The Elite Ice Hockey League has issued a provisional timetable for the competition’s return, with the league planning to open the 2020/21 season on 5-6 December. Under the Elite League’s plan, the regular season is expected to conclude on the weekend of 1-2 May.
Playoff Finals Weekend is currently scheduled to be held at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena on 15-16 May. The EIHL still intends to open the season with a ‘Magic Five’ weekend at the same arena.
In a league statement, EIHL Chairman Tony Smith said: “There are two factors that we need to consider with any return to play plan. First, we need six to eight weeks from the time we know we can play in order to complete our teams, get work visas in place, book flights and buy equipment. Secondly, we need our fans. We cannot play behind closed doors or with very limited capacity, it just isn’t an option.”
All ten of the EIHL’s clubs are “committed to playing the 2020/21 season,” although the league’s bosses have insisted that the resumption of top-flight hockey will be guided by the government and devolved administrations.
The government has given ice-rinks the green-light to reopen on 25 July
The government has given ice-rinks the green-light to reopen on 25 July, paving the way for the return of recreational ice skating. The resumption of competitive sport is, however, subject to Public Health England signing-off national governing bodies’ specific return to play plans.
In an statement, the English Ice Hockey Association said: “It is crucial that we wait for our guidance to be approved. If we have a situation where ice rinks are open but our guidance has not been signed off by government, then we will not be able to resume any activity.”
Ice hockey’s return to play is the most difficult to navigate out of any sport the world over, especially in nations where clubs are reliant on gate receipts to survive. The Elite League’s statement shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Given the league’s financial constitution, it would have been impossible for EIHL clubs to return to the ice without spectators in the building.
The suggestion that clubs could survive by streaming fixtures on a pay-per-view basis was always going to be a non-starter.
Clubs reluctant to commit in the market now have a clear roadmap
The terrain ahead of the sport’s decision makers is complex. The requirement to have supporters in attendance is evidentially a barrier to ice hockey’s return. However, the EIHL’s position is realistic; the right balance has been struck.
Most importantly, the league’s statement gives its clubs an element of certainty. Franchises reluctant to commit in the free agency market can now approach the summer with a clear roadmap in mind. That isn’t to say that the likes of Fife, Nottingham, Belfast and Glasgow are about to roll out the big spenders, but a sketch of a plan might help to calm some nerves across the league.
The Elite League’s statement comes amid wider uncertainty
The EIHL’s geographic composition could be a source of pain further along the line. With the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland following a slightly different path to England, the Elite League will have to be prepared for a scenario where some clubs aren’t able to return in tandem with the rest of the league.
As the offseason progresses, it will be worth keeping an eye on the Cardiff Devils, Belfast Giants, Glasgow Clan, Fife Flyers and Dundee Stars. The EIHL faces a unique challenge in bringing together clubs from all parts of the United Kingdom, challenging times await.
All walks of life have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. British ice hockey is perhaps disproportionately afflicted by our new normal.