be judged on his performances against the likes of London, Wightlink and Invicta and his pedigree suggests he will rise to that challenge.
The Coach – Gary Clarke
Last season was a real vindication of Chelmsford to stick with Clarke for a second season and he upped his goals tally to boot. A keen believer in playing hockey the right way, Clarke has dealt with the departures of Sinkovic and more importantly local starlet Danny Hammond by bringing in more quality.
Boasting the biggest crowds in the league last season, the Riverside’s multi million pound refurbishment from a few years ago has gifted the Chieftains with a nice place to attract fans. The video scoreboard gives them an ideal platform to hype up the crowd at the start of the game and their lethal gate handle took care of bitter rivals Romford’s enforcer JJ McGrath last season.
The now London Raiders tough guy missed a few weeks of the season after cutting his thumb badly when trying to open the offending gate after warm up. A rink that protects your team cannot be sniffed at.
The Chieftains will be favourites for every trophy going this season and rightly so. Their decision to drop down from the English Premier League a few years ago has certainly reaped dividends for the Essex club and they are a club on the rise. They were a quality side and they have strengthened so it’s a no brainer what their prospects are this season.
Parrish goes all in for glory
Make no mistake; the Invicta Dynamos are ready to make their strongest title push in years. Sick of floundering in recent years it’s as if someone has flicked a switch at Silverblades and said ‘Let’s stop messing about and just go all out’.
The thought process doesn’t take much analysing as the Mo’s have invested in some serious firepower thanks to the arrival of arguably last season’s top two import forwards in the NIHL in Jakub Klima and Juraj Huska.
Both players are match winners in their own right, but add in former Chelmsford hotshot Danny Hammond, the mercurial Callum Fowler, Telford prospect Elliot Knell and feisty Alan Lack and already you can see that goals are not likely to be in short supply with this team.
In defence the dependable Arran Strawson is joined by the experienced Ryan Giles and Tyrone Miller plus a pair of youngsters in the form of former Sheffield prospect Shaun Wild and Adam McNicoll who has been playing in Canada with Orangeville Americans.
Former Swindon, Oxford and Bracknell goalie Chris Douglas is a solid signing between the pipes and an ideal replacement for the departed David Wride.
Key Player – Juraj Huska
Invicta’s imports have often come under scrutiny and Coach Kevin Parrish has constantly searched for the key to success via a host of forwards from overseas in recent years. Slovakian Huska is a proven force at this level and alongside his Czech team mate Klima they should rack up the goals and blow many teams away
The Coach – Kevin Parrish
A frustrated figure in recent seasons Parrish will never get a better chance to lift that silverware he had become accustomed to in his first seven seasons at the Kent club. In Huska and Klima he has known quantities in his import slots and his new Brit signings are proven at this level. Team harmony will be the key to success as on paper they look good, but hockey isn’t played on paper.
The name Silver Blades certainly rolls off the tongue rather than the previous ‘Gillingham Ice Bowl’ title. It says glamour, pizazz, even danger with the swishing of a silver blade cutting through a pristine ice surface. In reality it is a tin shack on an industrial estate, but inside the atmosphere makes up for the surroundings as the Dynamos create a partisan and at times intimidating scene for opposition players.
On firepower alone, anything less than a title win has to be seen as a disappointment for the Mo’s. They have made a big investment in the playing staff this year and fans will get good value for money watching this roster. Can they bring it all together and beat the Chieftains to the title, or will they be better suited to cups and the Play-Offs, it is a fascinating question.
New name, new problems
Just when you think Romford Raiders are consigned to history, they change their name, move to a different rink and get a new logo.
Lee Valley Ice Centre will be the home of the London Raiders this season and a delay in confirming the team would ice this season saw them lose their two best forwards and arguably their best defenseman to their local rivals.
Not great news, however Coach Danny Marshall has still managed to put together a solid roster which will be as aggressive and unforgiving as usual.
The lively Lithuanian utility man Andrius Kaminskas returns alongside dogged Canadian blue liner Dwayne Newman who joins the Raiders from Milton Keynes.
The Peterborough connection are back for another season with the reliable Jason Buckman and Shaun Yardley prepared once again to brave the A1 each week, and they are joined by new goalie tandem Euan King and Dan Lane.
On defence Billy Phillips will be a key player as will fellow blue liner David Oliver and enforcer JJ McGrath.
