Великобритания - Елитна Лига

Великобритания - Елитна Лига

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The Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), sometimes referred to as the British Elite League or, for sponsorship reasons, the Viaplay Elite League, is an ice hockey league in the United Kingdom. Formed in 2003 following the demise of the Ice Hockey Superleague, it is the highest level of ice hockey competition in the United Kingdom.

The league operate three competitions for members; the play-offs determine the national champion for the season, following a regular season league competition for which separate champions are also crowned, and which selects and seeds the teams in the play-offs. Finally, a stand-alone cup competition, the Challenge Cup, is also held annually including only EIHL teams, beginning with the group stages followed by a knock-out format. In effect, the play-off final, regular end-of-season table and Challenge Cup final crown the British or National Champions, the EIHL League champions and the Cup champions respectively.

The league currently consists of one division of ten teams, with representation from all four nations of the United Kingdom – the only league in any sport to do so. Five of the teams as of 2023 are situated in England, while the other five are spread throughout the Celtic nations; 3 in Scotland, 1 each in Wales and Northern Ireland. In fourteen completed seasons the league championship has been won by five different teams, while the play-offs have crowned six different teams as national champions.

A system of promotion and relegation is not operated by the Elite League; teams enter the league on the basis of a decision by the board of directors. A similar system operates in most American sport, and also in various competitions in Britain and Ireland, including the British Basketball League, the United Rugby Championship, the Netball Superleague and the Hundred and County Championship in English and Welsh cricket.

Despite this, other organised ice-hockey does take place in Great Britain. The level below the Elite League is the National Ice Hockey League, and historically teams have moved between the two leagues for competitive and financial reasons, by agreement of the respective leagues' management.

Internationally, teams from the EIHL can participate in the IIHF's annual Champions Hockey League (CHL), competing for the European Trophy. Participation is based on the strength of the various leagues in Europe (excluding the European/Asian Kontinental Hockey League). Going into the 2022–23 CHL season, the EIHL was ranked the No. 8 league in Europe, allowing them to send their top team to compete in the CHL.

The day-to-day operation of the league is overseen by a Chairman (as of 2023, Tony Smith), a Director of Hockey Operations (Michael Hicks), Media Manager / Hockey Operations (Luke Fisher) and a board of directors. Disciplinary matters are handled by EIHL Hockey Operation's Department of Player Safety (DOPS).


Early years, 2003–2010

British ice hockey's structure underwent a major reorganisation in 1996. The British Hockey League (the highest senior competition since 1982, featuring the top two divisions of the sport) was disbanded and replaced by the Ice Hockey Superleague (top tier) and British National League (second tier).

The loss of the Cardiff Devils and the Newcastle Jesters in 2001 reduced the membership of the Superleague to seven; and when the Manchester Storm and the Scottish Eagles folded within a week of one another at the beginning of the 2002–03 season, there were just five remaining teams. In December 2002, the Bracknell Bees announced their intention to resign from the league to join the BNL at the end of the season; and uncertainty surrounded the future of the London Knights and their London Arena home; which ultimately led to the Knights folding in 2003. Owing a large debt to Ice Hockey UK and facing the prospect of having only three members, the league placed itself into liquidation on 30 April 2003.

The three remaining clubs (Belfast Giants, Nottingham Panthers, and Sheffield Steelers) began considering the formation of a new league with a lower wage cap and larger commitment to British players to attract other clubs into joining them. In the weeks that followed they were joined by the Basingstoke Bison, Cardiff Devils, and Coventry Blaze of the British National League and two new organisations, from London and Manchester. A team based in Glasgow was also planned, but did not come to fruition. The new league met considerable opposition from the British National League and the governing body Ice Hockey UK. The IHUK wished for the remaining Superleague clubs to integrate themselves into the BNL and initially refused to grant the new league affiliation. The Superleague clubs were reluctant to join the predominantly British-trained league after several years of playing in an import-dominated league where British players were seldom able to step up to the standard of their North American and European counterparts. The Elite League instead preferred a twelve import limit with the rest of the team being British-trained players.[]

The refusal to grant affiliation caused a bitter row that showed little sign of being resolved. Despite not having the support of the governing body, the new league continued their plans. No affiliation would have meant that the clubs would have problems attaining work permits for their signings and finding officials to referee their matches. The row also threatened the future of the Nottingham Panthers, as the National Ice Centre were reluctant to allow a team from an unaffiliated league to hire their arena. The issue was resolved in August 2003 when the Panthers and the NIC announced an icetime agreement. The EIHL finally gained affiliation in August 2003, with only weeks to go before the beginning of the new season.

