The Elite League is going to look slightly different this year, with the addition of two new teams, and Belfast Giants forward Colin Shields marks it as a step in the right direction.
Both the Milton Keynes Lightning and Guildford Flames have joined the division for the 2017-18 season and the league will now be split into three conferences – the Gardiner, the Erhardt and the Patton.
The 37-year-old centre – the all-time top scorer for both the Giants and Great Britain – believes the expansion is encouraging news for fans and represents an important move to help generate more interest in the south of England.
“As far as the league goes I think it’s really good,” said Shields.
“You’re going to add two quality teams that have been part of the EPL for a long time – in Milton Keynes and Guildford.
“I think it’s good to add more teams from around the London area to generate some more interest in hockey.
“I’m not sure how many more teams they would look to add but I think having different divisions now is something different and gives the fans a little bit of variety as well.
“The last couple of years we’ve been playing against Nottingham, Sheffield and Cardiff so many times, and in so many cups, that it kind of takes away from the uniqueness of the games and the build up if you’re playing the same teams.
“One year we played Cardiff 14 times, so if you’re playing the same team that many times it takes away the notoriety of it.
“I think it’s good now – there’s some different teams, you get to see some different players.
“Hopefully they will be competitive. Just because it’s their first year in the league I don’t think they will be a walkover.”
Shields, who is due to hold his Belfast Giants testimonial on November 21 this year, also thinks British ice hockey as a whole has moved forward.
The financial concerns of certain teams, from the Elite League all the way down to the NIHL, is well documented but Shields has praised the way some teams have solidified their finances.
He also highlighted how the addition of the Lightning and Flames has created increased opportunities for up-and-coming British talent to play at a high level.
“British ice hockey is getting better,” he explained.
“I think in the Elite League you’ve got some good solid ownership groups now, with most of the teams, and I think the teams coming in have good solid ownership.
“Ice hockey in the UK is not a lucrative business.
“The owners of those teams are trying to make a living at the same time, if that’s their only business, or trying to be competitive, keep the business afloat and provide a good entertainment product both on and off the ice for the fans.
“You can see in the last years that it has gotten better – crowds seem to be going up and stability throughout the league is better.
“But the players aren’t making millions of pounds and the owners aren’t either.
“I think sometimes people forget that people aren’t out trying to screw each other or get one over on the other person.
“They are business men and they are trying to keep their businesses afloat, they’re trying to do the best they can and they are trying to ice the best team they can and put the best product on and off the ice for the fans.
“It is going in the right direction and you can see some younger British players coming through, hopefully, in the next couple of years.
“Out in the Under-23s you can see teams have some good young talent coming through and by adding extra teams it adds another five, ten or 15 spots for British players to play on two more teams.”
Listen to the full SportSpiel interview with Colin Shields here