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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 September, 2003, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Face-off for Elite ambitions
By Mark Mitchener

Sheffield Steelers in action against Cardiff Devils
Ex-Sheffield Steeler Rick Brebant (centre) is Manchester's new coach
After a year of turmoil, British ice hockey hopes to make a fresh start this weekend as the new Elite League gets under way.

Its top-flight predecessor, the Superleague, has been consigned to history after just seven seasons.

Last November, two of the league's seven teams - Manchester Storm and Scottish Eagles - withdrew because of financial pressures.

And with Bracknell Bees opting to drop into the second-tier British National League (BNL) in the summer, it became clear that reorganisation was required.

The in-fighting has got to stop - it's hurt the game
Manchester Phoenix coach Rick Brebant

But the close season was marred by a series of rather public rows between the Elite League, the BNL and the various British governing bodies - described as a "summer of discontent" by Coventry Blaze coach Paul Thompson.

Although rather confusing to the casual supporter, the whole situation brought little credit to the sport.

Manchester coach Rick Brebant, a veteran of the British domestic scene, admitted: "The in-fighting has got to stop - it's hurt the game of hockey. Some time, we've all got to move forward together."

However, the new league finally agreed affiliation with Ice Hockey UK at the end of August, and fans will no doubt be pleased when the real action starts on Friday.

Three survivors from the Superleague - Belfast, Nottingham and Sheffield - are among the eight competing clubs.

Basingstoke, Cardiff and Coventry have stepped up from the BNL, while Manchester Phoenix have been formed by fans of the old Storm club.

The closure of London Arena has meant the departure of London Knights - but the capital's challenge will come from Alexandra Palace-based London Racers.

Club-by-club guide

Basingstoke Bison

The Bison are back in the big time, having been part of the Superleague between 1996 and 1998 - but coach Steve Moria has virtually an entirely new roster as compared to last year's BNL side.

However, ex-Bracknell forward Joe Ciccarello and former London Knights defenceman Chris Slater will have key roles to play if the Hampshire club are to compete with the "bigger" arena teams.

Player to watch: Netminder Curtis Cruickshank

Belfast Giants

After three successful years at the Odyssey Arena, coach Dave Whistle has left for pastures new to take charge of Germany's Iserlohn Roosters - leaving his assistant, Rob Stewart, in charge.

Despite worries over the club's future during the summer, Stewart has brought back a number of stars from last year's play-off winners, and Belfast should still be difficult to beat on their home ice.

Player to watch: Paul Sample - the Giants' first British player

Cardiff Devils

Cardiff return to the top-flight after two years in the BNL, where they finished as play-off runners-up in 2002/3 under coach Glenn Mulvenna, who is back for another year in the Welsh capital.

Mulvenna has admitted that "continuity is important", and he has retained the core of last season's squad. Players like Mike Ware - once dubbed "The Terminator" - will ensure that the Devils will not be lacking in competitiveness this season.

Players to watch: Ex-London Knights duo Dennis Maxwell and Vezio Sacratini

Coventry Blaze

Despite winning the BNL league and play-off "double" last season, Blaze coach Paul Thompson is keeping his feet firmly on the ground - and has virtually the same side this time out, although they will be hoping to cause a few surprises.

"We may not be challenging for honours in year one, but our aim is to finish in the top six and make the play-offs. We know it's going to be tough - we've got a predominantly British team, but it's what I wanted," Thompson explained.

Player to watch: New defenceman Steve O'Brien

London Racers

The Racers have been forced into a late change of coach when Gary Carr - who had left his job as Speaker of Ontario's legislature in Canada to take charge of the team - returned home for personal reasons. His replacement is Swede Peter Ekroth, who once served Cardiff as a player.

Before his departure, Carr had put together an experienced multi-national squad at the new club, which will be something of an unknown quantity early on - but are a welcome addition to the Elite League.

Player to watch: Free-scoring Finn Jani Tuominen

Manchester Phoenix

Formed thanks to the efforts of their fans, Phoenix have been at the forefront of the Elite League's aims of recruiting home-grown talent, with seven local youngsters joining coach Rick Brebant's new revolution at the MEN Arena.

After two years as assistant to Mike Blaisdell at Sheffield, Brebant is keen to show what he has learned - although the supporters will be glad just to have a top-level team to watch again.

Player to watch: Ex-Manchester Storm star Jeff Sebastian

Nottingham Panthers

Nottingham have often been the bridesmaids in recent seasons, and their last close brush with silverware came in last year's Challenge Cup final - which they lost to arch-rivals Sheffield.

Coach Paul Adey has lost the services of double Stanley Cup winner Jim Paek, now coaching in Orlando, but has recruited several new players with plenty of Superleague experience - including Kim Ahlroos, Mikko Koivunoro and David Struch.

Player to watch: Calle Carlsson, back for his third Panthers spell

Sheffield Steelers

Mike Blaisdell's defending champions have proved themselves as the team to beat over recent seasons, claiming two Superleague titles in the last three years and also triumphing in 2003's Challenge Cup.

Blaisdell hopes to have found another winning blend this season and will expect to challenge for the title, as well as bringing through young British talent such as forward Ryan Lake.

Player to watch: Netminder Rob Dopson is highly-rated by Blaisdell

Steelers snatch ISL crown
16 Feb 03  |  Northern Ireland
Giants win play-off title
06 Apr 03  |  Other Sport
Steelers take Cup title
26 Jan 03  |  Other Sports
Elite league gets go-ahead
27 Feb 03  |  Other Sport

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