The Coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of sports fixtures around the globe, sending event organisers into panic and journalists wild with speculation in equal measure.
Among the affected events is Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), halted merely weeks from the end of the regular season and losing its showcase playoff finals weekend in mid-April.
The season was poised for an exciting climax. The four bottom sides – Glasgow Clan, Manchester Storm, Dundee Stars and Fife Flyers – were competing for the final two playoff berths. With seven points separating seventh and 10th, could Fife mount a huge comeback and bridge the gap with five games to go? Would Manchester survive five tough fixtures and cling on to eighth?
At the other end of the table, Cardiff Devils and Sheffield Steelers were the favourites to be crowned league champions having played hot potato with first place throughout the season.
However, with just six points separating top placed Cardiff from fifth-placed Nottingham Panthers, the playoff seedings were far from certain.
Perhaps the biggest loss is the playoff finals in Nottingham over Easter Weekend – the highlight of the season for many supporters.
We’ll never know if Cardiff could have retained the title for a third successive season. If Belfast Giants could have gone one better than last season and hoisted the Championship trophy for the first time since 2010. If Guildford Flames could have surprise us all and won their maiden title.
And of course, there’s the thousands of fans with tickets but no hockey.
Thankfully, the league’s organisers have proposed a replacement showcase event at the start of the 2020/21 season which has the potential to launch a new era for domestic ice hockey.
Dubbed the “Magic 5” weekend, it would see all 10 teams descend on Nottingham in mid-September to kick off the new season with five back-to-back matches, designed to pit league rivals against one another.
In a statement last week, the EIHL said: “The clubs today agreed to stage a special event to relaunch the Elite League operation when the health issues are resolved.
“It has been agreed to replace the lost upcoming playoffs with a “Magic 5” weekend which will feature all ten teams in action in one venue.
“The weekend of September 12/13 [TBC] could see five back-to-back matches… in Nottingham with three games on the Saturday and two on the Sunday.
“Rivalries will be renewed as five “extra” games are added to the league programme. Normal game points will be up for grabs at the Magic 5.”
The format is already hugely successful in rugby league’s Super League, which has hosted a ‘Magic Weekend’ every season since 2007, and is an attractive proposition in the short-term.
For fans with playoff tickets it’s an opportunity to witness an ice hockey extravaganza similar to the one they were denied.
For the players, a chance to play in front of an electric 10,000 capacity crowd at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena. For context, the average attendance in the EIHL this season was 3,034.
And the potential fixture list is mouth-watering. A home derby for Nottingham Panthers against Sheffield Steelers. Dundee Stars taking on Fife Flyers in an all-Scotland affair. Cardiff Devils playing close rivals Coventry Blaze, ditto Belfast Giants versus Glasgow Clan…
This leaves Manchester Storm and Guildford Flames as the odd ones out, but just as the Super League’s Magic Weekend regularly features that well known derby fixture of London Broncos versus Perpignan’s Catalan Dragons, surely the EIHL can be elastic with geography?
However, it is long-term where this concept has really exciting potential.
Take Super League’s Magic Weekend. For two days a year, rugby league is removed from its traditional M62 heartland and transported around the UK. Edinburgh, Cardiff and Newcastle have all played host to the two-day spectacular, attracting upward of 50,000 fans over the weekend. Why can’t the Elite League do the same?
Of course, there are certain logistical barriers to this idea. Ice rinks are not ten a penny like rugby pitches, the few existing rinks don’t have large-scale stadium seating etc. etc. And yet, it’s been done before…
From 1995 to 2004, Manchester Storm (and later, Manchester Phoenix) played their home matches at the Manchester Arena, a venue not known for its ice. The Arena regularly hosted crowds of 6,000+ and even set a European attendance record in 1997 when 17,245 people watched Storm hammer Sheffield Steelers 6-2 in a British Hockey League fixture (top).
In 2007, the Anaheim Ducks played LA Kings in an NHL fixture at London’s O2 Arena, drawing in a crowd of 17,551.
Just two examples but the possibilities are endless. Glasgow’s SSE Hydro (14,300), Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena (11,000), Arena Birmingham (15,800), Leeds’ First Direct Arena (13,700) – big arenas, accessible cities, and all tour venues for Disney on Ice.
It doesn’t even have to be a huge stadium. Why not take the Elite League to areas with second tier teams like Milton Keynes (Lightning), Edinburgh (Murrayfield Racers) or Hull (Pirates)? Or cities that have ice hockey history like Newcastle, whose side (Newcastle Vipers) won the EIHL Championship in 2005/06?
It’s an opportunity to reconnect with existing fans, showcase what the sport has to offer and maybe inspire a new generation of supporters.
The 10 Elite League clubs have proposed an interesting antidote to the disappointment of losing the playoffs. However, rather than using the “Magic 5” weekend as a one season wonder, a sticking plaster to patch up a hole in the hockey calendar, it should be used as a springboard to explore the league’s potential.
Coronavirus has thrown a spanner in the works and created an uncertain future for the EIHL. Why not take that spanner and build something spectacular?