Welcome again to the latest look back at previous seasons in the Elite League. We’re up to season number three in this edition, it’s time to cast our eyes back to the 2005-06 season.
After the Grand Slam the previous year, all eyes were on the Coventry Blaze to see if they could repeat the feat or would they be a one trick pony as the saying goes. The League itself had expanded from the previous campaign with Newcastle Vipers and Edinburgh Capitals starting their first seasons in the EIHL after the collapse of the BNL which took the number of teams to nine. However, only eight would finish the seasons as the London Racers folded mid-season after rink problems throughout. London’s playing record was expunged which meant each team played a total of 42 league games. It proved to be the last season we would see a team from the Capital in the top flight of British hockey.
Back to the league itself, and it was a first ever EIHL title to head over to Northern Ireland. Belfast had decided before a puck was dropped to not compete in the Challenge Cup, as they couldn’t guarantee ice time and it proved to be a gamble that paid off as they were never headed and took the Monteith Bowl for the first time in this new structure (they had won the old Superleague in 2001-02); an impressive feat for a club that was only six years old. Newcomers Newcastle pushed them hard but their hopes ended in early March with an unexpected loss away to fellow newcomers Edinburgh. Both Cardiff and Sheffield had poor seasons, finishing 5th and 6th respectively.
In the Challenge Cup, the eight teams that did take part were divided into two groups of four with the four most southern teams making up Group A and consequently the four northern based ones made up Group B. From these groups, Cardiff and Coventry prevailed from Group A and Nottingham and Newcastle from Group B. Both semi-finals proved to be close with Cardiff seeing off the Vipers 3-2 on aggregate, and the Blaze edging past the Panthers in a goal-laden encounter: 8-7 over two legs. So we had a repeat of the previous season’s Challenge Cup Final and most thought it was going to stay in Coventry as the Blaze racked up a 3-0 advantage in the first leg played at the Sky Dome, all the goals coming in the first 13 minutes. But the Devils roared back in the second leg, inspired by Canadian winger Nathan Rempel, whom they acquired after London’s collapse. The winger scored twice and assisted on another to erase the deficit before halfway. Jeff Hutchins edged the Blaze back in front but Rempel completed an incredible hat-trick with just 20 seconds left to force overtime. Overtime couldn’t separate the teams so penalties were needed, Rejean Stringer was the only player to score and it meant the comeback was complete.
So two trophies down, and two different clubs as winner. Could either make it a double season or would there be a different one again for the Play-Offs. Both Cardiff and Belfast made the final four but that’s where it ended for both as they were defeated by Sheffield and Newcastle respectively. I personally missed this as I was recovering from a major knee operation, and it would have been heartbreak if I had been there anyway as the Vipers stung the Steelers with a come from behind win; former Steeler David Longstaff scoring the game winning goal. A nice ending to a dèbut season for the North-East club.
Meanwhile there was also European action as the Blaze represented the EIHL in the Continental Cup trophy. Paul Thompson’s side entered at the second round stage, but that was as good as it was for them as they exited at the same stage: beaten 2-0 in a winner takes all game with hosting club Grenoble. This was also the season when we saw the last ever hockey played in the old Wales National Ice Rink before the Devils relocated to the “Big Blue Tent” and we had the privilege of seeing NHL superstar Theo Fleury grace these shores as a member of the Belfast Giants.
Who would come out on top in 2006-07, join us next week to find out.