State of the Nation – Elite League and NIHL frozen out heading into 2021

Like many sports, ice hockey remains at the mercy of Covid-19 as we enter 2021.

By Phil Harrison
Tuesday, 5th January 2021, 10:20 am
Steelers, pictured in action in 2019.

A one-off behind-closed-doors series aside, a puck hasn’t been dropped in senior hockey since the middle of March.

After a series of false dawns – particularly in the top-tier Elite League, which had initially hoped to return in October – there is still no firm date for when the action will return on a permanent basis.

As it stands, the EIHL is hoping to put on some kind of competition together in February but will not know if it has been successful in securing up to £4m worth of DCMS funding until the middle of January, money that would soften the huge financial blow of not having any fans allowed back in.

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Even then, they may not wish to proceed with their application if it turns out the funding on offer – only available to the five English-based teams including Sheffield Steelers – is in the form of loans.

Two of the 10 EIHL teams – Fife and Dundee – have already made it clear they would prefer to wait it out until the start of the 2021-22 season next September, while the other three teams – Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast – will have to try and source similar kind of funding from their own respective devolved administrations.

One tier below in NIHL National, the picture is hardly any better, with the spread of areas across the UK going into Tier 4 only fuelling the fear that hockey is as far away from returning permanently than it ever has been in the past nine months.

The three-team behind-closed-doors Streaming Series involving Sheffield Steeldogs brought hope with its promising online viewing figures.

And, just before Christmas, the league which also features Steeldogs’ Yorkshire rivals Hull Pirates and Leeds Chiefs, received a boost when they were told they could apply for a share of £1.2m in funding from the government, along with the two divisions below.

But even if the funding proves enough of an incentive to get the sport back up and running at the higher levels again – played in empty rinks with games streamed online – hockey will never truly be back until the fans themselves return.