The new league began on 12 September 2003, when the Sheffield Steelers, who went on to become the inaugural league champions, defeated the newly formed London Racers 6–1 at Alexandra Palace. Charles, Prince of Wales dropped the first puck, after unveiling a plaque. The Racers endured a difficult first season, moving to a different rink only weeks into the season and having to wait 40 games to record a win, a 3–0 victory over the Cardiff Devils. The Racers finished the season with 10 points, 38 points behind second-to-last Basingstoke. The other new team, the Manchester Phoenix, fared slightly better, qualifying for the playoff finals after finishing sixth in the league, where they were defeated 6–1 by Nottingham in the semifinal. The club played at the 17,500 capacity MEN Arena which had been home to the Manchester Storm, but Phoenix crowds averaged 2,250, well below the break-even mark of 3,000. Late in the season, the Phoenix choose to play a game at IceSheffield rather than pay the considerable cost of hiring the arena for a mid-week game (which usually had lower attendances). In the close season they allowed fans to vote on the option of either suspending playing operations while a new rink was constructed or playing in exile away from Manchester while a new rink was built. Supporters opted to suspend playing operations pending the construction of a new facility.

The second season of the EIHL saw a series of games between the EIHL clubs and the members of the BNL. In addition to three home games and three away games against their Elite opponents, each club also played one home game and one away game against the BNL clubs in crossover match-ups. Results in these crossover games counted towards a team's points tally. The NHL lock-out also saw a number of NHL players join British clubs. Coventry won all three titles, winning the championship with an overtime victory over the Nottingham Panthers.

The crossover games with the BNL clubs were seen by many to be the first stage towards an amalgamation of the two organizations into one league; essentially reforming the original BHL. However, early in the season it was revealed that two teams from the BNL, the Edinburgh Capitals and Newcastle Vipers, were seeking to resign from the BNL and join the EIHL; preferring the standard of hockey that the EIHL had to offer. A withdrawal of these clubs would leave the BNL with only five remaining participating teams. This situation led to the resigning teams temporarily withdrawing their Elite League applications and entering into collective discussions on the entire BNL joining the EIHL instead. The Elite League offered the BNL clubs invitations to join the EIHL structure, which were declined by the remaining teams due to unfavourable terms. Subsequently, the Capitals and Vipers both resubmitted individual applications to the Elite League; both of which were accepted. This ultimately led to the dissolution of the BNL, with the five remaining teams joining the next tier of British hockey (which consisted of the English Premier Ice Hockey League in England and the Scottish National League in Scotland).[]

With the Edinburgh Capitals and Newcastle Vipers becoming the ninth and tenth members of the league, the 2005–06 season began with nine clubs (Manchester had opted to take another season out with no rink yet constructed). However, in November 2005, the London Racers withdrew their team from competition and immediately ceased operations. From their formation the Racers had suffered problems finding a rink with comparable facilities to those of their rivals and they had maintained only a very small fan base. The club had made the Lee Valley Ice Centre their home after playing only a small number of games at the Alexandra Palace in their first season. The facilities were very basic, seating only 900 people with an overall capacity of barely 1,000. In November 2005, during a game against the Nottingham Panthers; Panthers player Blaž Emeršič suffered a serious facial injury after colliding with a protruding object in the boards. Further concerns were raised when a game against the Sheffield Steelers was abandoned after a piece of plexiglas shattered in an irregular manner, injuring a spectator. When a similar event took place during practice a few days later; the Racers management began to question seriously the safety of the rink. With the Ice Centre unable to ensure the safety of players and spectators at Elite League games, the Racers were forced to suspend team operations effective immediately.

In January 2006, the Manchester Phoenix were granted planning permission to construct a new rink in Altrincham. A few weeks later, the Cardiff Devils also received planning permission for the construction of a new rink. The Wales National Ice Rink was earmarked for demolition and a campaign for the council to provide a new facility proved successful. With both clubs confirming their intent to take part the following season, speculation began about the possible inclusion of a tenth team to replace the London Racers. After the season was over, rumours about the possible admission of either Hull or Dundee became more and more widespread. On 22 June 2006, the Hull Stingrays were formally elected into the Elite Ice Hockey League as the tenth active member.

In June 2006, the EIHL announced the adoption of the "zero tolerance" interpretation of the rules with regard to holding, hooking and interference implemented in the National Hockey League during the 2005–06 season. These rules had proved highly successful in the NHL, increasing the pace of the game and leading to a rise in spectator numbers.

