Phantoms at a Crossroads ….. is it time for a Brave New Beginning ?

“Get this right and this season can prove to be the catalyst for a new and exciting era of Phantoms hockey where we can start to rebuild our product and the fanbase around it …… time to be brave !”

Sadly, the one memory I have of this 2017/18 season that will simply not go away was standing in the rink half an hour before Phantoms perfectly poised Autumn Cup semi-final game with Swindon and realising that there were fewer than 100 fans present. It did fill up a little but it was an appalling turnout for the sort of fixture that would traditionally draw a big crowd and big atmosphere. I struggled to sleep that night as my head ran through all the potential conclusions that one could reasonably draw from that showing and what it could mean for the future of hockey in Peterborough and none of those conclusions were good ones !

Above all else, this season has been a huge learning curve as to what life is like in this league but it’s also provided an eye-opening insight into how the Phantoms fanbase respond to it and to the club’s efforts to make it work. I doubt many would have called this accurately last Summer and I certainly did not. It has been both interesting and worrying in equal parts but could it actually prove to be a watershed moment that ends one era but starts a new and exciting era too ?

I think the answer to that one is dependent on how brave we want to be right now ….. more to the point, how brave our owners are prepared to be, followed closely by how brave we as fans are going to be in backing them. There are a lot of grey skies out there at the moment …… a backdrop to plenty of finger pointing and negativity and that’s not a good backdrop for making brave decisions. Brave decisions need a blue-sky backdrop and blue-sky thinking that is both fresh and original but also based on a positive and confident vision that runs beyond the next season.

That would have been difficult last Summer because nobody knew what the season ahead was going to look like nor did they know whether some new second-tier EPL type league was going to suddenly re-appear at the end of it but I sense the right time is very much now and we REALLY do need to make a move because another season like this one would surely prove a disaster !

So before looking at what hasn’t worked this season and what I think we need to learn from, lets establish something ……

…… we are in the NIHL and we are staying in the NIHL. We can never play Elite League from Bretton because the rink excludes us and there really will be no “new EPL” as the clubs that were in it have either moved on or are about to lose their rinks. The EPL is over ….. the NIHL is the future and we need to stop kidding ourselves that it is only a short term stay. Our issue is now not the league we play in but how we go about operating within it in such a way that we can create success on and off the ice for Phantoms hockey in the short and long term future.

Okay …… what messages should we have taken on board from this season ?

Saturday hockey doesn’t work, we must return to Sunday hockey and that’s the last time I mention that ….. okay last but one time ….. we MUST return to Sunday hockey next season !

Winning hockey games alone does not put bums on seats and, to be honest, it never has. We’ve seen this numerous times in the past too and its a very important fundamental to establish because if your focus as a club is purely on winning games and trophies then you can end up winning silverware but going bust because fans didn’t share that focus. What DOES put bums on seats is entertainment and entertainment is about a lot more than simply winning games.

Of course you always WANT to win games and trophies but any ambitions that stretch beyond the immediate season ahead have to be underpinned by a growing fanbase and all of the revenue streams that will grow with that. As the “bladdy Tories” will tell you, nothing good will be achieved without having a strong economy and Phantoms strong economy is all about bums on seats so how do we achieve that ?

If there was an easy answer to that one then brighter people than I would have worked it out by now but I have listened to a lot of fans this season – some who attend and some who have walked away – and I’ve also pondered over 36 seasons of being a fan here when I’ve seen mediocre crowds supporting us when we were top of the top league (yes we were there once !) and even better crowds supporting us when we were fighting to finish 8th in the second tier and making the play-offs. My conclusion is that there are a small number of critical ingredients that pull in fans here in Peterborough.

One is character or more to the point, characters. Fans like characters. Characters DO put bums on seats. Characters sell hockey and are a vehicle for spreading the word to the unconverted as you talk about them in the office or the pub. People come to see characters and, undoubtedly, one of the reasons fans have struggled or even deserted the club this season is that the team lacks characters. Again, I stress this is not about playing with character but displaying that character so that fans can see it and identify with it and enjoy it and talk about it.

We do have players this season who have been proven characters elsewhere but who have lacked that character here so this is clearly a local issue and symptomatic of the preferences of the coach. In the world of pet-owners, there’s a saying that dogs always look like their owners and I would suggest that is very much an appropriate analogy here. Slava Koulikov is a cool dude who knows the game inside out and who has proven his skills repeatedly but ….. he exudes calmness, discipline, systems, tactics, level-headedness, etc which may achieve a knowing nod from the more hardcore of knowledgeable hockey fans but for your average “good night out” sports fan and for those trying out the sport as a night’s entertainment, it is likely to come up short in what it delivers as entertainment.

I have had run-ins with coaches here in the past when suggesting they have a role to play in selling the sport …… the coaching fraternity has always maintained their job is to win games while others should have the role of selling it but at this particular time and at this particular level of the game and with our current struggles to sell our product, the on-ice and off-ice efforts MUST be aligned and united to achieve a common goal of selling and growing Phantoms hockey.

The recent game with Basingstoke was obviously important in terms of the title race but, for me, it was even more important that it pulled in a big crowd which it did. Had it not then we would be in serious trouble as you are not going to get a bigger game than that at this level. What was also good about that game is that we saw characters. We saw smiles. We saw a physical edge. We saw goal celebrations and the fans loved it all. THAT was in the zone that Phantoms hockey needs to be in every week to sell itself.

