The sport as a whole was this morning given a sizeable shot in the arm after it was confirmed the amount they were to be awarded is a total of £2.7m in funding as part of the Government’s Winter Sports Survival Package.
The vast majority of the funding – in the form of a mix of loans and grants – will go towards financing the top-flight, behind-closed-doors tournament at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre in April, while £400,000 has also been allocated to the English Ice Hockey Association, which will help pay towards the ongoing Spring Cup and other events that have been staged in recent weeks.
Smith’s own club, Sheffield Steelers, will fight it out against EIHL rivals Nottingham Panthers, Coventry Blaze and Manchester Storm across five weeks in the Elite Series, which starts on April 3. Each team will play 12 ‘regular season’ matches – facing off against each other four times – followed by two, two-leg semi-finals, the winners of which go through to contest a best-of-three playoff final.
It will be welcome news for the sport, which has largely been mothballed since March last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The other six EIHL teams are not taking part because they were not awarded similar funding from their deveolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with Guildford Flames being the only English-based club to opt out. All 10 teams are set to resume competitive action in September for what they hope will be a regular 2021-22 season with the hope being that fans, by then, will be allowed back in to watch games.
The Elite Series – which will see all games streamed live online to paying fans – is also designed to help the Great Britain men’s national ice hockey team in their preparations for the IIHF World Championship later this year in Riga, Latvia, when they will face the likes of world-leading nations such as Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Some of those players expected to be pushing for a place in head coach PEte Russell’s squad, are currently playing in the NIHL National Spring Cup, which finishes on March 28.
“In an ever-changing landscape caused by the pandemic, it is testament to the collective power that everyone pulling together can bring that we are going to stage a four-team top-flight event which will give fans something to cheer,” said Smith.
“At the same time, the best players in the country will get a chance to compete for a place on the plane to the World Championships. Without this series, the GB players could have landed badly underprepared for games against the world’s elite.”
The funding will cover essential costs necessary for the sport’s survival and to get back playing.
EIHA acting chair, Andrew Miller, said the governing body was grateful for the financial support. If the government’s roadplan to exit the current lockdown proceeds as planned, juniors are expected to get back on the ice on April 12, enabling them to emulate those players currently allowed to play under the ‘elite status’ rule which has enabled events such as the Spring Cup to take place.
“The government’s help and the hard work of our teams, players and staff as well as our venues has enabled us to return three competitions and around 400 athletes to the ice,” said Miller. “We look forward to a fuller return to play for more of our clubs and athletes in the coming weeks.”
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said the funding package should act as a “lifeline” for the sport and ice rinks across the country.
“The reality is that without stepping in, it would have meant 18 months of no live action,” said Huddlestone. “Visibility is important to inspire the next generation, so I’m delighted that we’ve been able to work with the relevant bodies to develop a new proposal that supports the highest level of the sport through the Elite Series, and has also given clubs at regional level the confidence to return to the ice.”
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