On 25 August 2006, the Elite League announced a sponsorship deal with the low cost airline bmibaby. The agreement saw the company's name incorporated into the league's title and the airline's branding at each of the league's ten arenas. The deal was intended to last for seven seasons, but ended prematurely during the 2008–09 season.

On 30 April 2009, the Manchester Phoenix announced that they would withdraw from the league, and play instead in the English Premier Ice Hockey League, due to cost issues. This news followed the announcement that the Basingstoke Bison were also leaving to play in the EPL for the 2009–10 season.

League expands and changes, 2010–2020

After losing two teams at the end of the 2008–09 season the Elite League was boosted by a new franchise joining the league. The Braehead Clan were announced as the ninth team for the 2010–11 season. On 27 April 2010, the Dundee Stars were unanimously accepted into the League by the EIHL board as the tenth team.

The Hull Stingrays withdrew from the League on 11 August 2010, announced via the club's official website, and later confirmed on the BBC's site. However, after a takeover from the Coventry Blaze on 17 August 2010, the Hull Stingrays confirmed that they would indeed be participating in the league for the 2010–11 season. The Stingrays again withdrew, on 24 June 2015, as the club announced on its official website that it has been placed into liquidation.

From the 2013–14 season onwards, the league has consisted of two conferences; each consisting of five teams. These are the Erhardt Conference and the Gardiner Conference. These can roughly be split into north and south, with the Erhardt featuring the teams from Belfast, Cardiff, Coventry, Nottingham, and Sheffield; and the Gardiner featuring the teams from Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife, and Glasgow along with Hull Stingrays until 2015, and their replacements Manchester Storm from 2015 onwards.

On 27 April 2017 it was announced that the Milton Keynes Lightning and Guildford Flames were joining for the start of the 2017–18 season and that the league schedule would be increased to 56 games in the regular season with three new conferences of four teams.

Conference 1 consisted of the Braehead Clan, Dundee Stars, Edinburgh Capitals and Fife Flyers known as the Scottish Conference.

Conference 2 consisted of the Coventry Blaze, Guildford Flames, Manchester Storm and Milton Keynes Lightning known as the Southern Conference.

Conference 3 consisted of the Belfast Giants, Cardiff Devils, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers known as the Arena Teams. This meant that teams would play teams in their own conference eight times (four home and four away) totaling 24 games and play the other conference's teams four times (two home and two away) totaling 32 games, giving the league a total of 56 games.

In April 2018, when the Murrayfield Ice Rink asked for bidders for the ice time at the arena, the Edinburgh Capitals and Murrayfield Racers (a newly formed team) bid for the rights with the Racers winning the opportunity. The Racers asked for permission to join the EIHL, but on 30 April the league refused their application and they subsequently joined the Scottish National League (SNL).

On 4 May, the EIHL released a statement explaining that they would have to move forward without the Edinburgh Capitals with a board meeting on 22 May to discuss the league future format and decide on any clubs wishing to participate in place of Edinburgh.

After the conclusion of the 2018–19 season, the Milton Keynes Lightning officially left the EIHL after just two seasons in the league and moved to the newly created National Ice Hockey League (NIHL), returning the number of teams to 10. The three conference format was also scrapped.

Recent years, 2020–

The 2019–20 EIHL season was cancelled in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only the Challenge Cup (won by Sheffield Steelers) was awarded with both the league and play-offs cancelled.

The 2020–21 EIHL season, originally scheduled for a September start, was suspended indefinitely on September 15, 2020, due to ongoing coronavirus restrictions and continuing social distancing which made the league season a non-starter.

While there were tentative plans for a shortened league season, featuring a handful of sides to potentially begin play in January 2021, this idea - and the prospect of a 2020–21 season - were shelved by the league in February 2021 due to concerns around funding.

Then, in March 2021, the Elite League announced that four of the English teams (Coventry, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield) would take part in the 'Elite Series' between April–May 2021, a total of 24 games to be played at Nottingham's Motorpoint Arena, culminating in a best-of-three play-off final series. Nottingham claimed the trophy by virtue of a 2–0 series win over the Sheffield Steelers in the final, winning game one 5-3 and game two 5–2.

In the 2021–22 EIHL season, the first full season to be completed since 2018–19 due to the impacts of the Covid pandemic, the Belfast Giants won both the Elite League title and the Challenge Cup, while the Cardiff Devils won the play-offs.

In May 2022, all ten Elite League clubs agreed to increase the gameday roster size from 19 to 20 - to take effect from the 2022–23 season. Import numbers in a gameday squad were once again capped at 14.