The most pleasing aspect of the Raiders reshuffle has been an injection of youth into the squad with JJ Pitchley getting a spot after playing in the US last season and local youngsters Charlie Phillips and Jacob Ranson also getting a shot.
Key Player – Andrius Kaminskas
In a team that lost its star goal scorer and his playmaker (Huska and Turner), Bomber is going to have to stay out of the penalty box and start racking up the goals this year. Both he and Frankie Harvey are the two who will be expected to try and replace those missing points.
The Coach – Danny Marshall
A Romford legend still enthusiastic for the game, and back to keep the Raiders spirit going albeit without the Romford moniker. The Player Coach didn’t score his usual glut of goals last season but was a constant threat using his many years of experience to good effect. This year will be a test of character but he has been in this situation many times in his career.
Lee Valley Ice Centre and the Romford/London Raiders don’t really match, and if compared with football it would be like Millwall playing out of Craven Cottage. A true figure skaters rink with its hanging baskets and international flags hanging from the rafters, it would be no surprise to see these replaced with a few hanging skulls on match night as the Raiders try to make the place look mean.
Lee Valley will never have the same atmosphere as Rom Valley Way did and the lack of netting means the crowd won’t get the sightlines they did in their old barn. As with anything, the Raiders will have to make the best of it.
Diminished firepower will see the Raiders relying on a handful of players to turn up big week in week out if they want to get anywhere near Chelmsford or Invicta. They will be a pain in the backside for most teams with their grit and spirit no doubt in evidence again but a top four finish will be the realistic aim.
Solent & Gosport Devils
Second chance to survive
The South coast club were handed a lifeline from relegation over the summer and took it with both hands thanks to Oxford City Stars opting not to take promotion to NIHL South 1.
After a torrid season in 2012/13 things appear to be looking up for the Devils this term.
The highly rated goalie Chico Cole has signed on for another season and the Devils have even signed a new import in the form of Peter Chrenko.
Up front the team have been boosted by the arrival of former Wightlink Raiders pair Alex Murray and Steve Gosset who will improve their attacking options no end.
The postponement of the retirement of Kent Johnson plus the return of Captain Kris Abbott gives the Devils even more depth up front and youngsters such as Jamie Fitzpatrick and Luke Tull will provide youthful enthusiasm to the team.
Coach Will Francis has signed on for another season meaning there has been continuity at the club along with the strengthening of key areas.
Key Player – Alex Murray
The former Wightlink forward has scored a lot of goals at this level but not in a struggling team. Murray will find it a lot different to playing for a Wightlink Raiders team that won a lot more games than it lost. Murray is a Gosport boy though and should have no problems fitting in.
The Coach – Will Francis
The former Basingstoke and Wightlink blue liner gets another shot at NIHL South 1 and his immediate concern will be to turn Gosport into a fortress. The poor road form is one thing but there are scalps to be had on home ice and Francis has to take advantage of it.
Easily the most depressing facility in the NIHL to play in thanks to its dark and dinghy atmosphere and reduced sized ice pad, for fans however it can be a decent hockey experience as nowhere else can you be so close to the action. The crowds have been decent and it is testament to the hard work of the club that they can attract such gates to watch a team that struggled last year.
Solent & Gosport have a little more quality and depth and should theoretically pick up a few more wins at home. They will quietly fancy their chances against the lower placed teams and now and again have the potential to upset the big boys. They will greet second last position as a job well done this season and rightly so.
Life after Klima
It was obvious to anyone watching the Redskins last season that one player often made the difference between a win or a loss and now he has gone. The departure of fan favourite and last season’s NIHL Player of the Season Jakub Klima was greeted with horror from fans of the South London club early in the summer.
On the eve of the season though, things are not looking quite so bad for a team that hit a streak of form in the latter half of the 2012/13 season.
Invicta pair Jack Tarczycki and Callum Best are excellent pick-ups for Streatham but it is the Cardiff trio of All-Star forward Sean Scarbrough, high scoring Brit Steven Fisher and solid defenseman James Warman that Coach Warren Rost will be relying on to offset the loss of Klima’s goals. Much will also be expected of Slovak Michal Oravec who was a highlight at the end of last season.
In goal Will Sanderson and Stefan Nubert get the nod again, with Sanderson in particular showing great form in the back end of 2012/13.
