Leeds Chiefs offered glimmer of hope after Streaming Series, says Joe Coulter

WATCHING NIHL National rivals in action from afar in recent weeks will only have served to heighten the desire of those not involved to join them on the ice even more quickly.

Wednesday, 2nd December 2020, 6:35 am
Updated Wednesday, 2nd December 2020, 7:12 am
HOPEFUL: Leeds Chiefs' Joe Coulter. Picture: Dean Woolley.

The recent Streaming Series attracted an average online audience of around 1,000 paid-for streams per game, offering encouraging signs going forward for any kind of league season which may follow under the same behind-closed-doors format.

The hope remains that some kind of NIHL National campaign can go ahead sometime in January, but that will depend on a number of key factors, including whether all rinks will be open and available for practise sessions and games and whether team owners are confident enough of making any season financially viable.

An online meeting involving all 10 teams was scheduled to take place last night where it was expected they would analyse everything relating to the Streaming Series – contested by Sheffield Steeldogs, Milton Keynes Lightning and Swindon Wildcats – and determine whether there was a desire to push ahead with a wider league campaign.

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As far as the players are concerned – both those involved in the Series and those watching remotely via their TV and computer screens – there is a clear desire to expand the format to all include more teams.

That is a desire fuelled primarily by the frustration of not being able to play competitive hockey since the middle of March when the coronavirus pandemic put paid to the sport at all levels, a situation which – Streaming Series aside – has not altered.

Chiefs’ forward Joe Coulter was among the many players around the country watching the games with understandable interest and also a hint of envy. He, like many others, is now hoping that something can be put together on a wider scale.

“I thought the whole event was really good,” said Coulter, who wore the ‘A’ for the Chiefs’ in their debut season, contributing 20 points, including seven goals, in 44 games.

Andres Kopstals and Joe Coulter, right, get an attack going for Leeds Chiefs against Sheffield Steeldogs with team-mate Andres Kopstals on opening night at Elland Road. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

“There were some high-scoring games, as expected I suppose, but I felt the games were excellent and the quality of the stream, I felt, was really impressive too.

“I was just sat watching it at home and thinking ‘why are we not playing in this?’ And I think I speak for every player in the league in that sense because you’re sat there just wanting to be part of it - I thought it was put together really well.

“The whole Streaming Series has offered a real glimmer of hope - if those three teams have made it work in this mini-series, surely there is scope for it to evolve into something league- wide.”

All three teams strengthened their ranks with players who, under normal circumstances, would ply their trade in the full-time Elite League (EIHL), something Coulter believes was another positive.

“Having players like Ben Lake and Ben O’Connor involved and other GB internationals, those guys were brilliant – it was great watching them play,” added Coulter.

“When you bring in guys like that who are effectively saying ‘this is the standard’ it is effectively a sink or swim situation because if you don’t match the workrate, the increased skill level alone will make you look a bit silly, so you really do have to start bringing a bit more to the table when those kind of guys are on the ice.”

Back in September, the EIHL postponed its 2020-21 season due to the continued impact of Covid-19 but, after being offered a potential £4m bailout by the government as part of a wider £300m rescue package for spectator sports, is now considering putting some kind of product on the ice in early January.

Like the recent Streaming Series, it will likely be played behind-closed-doors with games made available online with fans paying a set fee to watch.

With the EIHL competition likely to go ahead with around 10 imports, it means that the top-end British players who strengthened the rosters of Sheffield, Swindon and Milton Keynes, are unlikely to be available if an NIHL National campaign also materialises.

The sport was given another shot in the arm when governing body the English Ice Hockey Association last night announced that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport had made a concession relating to ice rinks sited in Tier 3 areas, including Elland Road rink.

Previously, rinks had to remain completely closed due to being classed solely as leisure and entertainment venues.

But, after lobbying by the EIHA, clubs, players and parents, the DCMS says Tier 3-located rinks can open for ‘elite athletes, professional dancers and choreographers, people with a disability, supervised activities for children and for formal education or training purposes’.

It means the Chiefs can apply for ‘elite sport’ status, enabling them to compete in any season which may transpire in early 2021.

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