After much wrangling, rumour and brinkmanship, the new conference system for next year has been agreed. The arrival of two new teams (Milton Keynes & Guildford) always meant the current conferences would need rejigging. Astonishingly, having agreed unanimously to the new teams, this consequence seemed to have come as a surprise to some of the owners. The initial, and seemingly most logical, plan to maintain two conferences, but move Belfast into the Gardiner conference, thus making room for the two new teams in the Erhardt was rejected. This would have created roughly equal conferences in terms of competition, although it is tough on Manchester to be grouped in with essentially a Scottish league. Belfast would lose some of the bigger gates, so again this would not be the best choice for them. The Scottish teams talked about leaving the league if they lost some of the local games and were forced to travel more.
An impasse seems to have been reached, and in order to accommodate the multiple variables, desires and constraints, the EIHL have created a 3 conference system. Kelman summarises it thus:
“1) A Scottish conference, which works for them and their businesses. They save on travel, they get more games against their local rivals.
2) An English conference, which all 4 teams seem happy with because of travel and I assume that for Coventry, they see more potential for wins in this conference. This is not a knock on Coventry, I am trying to be honest about everything. As much as Manchester would love to play Nottingham and Sheffield as much as possible, it makes sense for them to be in this conference along with the two new teams. But Manchester get them in the Cup, so that works out nicely for them.
3) Then there is our conference. Being in this conference does not give us more of a chance to win the league, I think it makes it harder for all 4 of us to win the league, but really no harder than last season. We actually play less games in conference (obviously because there is 1 less team) but we have 32 games out of conference instead of 20.”
In his post Kelman makes a good case for this being the best compromise they could reach, given the competing demands and the different priorities of clubs in our league. And I get that, I really do, rational compromise is an all too rare commodity post 2016. But it’s a dangerous game the league are playing, as the sacrifice for all of this carefully considered economic viability and logistical equivalence is sporting validity. It would take a very dedicated fan of one of the Scottish or English league teams to insist these conferences offered parity in terms of challenge.
Let’s imagine a scenario where Braehead win the league next year. Now this may be because they deserve to, have the best team and so on. But no fan of the teams in the ‘big four’ conference will be able to shake the feeling that it is a result of them being in an easier conference. And although they may not admit it, that doubt might nag at many Braehead fans too. This is not to criticise or belittle the other teams. Manchester for example provided some great games against Cardiff this year, and until recently Coventry have always given us tough games, and an away game in Fife is never easy. But overall those teams do not offer the same challenge as playing any one of the teams in Cardiff’s conference. The point is that it leaves the league open to the accusation that it is no longer legitimate.
In the long term that can be more harmful than the short term pain of adjusting to a new two conference system. If fans feel there is no point in investing, financially, but most significantly, emotionally in the sport, they will do something else. Any sport is essentially a shared myth. As Harari puts it in Sapiens:
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.
Like any myth there are a number of shared beliefs essential to it perpetuating. A key one is that the best team or athlete wins. Now, we know this largely depends on money, sometimes on luck, but still it roughly turns out to hold true. It’s why cheating (by throwing a game, or drugs) is so antithetical to the nature of sport. If the best don’t win, but it’s decided by some other factor, then what’s the point? And this is the spectre the new EIHL conference structure brings to British hockey. Whether true or not, it allows the perception to take hold that the best may not win.
It is for this reason that I approach the new season with less enthusiasm than previously. Maybe it will turn out fine, and all these concerns will be unfounded, but in their attempt to fit everyone’s favourite ingredients into a cake, the league may have left out the flour.