So Sunday nights (damn – I mentioned it again !), more characters and my third big one would be playing style. Let me be clear, I’m an armchair coach – and I’m okay with that tag – so I’m no expert but I’ve sat/stood in the same place for 36 seasons and I think I know what style puts bums on seats and what style does not. I’m also fairly confident about which style is most effective on our ice-pad and which one dilutes our home advantage. Let’s be honest, love our rink as we do, the ice-pad is pretty poor. Its bedded on sand rather than concrete, the refrigeration plant has been struggling for decades and the ice maintenance is all too often poor, leading to cracks and holes but ….. that is where we play 50% of our games and where we play 100% of our games for those who don’t travel away so why not take advantage of it ?

For decades, visiting teams who come to Bretton have openly declared hatred for it ….. its tight, the ice is poor, the fans are in their face and they fear full on hostility from all quarters so why have we, for years, attempted to play a European style of hockey based on a relatively non-contact passing game ? Apart from it registering poorly on the entertainment scale, it simply encourages the opposition who all too often counter with a physical style that frustrates or even overpowers us on our own ice and in front of our own fans.

Peterborough hockey fans of a certain age have been brought up on a physical, high energy, hard skating, hard hitting hockey style that has not only provided great entertainment but has made Bretton a true fortress. Please let any new Phantoms era return to a more attractive style because it is solely the home games at Bretton that sell Phantoms hockey and we need to get that right.

So that’s Sunday hockey (bugger !), more characters, more exciting playing style so that just leaves sell it ….. sell it better than we do ! Hockey is fast, vibrant, physical, sexy and it needs to be sold as such. Edgy video, edgy photos, push the rivalries, promote confrontation, be bright, be loud, make it in your face, etc. “Promotion” isn’t posting that we have a game coming up and it starts at 5:30pm …… promotion is anything that makes the reader jump up from their desk with fist clenched shouting “hell yeah – I’ve got to be there!”. Start targeting the hearts not the heads !

Also, and I’ve banged this drum for many years, for heavens sake drop the “family sport” focus because it is not only totally off point but is dragging us down a dead end road. Hockey for all the reasons stated above is perfectly aligned with the 18-25 age group because they will get off most on the unique nature of the sport and what it has to offer. We need to be in the pubs, clubs, colleges, sixth-forms, ESP Magazine and wherever the 18-25s lurk ….. promote Phantoms hockey as the hottest cool night in town !

Consider also that 18-25s is where the big social groups are and where the spreading of the word via Social Media is at its most viral …. convert one in this group and you could have ten more next week. Its also where the money likely is. Free earners with limited outgoings and not yet suffering the financial challenges of married life. Nothing against families coming to hockey games at all but it is the most difficult group to sell to, the easiest group to lose and focussing energy on it misses the point completely for me.

So there’s a whole load of things that I feel we’ve got wrong this season – understandably and otherwise – so where’s the blue-sky thinking ? Where’s the brave decision and brave new sense of direction for Phantoms hockey ?

Here’s where I would go ……….

Drop import players unless they come at the same price as local Brits. NIHL restrictions dilute the impact of imports because they can’t play with other imports thus unless they are free scoring, youthful, coast-to-coast skaters then they are going to add no more than a decent British player.

Major on a Peterborough Pride brand and develop a greater “local lad” presence on the roster. Andre Payette was forced to do similar at Sheffield but he sold it hard and more than doubled home attendances. It gives an additional hook for fans to hang their support on and it gives us a much needed fresh identity ….. you should get a greater buy-in and positivity if you are backing home grown talent.

Rebrand and resell the team/club. No, I don’t mean drop the Phantoms but maybe make it a “New Phantoms” or “Phantoms Pride” that gives us freedom to go in a different direction, with a fresh energy, targeting new groups but with the ability to say  “Aaah but we are different now ….. this is a new club !” to the doubters.

Establish key deliverables for the coach that go beyond simply winning games to ensure that the on-ice product is not developed in isolation to the off-ice direction but actually works with it and supports it.

Now I can already hear old-skoolers shouting “no way” followed by tales of needing better imports, better players, etc and all the old-skool one liners but as I said at the beginning, for me it is time to drop the old thinking and go blue-skying based on an exciting future based on providing entertainment and building up our fanbase to what, as we saw against Bison recently, we know it can still be.

One major learning point for me this season was that going into all but a couple of games and, arguably, into EVERY home game as favourites to win is actually a marketing nightmare. You basically can’t win with that approach because if you do anything but win then you are slaughtered, if you do win then it wasn’t by enough or wasn’t impressive enough and if you do get it right and thrash the opposition then it is deemed boring ….. it’s a Lose-Lose-Lose situation. Bottom line is that fans don’t ever leave the rink on an excited high, wanting to tell the world about how we pulled off a big win and if they don’t go out and tell the world then we don’t bring in new fans.

We actually NEED to have games against “the big boys”. Games where winning is a REAL achievement and makes you feel great as a Phantoms fan. Now is surely the time to make a move to what will be both a more economically viable team for the future (which is important) and a team that re-aligns itself to where far more of our fixtures will be both attractive and more encouraging of the intense, passionate and entertaining style of hockey that we all want to see.

Get this right and this season can prove to be the catalyst for a new and exciting era of Phantoms hockey where we can start to rebuild our product and the fanbase around it …… for me, now is the time to be brave !