Hope remains on table as Elite League teams strive for belated 2021 start

ELITE LEAGUE chairman Tony Smith remains hopeful that top-flight teams will be able to return to playing in some format early next year.

BRING IT BACK: Top-flight ice hockey, involving the likes of Sheffield Steelers could return in February. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

No EIHL play has been possible since towards the end of the 2019-20 campaign back in March when ice hockey, like sport and countless other activities, was brought to an abrupt halt by the coronavirus pandemic.

While other top-flight sport has subsequently got up and running again – such as football, cricket and rugby league – hockey in the UK has been unable to join them, with teams simply unable to operate without the income generated by spectators, who remain unable to watch games because of the virus, and the offer of any central government funding.

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Last month, however, the chance of accessing such funding took a positive turn when the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced £4m was available to EIHL clubs, or at least the five teams based in England, including Smith’s own Sheffield Steelers.

Sheffield Steelers' head coach and GM Aaron Fox, left, and Elite League chairman and Steelers' owner, Tony Smith. Picture: Dean Woolley.

News of the potential cash windfall prompted declarations by some team owners that top-flight hockey could return in early January.

However, applying for the funding and establishing how much of it will be in grants or loans is no simple process, meaning it is more likely to be February at the earliest before a puck is dropped. If at all.

As it stands, any kind of top-flight competition that does take place will not include Fife Flyers and Dundee Stars, who have already declared they are prepared to wait until the return of the regular 2021-22 EIHL season before taking to the ice.

And while the Steelers and their four English rivals can potentially boost their coffers, it remains to be seen whether Cardiff Devils, Glasgow Clan and Belfast Giants can source similar amounts from their respective devolved administrations.

In the meantime, Smith said it is a case of being patient.

“There is an awful lot to do in terms of applying for the funding and a huge amount of paperwork involved,” he explained.

“But we are ploughing through that and we’re making progress. We think it will be mid-January before we get the absolute thumbs-up as to what form the funding takes, how much is in grants and how much is in loans, for example.

“The process is perhaps more time-consuming than we imagined, but that might not be a bad thing as it buys some time in terms of knowing what the situation will be in mid-January in terms of the virus – things could be a whole lot different, we could all be in Tier 4 by that time.

“But we’re through the first stage of approval and there is another stage due to be completed on January 15.”

Smith insisted that, aside from Dundee and Fife, the remaining EIHL clubs still had the appetite to compete in early 2021.

“It won’t be January, I think everyone accepts that now,” added Smith.

“The ultimate aim is to try and get some sort of ice hockey this season if we can – if we can do that it is going to maintain a connection with the fanbase for all the clubs.

“We’re still hoping we get more than the English clubs involved, we haven’t ruled out Cardiff, Belfast or Glasgow.

“Dundee and Fife made it clear to the rest of us that they wouldn’t be willing to go and that they wanted to mothball until August-September next year.

“Every team’s (business) model is different to everyone else’s and it is down to each owner to make the decision and the rest of us totally respect that.”

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