New-look NIHL structure backed by Hull Pirates and Sheffield Steeldogs

YORKSHIRE rivals Hull Pirates and Sheffield Steeldogs have both welcomed proposals to create a new second tier of ice hockey in the UK.

When the puck drops on a new NIHL season in 2019-20, there will be a new league structure in place.

Proposals have been put forward by the National Ice Hockey League Management Group (NLMG) which will effectively create a new national league above the current North 1 and South 1 Divisions.

It’s thought the new league will contain eight teams, with Hull and Sheffield being joined by Telford Tigers, Peterborough Phantoms, London Raiders and Swindon Wildcats in already confirming their intentions to make the switch. It’s thought Basingstoke Bison and Bracknell Bees are the other two teams that will make the switch.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Consultation on a possible new structure has been ongoing between the NIHL and member clubs since last October, with the proposals expected to be rubber-stamped at a meeting on Saturday, March 16.

That meeting is also expected to confirm the teams who will compete in North 1 and South 1 for the 2019-20 campaign.

Shane Smith, owner of Hull Pirates, who are currently locked in a three-way battle for the North 1 title with Sheffield and Telford Tigers, which is expected to go down to the final weekend of the regular season on March 16 and 17, is committed to the new structure. He hopes it will bridge gap between the stand-alone Elite League and the rest of the UK game which many participants and supporters feel has widened since the English Premier League crumbled two years ago.

“We intend to participate in the new second tier,” said Smith. “It promises to be an exciting and competitive league and will be good for the sport as a whole.”

Pirates player-coach, Jason Hewitt, is convinced the new structure will better aid the development of British players.

Hull Pirates' player-coach Jason Hewitt. Picture courtesy of Hull Pirates.

“It’s what is needed,” said Hewitt, a fomer GB international. “Clearly with some of the results in our league, it is not the right fit to develop British players.

“Players develop far better when they are playing at a more competitive level on a more regular basis. It makes it a better game for the players, the fans watching and, I think, the sport in general in this country.”

Hewitt’s opposite number at the Steeldogs, Ben Morgan, also welcomed the news.

“From a playing point of view, a spectating point of view, from a business point of view I think it will bring about a positive change,” said Morgan, whose team last year won the North One regular season title.

Sheffield Steeldogs' player-coach, Ben Morgan. Picture courtesy of Sheffield Steeldogs/Peter Best.

“It will also be good for the teams in the league below us as they want competitive fixtures too.”

The intention of the proposals is to make all levels of hockey as competitive as possible from 2019-20, both in the newly-created second tier as well as those teams who will remain at NIHL One level and below.

A number of games throughout the two seasons that the current NIHL One formal has been in place have proved to be too one-sided, with fans opting to stay away from such fixtures. It is hoped the new structure will create a more level playing field from top-to-bottom.

"We are grateful to the clubs for their patience while this process has followed its course," said an NLMG spokesman

"The result is a viable structure which we believe has the support of all interested parties. We look forward to seeing all club representatives at the meeting where the aim is to have all divisions planned so everyone knows where they stand for next season."