EIHL Bench Size Controversy.
On Monday, 9th August 2021, Sheffield Steelers owner (and EIHL Chairman, remember this fact for later folks), Tony Smith gave an interview about the roster & bench sizes for the upcoming 2021-2022 EIHL season. This has given us the EIHL bench size controversy.
Now, you would assume that roster & bench size is usually a relatively uncontroversial issue. Most teams would run with 4 lines of outskaters, and 2 netminders, right? Well, not this coming season, folks, oh no. In 2021-2022, the EIHL will have a maximum bench size on any given gameday of 19. Thats 17 skaters and 2 NMs. Or 3 lines and 2 spares.
And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the make up of that 19 bodies was unveiled as well. Despite the largely British born rosters of the “Elite Series” being well received, for reasons I will explain, the EIHL this coming season has chosen to cut back on the number of British born players. 14 of the bench can be imports (ie North American or European born and trained players), and just 5 will be British. (And before anyone says it, yes, it is 14 imports maximum. But there won’t be a single team who runs with less than 14. You know this to be true, as do i).
Compared to the rules previously in place this is a visible and obvious reduction in roster places for British Born players, and an increase for imports. And the reasons? Well, let’s get to those shall we?
Tony Smiths reasoning.
So, in the interview, Tony Smith outlines why the league took the decisions it did in regards to bench size and roster composition. Rather than word it myself, I’ll quote from the interview:
We have looked at various ways to cut costs this season while maintaining and improving standards.
Yes, some of the Brits earn little, but only until they get to the point where they are starting to make a name for themselves.
So, he is saying that it is cheaper to bring in players from abroad (mostly North Amreica) than employ local British players. Let’s un-pick this, shall we?
First up, the notion that bringing a guy over from North America is somehow cheaper than employing a British player doesn’t really hold up. Beyond the obvious expense (wages), you need to factor in the following:
An ITC (International Transfer Card). These typically cost £750.
Flights. The import has to be both flown into the UK, and flown home again come the seasons end (or sooner if they are injured/gassed, etc). And they wont just come with a single suitcase and a carry on bag. So that adds to the cost as well. (unless they are one of the very, very rare ones who have settled here permanently)
Housing. All your imports will need housing (again, unless they are one of the very, very rare ones who have settled here permanently). ALmost certainly, a Brit won’t need this unless they are making a major relocation to join your club.
Transport. Imports will require a car. Even shared between 3 or 4 imports, this can be expensive. Especially if you can’t do a deal with a local car dealership. A Brit probably has their own car already.
So, to me at least, this means that unless the import is playing for a pretty small wage, then they are almost guaranteed to cost you less than Johnny Local-Boy would.
And then there is that second quote. WHat Smith is saying is that the best brits ask for too much money. Well, the thing is, if it’s supposed to be their actual day job, then they are certainly going to want a wage commensurate with being a full time employee of the club. And they are also going to want some kind of wage parity with the imports, especially if they play on the same line as them (or even a higher one). The sad truth is many Brits are given part time wages, yet are expected to commit just like the full time paid imports.
Oh, and let’s not forget that the EIHL has created a rod for it’s own back here as well. The best Brits will ask for a decent amount of cash, because they know that the clubs who want to do well in the EIHL need to have the best Brits on the bench to give their roster the depth needed to rotate the lines effectively. And they clubs need the best Brits because they have created an artificial shortage of roster space for Brits b y focusing on increasing import levels over time.
That’s not all, though.
You bring me the crowds and I will bring you the Brits! But right now they don’t fill Arenas and I’d be the first to say I hope it changes, I hope the standard improves
So, he says he will give fans Brits if there are crowds, but that Brits shrink crowds. To further this:
It is Catch 22, they want more ice time in the Elite League but we can’t afford to give lots of Brits ice time and then find the crowds diminish.
“That is what has happened, and it is a proven fact over the years.
Is it a “proven fact”? Or is it another example of the EIHL perpetuating the myth that only Johnny Canadien can draw a crowd? I mean, I watched my team drop from the EIHL to the EPIL, and despite dropping to just 4 imports, we saw crowds pretty much stay the same. Indeed, they actually grew over time as a more consistently entertaining product was put on the ice.
And then there is this nugget to round it out:
“They have got to want it. We have had kids come through that have decided they don’t want the Elite League. It is a commitment that is too great.
“ It is not just about having the ability to play they have to have it in their heart as well and the mindset of an elite player.”
So, wanting to be paid a decent wage, and to be seen as an equal to the imports, not just a league mandated requirement is then not having enough commitment? Respectfully, but that is bullshit. Hockey is a dangerous sport. These young players often have day jobs due to the laughably low wages offered by the EIHL. A serious injury during a game doesn’t just put them on the injury list and into rehabilitation. It prevents them from earning in their day job too. And I know I sure as hell wouldn’t commit given what the EIHL has (allegedly) offered to some exciting young British players.
You want commitment, Tony? Make it worth their while. Pay them a proper wage. Give them the opportunities. Don’t expect them to risk injury for a pittance whilst their teammate earns a nice 5-figure wedge (often more than they would earn in NA) for a much lighter schedule than they would face back home.
Tony Smith claims he doesn’t know why the EIHL haven’t officially communicated any of this during the off-season. Well he damn well should, being the bloody league chairman! He’s the “boss”, the head guy. He should be asking at board meetings when this stuff is going to happen? Why hasn’t it already happened, and who is responsible for it?
The EIHL bench size controversy isn’t going to just go away. Even fans who have previously defended the EIHL and it’s decisions have called this one into question. The reasoning is transparently faulty. It should be obvious why this was kept under wraps for as long as it has been. It is because they knew there would be blowback.
The EIHL bench size controversy could be the leagues biggest misstep since the Dave Simms homophobia affair. And hopefully, this time meaningful change will come from it, rather than pathetic excuses and lip service being paid to it.
The full interview: Sheffield Star