When will the Elite Ice Hockey League return after season suspension?

By Chris HowellsBBC Wales Sport
What led to the Elite Ice Hockey League agreeing to suspend the 2020-21 league season?

The Elite Ice Hockey League's 10 clubs unanimously agreed to suspend the 2020-21 season this week, and the question now is when the sport will return.

There was hope the league could be back in December but, as the weeks passed, any hopes of hosting meaningful crowds - which would enable clubs to remain financially viable - vanished.

"It was becoming more and more apparent that life's not going to be back to normal and for us to start playing we need people through the gate. Our sport cannot play to empty buildings," said Dundee Stars co-owner Steve Ward.

"It's been obvious to us for some time that it's not going to happen."

There were months of weekly meetings between the clubs after ice hockey in the UK was halted because of coronavirus in March.

Every option for a possible return to action was considered, but by September the league (EIHL) knew it had run out of time.

"It's tough. We've got these fantastic fan bases who are going to be very disappointed and we feel bad for them," said Cardiff Devils managing director Todd Kelman.

In recent seasons, the standard of play in UK ice hockey has reached probably the highest level in its history.

Sheffield Steelers owner and EIHL chairman Tony Smith points to the Challenge Cup Final between Cardiff Devils and his side in March, the last match played before the league shutdown.

"The two teams were phenomenal," he said.

"It was one of the best games of hockey I've ever seen in my life. That's the standard of hockey fans can expect almost week in, week out in the Elite League."

Belfast Giants were the last EIHL winners, in the 2018-19 season
Belfast Giants were the last EIHL winners, in the 2018-19 season, as last year's competition was abandoned

This is in stark contrast to previous times, when the sport was fighting to survive.

In 2003 there were few solvent teams and the club structure was changed to form the EIHL, with eight founding ownerships. Since then it has grown to be the most-watched indoor sport in the UK, with some venues regularly hosting crowds of 7,000-plus.

The league and clubs are run as private enterprises. They are not governed by any national sporting bodies and so do not receive any public grants.

The sport's independence seems to be have been something of a weakness as it has struggled to find meaningful support during the coronavirus crisis.

In the summer the EIHL approached government ministers and sent a letter to seven local councils asking when ice hockey might be able to return with fans, but received little encouragement.

"Ice hockey seems to fly under the radar," Smith said.

"It seems to hit on the same topic all the time with the same questions - who is ice hockey? How many teams? What are you about? We're a little-known sport with huge crowds."

Ice hockey's situation is complicated by the fact that there are clubs all over the UK, with half the league under the jurisdiction of the devolved governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and the English-based sides at the behest of the Westminster government.

In England, the government recently reduced the maximum crowd size to 1,000 for the selected sporting fixtures permitted to hold test events.

Ice hockey has not been included in any roadmaps for a return to play.

In Wales there has been little movement on the issue, with a government spokesperson recently saying they would "consider allowing large indoor sports venues to reopen once operators are ready and when we are satisfied it is safe to do so".

In Northern Ireland, groups of 30 are allowed to gather at indoor sporting arenas. A matchday hockey squad would number 20 players alone, so merely putting two teams in one building is not possible.

Steve Thornton, Belfast Giants' head of hockey, said: "We're in a situation right now where we can't have indoor mass gatherings at large capacities and unfortunately we don't know when we will be able to."

Ice hockey in Scotland is more prominent and has genuine hopes of receiving tangible support.

Sheffield Steelers beat Cardiff Devils in the Challenge Cup final in March
Sheffield Steelers beat Cardiff Devils in the Challenge Cup final in March

"The ice hockey teams - us, Glasgow and Fife - are three of the best-supported teams within all sports in Scotland," Ward said.

"We've been quite fortunate [with] Joe FitzPatrick being the sports minister. He knows the club very well because he's a local MSP [Member of the Scottish Parliament]. He knows what we do and how it's a positive thing not just for Dundee city but also the surrounding community. He's been very supportive of us."

Dundee Stars have also discussed with Sport Scotland the possibility of receiving financial assistance.

"We've laid out our stall as to what we need to get through this to see if they can assist us in any way and I think they're going to try to do that. They've been very, very positive," Ward added.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has reassured the EIHL there is no pecking order regarding when sports can restart.

"When sport is allowed to go, sport will be allowed to go across the board. So that's a little bit of hope," Smith said.

The hope is that the EIHL may be back with a truncated fixture schedule in early 2021.

It would not be considered a replacement season because not all of the 10 clubs intend to compete.

"The situation is very fluid. Some teams are suggesting they're not coming in, others are suggesting they'd like to be there but that could change," Smith said.

"But I think it's fair to say that there will be some teams that are ready to go."

When the day finally comes and ice hockey returns with crowds, there will be huge excitement amongst fans and staff.

"My heart goes out to the players especially because for them it's all they live for and they'll be desperate to get back," Ward said.

Smiling at the very thought of seeing ice hockey again, Thornton added: "That's what gives everybody hope.

"Once we're able to get through this and we are able to put a team back on the ice, I think it'll be quite special."

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