Leeds ice hockey secures place in newly-formed National League

LEEDS moved a significant step closer to its first-ever ice hockey team on Saturday after owners of the city's new rink were approved for membership in the newly-formed National League.

FACE OFF: Ice hockey is set to be played out of Leeds' new rink from August.

At a meeting of the English Ice Hockey Association, a new structure of the men's senior league was agreed for the 2019-20 season. The creation of a new ten-team division was approved to sit above the existing Division 1 in North and South.

The National League will comprise of a new team from Leeds, plus two Yorkshire rivals in the shape of Sheffield Steeldogs and Hull Pirates. Other teams granted membership include Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees, Hull Pirates, MK Lightning, Peterborough Phantoms, Raiders, Swindon Wildcats and Telford Tigers.

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Mark Johnson, managing director of Leeds rink operators, Planet Ice said it was an exciting development for their new premises which is expected to open its doors to an expectant skating public in the summer.

"There's a new league, it's an exciting new thing and it is at a level where we can compete," said Johnson. "We put an application in and it has been accepted. There was obviously something going on with the formation of a new league and we had to put our hat into the ring."

The identity of who will run the team out of the Leeds rink is currently unknown, although Planet Ice are known to be keen on a particular applicant after they asked for expressions of interest from prospective team operators before Christmas.

A number of people came forward with Planet Ice stating they were also open to the possibility of housing a team in either the Elite League - the top tier of British hockey - or lower down.

By having their application accepted to join what is effectively the second tier of the British game, spectators can expect to see ice hockey begin life in Leeds in August when preparations for the 2019-20 season will begin.

The site of the new Leeds ice rink on Elland Road - the venue is expected to open this summer.

The rink owners are also keen on introducing development and junior hockey to the area, but it is not known how far along in the process they are with that, with several interested parties making it known they would be keen to get involved.

One of the other notable teams accepted into the National League - other than a new team from Leeds - is that of Milton Keynes Lightning, currently operating in the Elite League. After just two seasons in the top flight, the Buckinghamshire club have found it difficult to adjust to the higher level after switching from the now defunct English Premier League.

After missing out on the playoffs in its first season under current GB head coach Pete Russell and, this season, has struggled from day one, parting company with coach Doug McKay early in the campaign and marooned in bottom spot for the majority of the campaign.

In a statement, Lightining owner Graham Moody said: "“We appreciate that some of our supporters would have preferred us to retain Elite League status. However, the long-term financial viability of the Lightning franchise is incredibly important to us - and it became unsustainable to compete at that level."

Milton Keynes's decision to step down to the second tier just two years after moving up will effectively leave the EIHL with a 10-team league too, unless they can find other teams to step up to fill the gap.

Following this morning's meeting of clubs and league officials, Paul Hayes, director of the EIHA Senior Leagues, said: "Today was a very positive meeting and the conclusion of several weeks of consultation and dialogue between the league management and our clubs.

"The structure agreed today is something of a step back to move forward, but it will be a sustainable model at all three levels with competitive games in all divisions.

"Myself and the NLMG are grateful to the clubs for their patience, support and input into the process and we look forward to an exciting end to our current NIHL season and starting work towards 2019-20."