Arrival of the flying squad

Over here: Basketball and ice-hockey start new seasons leading an import boom in British sport. Andrew Baker reports
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The Independent Online
Britain's ice hockey clubs are stocking up. All week, airport arrivals lounges have trembled to the footfalls of imported players: the inaugural Super League season is launched this week, and none of the teams wants to be caught short.

"They have been flying in from all over the place," Gary Moran, marketing manager of the Nottingham Panthers, said. "The sport is at a crossroads, the team is at a crossroads - what can you do? You just have to get your head down and go for it."

What the Panthers have gone for is strength in depth. They have often had titles and trophies torn from their grasp in the past because of inconvenient injury crises: but not this time. Marti Dallman, an old friend of the Panthers coach Mike Blaisdell, has been recruited from the Austrian league; Greg Hadden, Jeff Hoad and the netminder Trevor Robins have been lured across the Atlantic from the East Coast league, and that is just the half of it: in all, the Panthers have added eight players to their roster.

But it may not be enough, because other Super League sides have had similar ideas. The Bosman judgment has had a profound effect on the European ice hockey scene: British coaches need no longer confine their covetous gazes to NHL veterans. "The Bosman thing opens up the whole of Europe as your farm system, if you want," Rick Brebant, coach of the Newcastle Warriors, said. Brebant, armed with Sir John Hall's wallet, has been shopping. But he is quick to point out that he is not bringing in unworldly European players to be cannon-fodder for other teams' ex-NHL toughs. "All my players have a background in the North American game," he said. "They are all pros, and players have to be adaptable. They can play rough-style hockey - any player in the world can take a hit."

Taking a leaf out of Kevin Keegan's book, Brebant has gone for quantity as well as quality: he's brought in "15 or 16 players". It seems that he is going to need them: Brebant already has an injury crisis. "It's unbelievable," he lamented. "Here I am making preparations, losing players... I got one with a broken ankle, one with a knee, no, two with knees, it's awful..."

The team that he and all the other bosses must pursue is the Sheffield Steelers, last year's grand slam winners. Alex Dampier, the Sheffield coach, knows that his life is about to get harder. He chooses a pool analogy. "We got caught behind the eight-ball a bit," he said, "because we had players signed on long-term contracts and then this Bosman thing came along." But he has brought in "one or two good guys". Other coaches please note: a "good guy" in Dampier's book is, for instance, Jamie Leach, who has played more than 100 games in the NHL.

Peter Woods, the Basingstoke coach, is proud to have attracted Blake Knox from the Edmonton Oilers. Like all his fellow coaches, Woods is convinced that the coming season is going to be the hardest ever. "I think the level of play is going to be a lot stronger," he said. "Every team will be competitive. I think the league will be very exciting and very close."

No doubt. But some within the game are worried that the influx of imports will stifle the careers of promising British juniors. Gary Moran doesn't think so. "You've got to move with the times," he declared. His son, a 13-year-old junior player with the Panthers, may not agree.

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