The off-ice report

Wednesday, 29th June 2005
The main news this week comes from the Elite League itself, with the announcement of the league format for the forthcoming 2005-2006 season. League Chairman Eamon Convery confirms that "The league consists of nine playing teams spread throughout the United Kingdom while Manchester Phoenix are very positively progressing plans for their new venue so as to recommence playing in the 2006/07 season.  Furthermore, I believe the new competitive format will add greater interest for the fans."
Each of the nine playing teams in the league will face each other three times at home and three times away, with the major changes coming in the Play-Off and Challenge Cup competitions.  The Play-Offs will see two groups of four teams face their group-mates once at home and once away to whittle the teams down to the four semi-finalists, with the eight Play-Off teams comprising the top seven league teams plus the winner of a single game between the eighth and ninth team, played at the home venue of the eighth place team.  The Challenge Cup will be a stand-alone competition, so the points gained won't count towards the league table as they did this past season.  With the Belfast Giants opting to sit out the Challenge Cup this coming season due to fixture congestion, the Challenge Cup will be contested between the eight remaining teams being split into two groups of four.  Group A will consist of Edinburgh, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield, and Group B will consist of Basingstoke, Cardiff, Coventry and London, and the group stage will see each team play their group-mates once at home and once away, with the top two of each group making the four semi-finalists. 
Chairman Convery is excited at the prospect, proclaiming that "there are now three clear and distinct competitions in Elite Ice Hockey being the League, the Play-Offs and the Challenge Cup.  It is expected that the Challenge Cup semi-finals and finals will be concluded before Christmas. I have no doubt that the 2005/06 season will prove to be a major success for the clubs in the Elite League and I am equally certain that the fans will enjoy the extra excitement of the new teams and the new Challenge Cup format."
This week's signing news sees some new arrivals to the league, including forward Trevor Baker who makes the move from the Peoria Rivermen to the London Racers.  The 27 year old native of Edmonton, Alberta, iced for the Rivermen in 55 games last season, racking up 17 goals and 28 assists with 114 PIMS, playing in a centre position.  Racers coach Dennis Maxwell feels that Baker will fit into the team well, proclaiming "Next year the Racers are not going to take nights off.  Baker is the type of player that coaches want on their team.  He is going to be a real leader for London."
Belfast Giants General Manager John Elliott revealed this week that the Giants have secured a major investor to back the team's campaign this coming season.  Jim Yaworski, a Calgary-based software businessman, is backing the team to the tune of CA$1.5 million, pending the successful completion of the investment deal.  This gives the Northern Irish team a more solid foundation, following months of speculation on the future of the team. 
Giants GM Elliott understands the demands of the sport on a club's finances.  "Ice hockey is one of the most expensive sports to manage," says Elliott, "and with the demise of MG Rover earlier this year, I had grave concerns as to our ability to continue.  However, there continues to be several options and the arrival of Jim Yaworksi is certainly a firm basis to be building on.  We will still need to be prudent in our business and are continuing to renew and develop discussions with potential new sponsors.  I am confident the business people of Northern Ireland will again realise the benefit to be gained in association with the Belfast Giants and 4000 screaming fans at our home games."
Belfast will be starting their 2005-2006 league campaign with a home fixture against Newcastle Vipers on September 9th.
Basingstoke Bison will be without the services of netminder Ronnie Vogel, who has decided not to return for the second year of his two-year contract.  Coach Mark Bernard was deeply disappointed with Vogel's decision, but maintained a philosophical outlook.  "This stings a lot because contract have ben signed and commitments made but players look at things differently I suppose," says Bernard.  "I hope Mr Vogel finds what he wants and I wish him luck. There are plenty of great goalies still available and who knows this could be a blessing in disguise!"
Basingstoke may have lost Vogel, but they have gained the services of British defenceman Shane Moore, and Mark Bernard is looking forward to adding him to the Bison squad, saying "I like the fact he doesn't back down from anyone and plays a physical game, he has a lot to learn and a lot of mistakes to make but I feel he will learn from those and turn into a very solid defenceman."
British player David Clarke has put pen to paper again for the Nottingham Panthers, despite keen interest from other teams.  Coach Mike Blaisdell is happy with the signing, saying  “Not surprisingly there wasn’t a club in the country that didn’t want David’s signature, and there were several teams abroad that were talking to him also, but David knows what to expect in Nottingham just as we know what to expect from him. I am delighted he has agreed to return and I’m certain he will have another big and important season with our club."
Matt Myers and Richard Wojciak have also both pledged their allegiances to the Nottingham Panthers for the forthcoming season, and will be joining returnees Geoff Woolhouse and Calle Carlsson in the team now headed by Mike Blaisdell, who is wasting no time in forming his new team.  "Quality British players will be a big part of my plans for the drive for honours in the coming season," says Blaisdell.
Newcastle Vipers have added brawn to their team with the signing from Belfast Giants of enforcer Mel Angelstad.  The ex-Washington Capitals player was second in the league for penalty minutes last season, behind Andre Payette of Coventry, and the Vipers are keen to let Angelstad off the leash on the Newcastle ice.  Coach Rob Wilson is excited at the prospect, saying "We have been working very hard behind the scenes to secure the impact players that we need in our first Elite League campaign.  I am very pleased to say that Mel Angelstad has agreed to join us for the upcoming season.  We set out to build a team that will compete at the highest level and in Mel we have a vastly experienced player from North America who has a lot to offer the team."
Tom Watkins has committed himself to the Coventry Blaze for yet another season, having been with the club since 2000.  The versatile third-liner has made a suitable impression on Blaze coach Paul Thompson, who reveals that "Last year Tommy played centre, right wing, left wing, right defence and left defence.  He is totally dependable, the sort of player you need in any successful side.  He is a class player and is very effective.  Established players from other teams were noticing him and commenting on him to me.  Tom is getting respect at the Elite League level for his performances and I thought his third line was instrumental in our success.  Tommy has grown as a player, and he has the maturity to be a great performer at Elite League level."
Watkins reveals one of the reasons he's so keen to stay with the Coventry team.  "A lot of money has been raised for the Birmingham Children's Hospital since my son Sam was born with medical complications, by the fans and the players and the club, and their support is one of the strongest reasons I want to stay here," he says.
by Richard Allan