AFTER three years away, Paddy O’Connor is back as chairman of Newcastle Vipers determined to cure British ice hockey’s ills.
IT would normally be described as a “warm-up” for the new season, but when Newcastle Vipers return to the ice for Saturday’s visit of Edinburgh Capitals it will be more of a getting-to-know-you exercise.
Fans watching any of this week’s three exhibition games ahead of the September 18 trip to Sheffield Steelers could be forgiven for wondering if they have stumbled across the wrong match. Only youngster Jamie Tinsley survived new player-coach Danny Stewart’s cull.
For those yearning familiarity, there will at least be one comforting reminder of the glory days. Paddy O’Connor, chairman when the Vipers ended their debut Elite League season as play-off champions, has returned after three years to find it is not just his local franchise in a far less healthy state.
Predictably, then, the former Durham Wasp and Great Britain international brings a manifesto for change.
This was the summer Hull Stingrays went bust, the fourth team to leave the league since O’Connor’s first spell began five years ago. Phoenix-like they rose from the ashes after a 13th-hour intervention by the owners of Coventry Blaze.
Nevertheless, it was a warning to the whole league, and one O’Connor is in no mood to ignore.
This year’s roster has been stripped of experience and star quality – GB internationals David Longstaff, Ben Campbell and Jez Lundin leaving for better offers with Guildford Flames of the supposedly-inferior English Premier League.
“Changes are required,” says O’Connor. “There’s a fair amount of people around the boardroom table in the Elite League that need to see changes and will be pushing for that.
“History repeats itself in sport, it always has, and we’re starting to get a little bit close to the old Super League days, where things got into trouble and folded.”
Rather than take on the EPL, O’Connor wants to unite.
“I would like to see the two merge but to get the heads knocked together will be pretty tough,” he argues. “You would see more energy and a better product if you were playing a Northern zone and a Southern zone in a league of 18 or 20 teams split into two with cross-over games. It would keep costs down and you would get a better standard of performance.
“We used to have the old relegation system. Why not? Right now the fight at the bottom is just to not finish bottom. There’s got to be an incentive. If you are relegated there’s got to be a sensible parachute payment.
“Hopefully, we can get everyone to see sense for the longevity of the game. We need to look at how the NHL works. They’re affiliated to an American League club and an East Coast League club, and so on and so forth going all the way down to the juniors.”
In his first spell, O’Connor turned Sunderland Chiefs into the ENL Vipers – effectively the reserves. Now they have cut the apron strings – with O’Connor’s blessing – to become the Northern Stars, the plan is for Whitley Warriors to become the feeder club.
“We’ve spoken with (Warriors coach) Simon Leach, who’s a good friend of mine,” he adds. “Him and Danny Stewart are in contact now discussing players. If we had a player injured and we’d like him to get back to fitness he could help Simon. And if they don’t have a game and we have some bench slots ...”
It is all part of a common-sense approach seeping into British sport. Even Premier League football has not been immune as all but Manchester City draw in their horns. It cost Aston Villa their manager when Martin O’Neill appeared to reject the new reality.
“One thing I wanted to bring this year is an attitude that we’re not exonerated from the rules of business,” says O’Connor. “We can only match the wage bill with the revenue generated.
“I admire Hull for what they did. They could have started the season, got halfway through and got into trouble. No matter what business you are, you can only spend what you generate.”
However, talking about sound financial management and practicing it are two different things in sport. O’Connor might find imposing it on the Elite League even harder than restoring the Vipers to their former glory.