The local Brit core of Joe Allen, Casimir Madren-Britton, Evander Grinnell, Liam Rasmussen, Adam Mahoney and Captain Joe Johnston are back for more, as are All-Star defenseman Dom Hopkins and former Slough boys Stewart Tait, Russ Stevens and Jamie McIlroy.
Streatham will start the season in Brixton but in November they move to a brand new 1000 seat facility in Streatham. The future is bright at last for one of the UK’s oldest hockey clubs.
Key Player – Sean Scarbrough
The speedy Californian was a massive success in his first season in the UK with Cardiff and Streatham will be hoping he can be just as effective in a Redskins jersey. Filling Klima’s skates may not be as important given the extra depth the team have secured in the scoring department.
The Coach – Warren Rost
Almost always described as old school, Rost is a Streatham boy at heart and his no nonsense attitude is exactly what the Redskins need. The former Slough legend is a straight talking Londoner who knows exactly what he is doing and has done exceptionally well to sign a squad as good as this on a shoestring budget.
Brixton is basic but a nice shiny new facility, but all eyes will not be on this perfectly pleasant facility but on the one back in Streatham, the homeland. The new 1000 seater ice rink is part of a multi million pound Tesco development and will be London’s largest permanent ice rink. Whether that is something to boast about or be depressed about is a point to debate.
Streatham have more depth in scoring than last season and a stronger defence so theoretically a fourth placed finish is achievable but a battle with the likes of Bracknell and Cardiff for fifth would still be a sign of progression. Home wins against the big boys and improved consistency against the rest should do the trick.
More of the same
Wightlink were once again a leading force in the league last season and will be up at the top again as Coach Jeremy Cornish continues to ensure that the team progress.
A lack of goals at times last term hindered the Raiders from taking the title with their trademark solid defence ensuring that they still challenged.
Free scoring Brit Steve Osman joins from Cardiff and Alex Barker has dropped down from Slough Jets EPL side for a year on the island. Solid forwards Nathan Taylor, Richard Facey and Craig Tribe will continue to pose a threat in front of net as usual.
In defence the reliable Damon Larter is once again joined by All-Star defenseman Nick Compton and Northern rock Dan Pye. A new face on the blue line arrives in the familiar form of Yousif Abu-Saada, whilst highly rated goalie Matt Colclough arrives for another season.
The big question hangs over the replacement of last season’s import Jiri Hanzal as Canadian forward Matt Vizzari joins from German side Weser Stars Bremen.
Coach Cornish will as usual add toughness and the grit will also come from agitator Corey Watkins.
Wightlink will need Barker and Osman to step up to the plate alongside Vizzari on a regular basis if they want to mount a serious title challenge this term.
Key Player – Matt Colclough
The former Basingstoke man will need to be on top form again this season if his side are to do well. The reduced sized pad on Ryde means Colclough is vital in every game and the relative lack of firepower in comparison with Chelmsford and Invicta means defence will have to be key again.
The Coach – Jeremy Cornish
The big Canadian is back for another season on the island and has once again tweaked his roster to make sure his team will be there or thereabouts this year. Despite his reputation as an enforcer, Cornish always has his sides well drilled, organised and tactically sound. Cornish has chipped in with a few points this season but he will need Vizzari to come good goals wise this year.
Slightly less depressing than Gosport thanks to extra seating and plexi glass rather than netting, Ryde Arena is still a difficult venue for many teams to visit with normal game plans torn to shreds. Decent crowds attracted by winning hockey make it a vibrant venue on match nights and it remains the number one place to be on a winter Saturday night in Ryde ahead of Wetherspoons and the Hovercraft terminal.
There is also a live radio commentary broadcast from each game thanks to Wight Island radio star Chris ‘Badger’ Randall who uses the opportunity to take a break from polluting the islander’s ears with his TPau back catalogue.
They lack the firepower of Chelmsford and Invicta but the old saying is ‘defence win championships’. The loss of Sam Waller is a blow on the blue line but Wightlink will be well organised and will be aiming to win the league. A top three place and Play-Off success would be a good return for the Raiders.
Sadly at the time of press Milton Keynes Thunder had yet to release their roster. The team are starting the season on the road whilst they await the conversion of a former Waitrose supermarket into a temporary rink. Hopefully all will go to plan and reportedly the team have been training in Peterborough, however this preview is unable to speculate on their roster.
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