Last season ended with the Dundalk Bulls claiming both the Irish Ice Hockey League title and IIHL Championship. The Bulls in fact only lost once, on February 16th,, to the Dublin Rams .
As with all leagues throughout the world, during the off season, teams were busy trying to improve their rosters. Teams are sometimes transformed into completely different entities. Last year’s overwhelming success of the Dundalk Bulls is such that they now have everyone gunning for them in much the same way that the Sheffield Steelers were in the sights of every other team in the Elite League in the 90’s. Who will challenge for this year’s title? Will the Bulls once again be too strong, and claim their second championship in as many years, will the Hawks continue as they started and knock the Bulls from top spot or is there another who will claim this year’s IIHL Championship. Let’s now take a look at this year’s IIHL teams with all their roster changes in place and the schedule now set .
This season, the Bulls faithful are expecting more of the same from their club’s first string. Management wasn’t content with last year’s performance and have made some significant changes to this year’s squad. Kenny Redmond has been appointed head coach as Tony Griffin steps aside. The club lost a few impact players including ‘Big’ Bill McKiernan, Peter Pucek, and the recently signed Trevor Blanchard who went down with injury, in the Continental Cup, and has now returned home to Canada. Despite these losses several new faces are added to the Bulls roster with Tim Tabb, Hugh Smyth(Bruins and Hawks), Gareth Martin (Bruins), Vladimir Zak(Wolves), and Sandor Kope to name a few but there is also talk around the Ice Dome of up to four more arriving from the Finnish Club Varkaus Eagles. These new players will join Vytautas Lukosevicious, Sean Dooley, Eric Hogberg, and Sebastian Wachowski and will be looking to pick up where they left off last season.
Compared to last year, this year’s Hawks team has undergone a complete facelift. The Hawks have had a wholesale change of personnel and there is a renewed sense of vigor within the club. Several new players have joined the Hawk including Deniss Kurelass(DHK Latgale), Tomas Burdys (Rams), Peter Pucek (Bulls), Patrick Buda, and the Fjodorovs brothers. With the addition of of these players the club has already enjoyed recent success beating the Bulls in the pre-season Playstation Cup. The Hawks, for most people’s money,( are one of this year’s surprise packages and) are now one of the main contenders to finish top of the heap. This expectancy should please their already passionate fan base and give them even more to cheer about this season.
The Wolves were last years equivalent to the Bulls in the IIHDL, having beaten all laid before them. The Wolves are hoping to carry that momentum into the top division of Irish Ice Hockey. If they are to have any success this year they are going to need strength in depth on their bench. The only significant change to this year’s Wolves is the addition of Adam Cree between the pipes. If the Wolves can make the big step up to playing contact hockey this season, they should be able to cope with the heavyweights of the IIHL. The Wolves could be the surprise package this season.
Junior Belfast Giants
The Junior Giants are new to the Irish league this year; this team is primarily made up of young home grown talent and played in Scotland last year. What they might lack in overall experience, they are sure to make up in fitness and heart. Though not too much is known of this squad yet, a 7 -5 victory over the Flyers this past weekend has seen the Junior Giants kick off their season with a win. This early victory should help their confidence and they should be expecting big things this year. The Giants have also added some ex-Belfast Bruins and seasoned Team Ireland internationals to give their line-up more experience, and could surprise some teams under the vastly experienced coaching of Tommy Mc Kinnon, especially with home games up in Dundonald.
Flyers Ice Hockey Club
The Flyers who finished third last season have always been in the mix, and no less is expected from them this season. The Flyers are a strong physical team to play against, with several players with experience of the Irish National Team (Darcy, Kelly, Cooper, McCabe and Higgins). The recent addition of Seanna Conway providing competition to Dermot Carnie for the goal tending position will only boost the clubs confidence this season. If there is any issues this year with the Flyers it will be due to a lack of strength in depth. Key injuries to blueliner David Donaldson, and the absence of Patrick McCabe could hurt the Flyers early on and this has already been evident against the Giants last weekend, when they could only call on eight skaters in losing a close encounter with the Junior Giants by just two goals. This deficit could have easily swung the other way if fatigue hadn’t set in. If the Flyers get healthy expect big things from them this season.
The Dublin Rams have also undergone a face lift over the off season appointing Bret Dilabbio as the clubs player/coach for the 2008/09 season. A few new signings including Brad Heraghty, Michael Schmidt, and Matt Grazioso will improve this year’s squad and should hopefully offset the loss of Tomas Pajtina, Tomas Burdys, and Peter Cseplo this season. The Rams retain the services of Ross O’Driscoll, the defensive prowess of Bret Dilabbio and the standout goalkeeping of Eric Tobia things are looking good for the Dublin Rams. Blueliner Tomas Kuzma is expect to miss the first couple of games as he finishes his recovery from the broken arm he suffered in last year’s final and will only bolster this year’s strong defensive core. The Rams ended as last season’s runners up both in league and losing 6-3 in the championship game to the Bulls despite being the only team to beat them. So expect the Rams to give the big boys at the top another run for their money.
With all the team previews out of the way, who will take this year’s crown? In anycase as the highly anticipated 2008/09 season gets underway, it’s time to break out your jerseys and support your team all the way to the championship game.
Let’s drop the puck and see you all on the ice or at the rink!