THE CHAIRMAN of the UK’s top ice hockey league says any application from a Leeds-based team for the 2019-20 season would be given serious consideration.
A new ice rink is set to open its doors to the West Yorkshire public early next year with the owners last month showing their desire to house professional ice hockey at the Elland Road venue by asking for ‘expressions of interest’ from people wishing to run a team out of there.
Planet Ice, the rink operators, have received a number of applications from interested parties, with talks expected to begin early next month to determine who will win the right to operate the franchise.
The rink has been in the pipeline since back in 2012 but has been beset by a number of delays, including late last year when extreme winds saw part of the roofing structure blown down.
But construction has gathered pace in recent weeks and Tony Smith, chairman of the Elite League – the UK’s top league which houses the likes of Cardiff Devils, Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers – said adding a Leeds-based team would be an exciting prospect.
Another option open to any team operating at the new Leeds rink would be to apply to join the National Ice Hockey League, effectively the second-tier of the British game but housing teams on much lower budgets than the EIHL and with far less import players.
I’d love to see a team in Leeds ... we’ve seen it over the last couple of years where Manchester, Milton Keynes and Guildford have all joined the league. So there is a blueprint for making it successful.Elite League chairman Tony Smith
Smith, who also owns the Sheffield Steelers, said there would be many benefits for the EIHL in adding a team from Leeds, both geographically and given its potential for growth in an what is already regarded as a sporting city.
The Leeds rink is expected to have a match-night capacity of around 2,000, including 1,800 seats, which would put it on a par with teams already playing in the EIHL, such as Manchester Storm and Milton Keynes Lightning, who operate out of rinks also owned by Planet Ice.
“I’d be delighted if somebody came along from Leeds and said they were interested in joining the Elite League,” said Smith.
“I’d love to see a team in Leeds – I’d like to see a team in three or more other major places too – Bristol has been talked about over the years. But we’ve seen it over the last couple of years where Manchester, Milton Keynes and Guildford have all joined the league. So there is a blueprint for making it successful.”
Smith said if and when contact is made from any prospective Leeds-based team owner, the EIHL board would then enter into detailed discussions to explore whether it would be a realistic proposition.
“When we do the due diligence then, at that point, we would assess whether they (the team applying) are viable, it’s as simple as that,” explained Smith. “Running an ice hockey club is a very expensive business and people have to understand that and take it seriously because it’s a case of deep pockets and resources to keep a team going.
“The key to all of this is to make sure that as an EIHL team you are filling the arena.
“It’s a very simple equation: get the product on the ice right and the fans will come. Guildford, Milton Keynes and Manchester have all made it sustainable so far, but you’ve got to have a competitive team and if it’s not competitive, it could have the reverse effect in terms of attracting fans.”
Planet Ice director Mark Johnson, said the company had received a number of ‘expressions of interest’, some wishing to operate a team in the EIHL, while others were looking at one level below.
“We are pleased with the response we had and excited about a couple of them to be honest,” said Johnson, who is scheduled to have a meeting this week with Leeds City Council after which an opening date for the rink may become clearer.
“We’ve had a bit of an up and down ride to get to where we are but the reality is that we’ve had that piece of land for about nine or 10, so we’ve always had the belief that it is the right place to be.
“We just want to get this thing built now and get it open for the public of Leeds and let the people of Leeds enjoy it.
“From our point of view it is the ice rink first and then, if somebody wants to come in and run the hockey side of it, great.
“They have to bring a business plan and a marketing plan to us and sell it to us in that sense in that ‘this is what we can do’.
“We’ll be asking them to sign up to quite a lengthy contract, it won’t just be for a year and see how it goes, it will be a stern commitment.”