Hull, Leeds and Sheffield rivals back new NIHL National format and structure for 2019-20

YORKSHIRE'S rival coaches have welcomed the structure and format of the new NIHL National league for the 2019-20 season.

RIVAL CAMPS: Hull Pirates' player-coach Jason Hewitt, left, Leeds Chiefs' Sam Zajac and Sheffield Steeldogs' Ben Morgan.

Hull Pirates, Leeds Chiefs and Sheffield Steeldogs will form part of the UK game second tier's latest incarnation as part of a new 10-team league which will face off for the first time in mid-September.

In all, the three Yorkshire clubs will face each other eight times - four times at home and four away - during the course of a 52-game regular season. Telford Tigers and Milton Keynes Lightning will join the three Yorkshire rivals in one of two yet-to-be named conferences.

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Swindon Wildcats, Bracknell Bees, Basingstoke Bison, Peterborough Phantoms and London-based Raiders will make up the other conference, with teams scheduled to play rivals from the other conference twice at home and twice on the road.

The post-season has also been refreshed, with the top eight teams in the overall league standings making the playoffs. Once there, they will play in two groups of four, playing each other home and away with the top two from each group going through to the traditional season-ending Play-off Final Four Weekend in Coventry.

In addition, there will be a National Cup, although this will see the first home league game for each club against the nine other clubs count towards the qualifying standings, with the top four qualifying for semi-finals which will be staged before Christmas.

Jason Hewitt, player-coach of Hull, whose team won the NIHL North One league title and North play-off title before ending the season with the National play-off crown, welcomed the new proposals.

"Last year it was a 36-game regular season and if you’re trying to contend, you could lose a couple of games and that was your season gone, so I’m pleased it is a longer regular season," said former GB international Hewitt.

Sheffield Steeldogs and Hull Pirates, seen in action during their final NIHL North One clash at Ice Sheffield last season, will have a third local rival to contend with in 2019-20 with the formation of Leeds Chiefs. Picture: Charlotte Flanagan.

"It’s going to be hard to win the league this time around, but the one thing that will be different is that everybody is going to take points off each other. What we did last season gives us that self-belief as an organisation that we are there and we can compete and beat anybody at this level."

Ben Morgan, whose Steeldogs team lifted the North Cup last time out while finishing runners-up to Hull in the regular season North One standings, is particularly pleased to see a return to the group play-off format, something he last experienced when with the Steeldogs' previous incarnation the Sheffield Scimitars back in 2007-08 in the now-defunct EPIHL.

On that occasion Sheffield topped their group only to lose out in a one-off semi-final to Bracknell, who subsequently lost to Slough in the final.

"I’m over the moon about it to be honest," said player-coach Morgan. "The format for the last two years in the old league was a little bit hectic, for ourselves especially. We played in every single possible game barring the play-off final and to our standards as good as we want to make it and as professional as we want to make it, when you play nigh-on 70 games a season it’s quite taxing.

"But the thing that particularly pleases me is the play-off format - going back into two groups and not just doing it as a double-header do-or-die against the one team is much better and you can treat it almost like a separate campaign."

Both Morgan and Hewitt will find themselves up against a complete new entity in 2019-20 in the shape of a new Yorkshire rival Leeds, who will play out of a brand new rink on Elland Road.

First-time player-coach Sam Zajac, who spent the last two seasons playing for hometown club Whitley Warriors under David Longstaff, said he is particularly looking forward to the 16 derby dates against Hull and Sheffield.

"When you look at both conferences, they are pretty evenly matched," said Zajac. "Every team, the way they are shaping up so far, there is not going to be much in it and I think it’s going to be tight all the way from 1-10. That is something that has been sorely lacking in the last couple of years.

"For the three Yorkshire clubs, it is going to be great because it is only going to strengthen the rivalry because we’ll see so much of each other throughout the regular season."