It's certainly been a hectic few weeks in the world of NIHL level ice hockey. To some it's felt like the end of the world, to others just the end of an era. Some have remained positive throughout. Undoubtedly, one of the biggest surprises of the off season so far has been the decision by NIHL S1 champions Chelmsford Chieftains to drop out of Division 1 just days after an agreement was reached by the EIHA and NIHL teams on the format of the league for the coming season. While Chieftains may not have been the first to make the jump, they were certainly the most unexpected.
To add to the woes of Chieftains fans, there was very little news coming from the team following the earlier announcement that experienced coach Kenny Redmond would be joining the Essex outfit to lead the team into the next season. Following the decision to leave Division 1, it was announced by the team that Redmond had since had a rethink about his decision and was moving on - later being announced as Head Coach at Oxford City Stars. And a replacement for Chieftains old new Head Coach was very quickly revealed to be the newly retired puck stopper Ben Clements, much to the surprise and sheer delight of the Riverside faithful.
Now, with the task of rebuilding the team at the top of his to do list, and with four big name signings for Chieftains already in place, we caught up with Ben for a quick chat.
We started by asking him what he could say to the Chieftains fans who have felt let down and disheartened by the team's decision to drop down to NIHL2 for the next season, and how his team building was going. He told us:
"Firstly, as a player, I was gutted to hear the team was dropping down as I had originally signed to play again in NIHL1 and was looking forward to the challenge ahead. But, after speaking to Del (Bartlett), I completely understand why he has made the decision to drop the team down to NIHL2 and now I have an even bigger challenge ahead in rebuilding the team to get us back to where we belong.
"Obviously, we have already announced a few guys, and we will be looking to add to that list very shortly. Overall, I'm very pleased with the team I have signed, especially with having started a lot later than other teams. But, the main thing I wanted was to sign good guys in the room, and guys who showed a willingness to want to play for Chelmsford."
We then asked whether his ultimate goal for the season would be to return to NIHL1 and what kind of players he was hoping to bring to Chieftains.
"I'm not too sure on the rules if we are allowed to go up next season if we win due to us dropping out. But, either way, that is the ultimate goal. But NIHL2 won't be a walkover this season. There are some really good teams in the league so, starting the season, I want to make sure we are a competitive team and challenge as close to the top of the table as possible.
"Coaching the juniors at the club (mainly goalies), I get to see the guys coming through, and there are definitely a few guys who will get a chance this coming season. Being the only senior team in Chelmsford now, we have to help develop the younger guys coming up or we will lose them, simple as that."
One of the most disappointing things for fans that we have noticed being talked about often on Social Media is the rivalries that have been built between opposing teams and fans over the last few years, most notably with Invicta Dynamos, London Raiders, and Streatham RedHawks, and the effect the decision to drop down a league will have on that. We asked Ben his thoughts, and who he thought Chieftains biggest rivals will be for the coming season.
"Looking at the league, teams like Oxford and Bracknell will be rivals to us, especially having played against them last season. But then you have Peterborough and Haringey who were big rivals to the Warriors, so it's going to be an interesting season, that's for sure. And who knows, we could end up with a few new rivalries come the end of the season."
Finally, we asked Ben if we would be seeing him on the ice again or if he'd be strictly a "Behind The Bench" kind of coach. He assures us that "my playing days are over as long as I'm coaching the Chieftains. We have enough goalies coming through the system to be able to play if one of the main guys gets injured."
So with four big names already signed for Chieftains, in the form of Ross Brears, Will Polston, Darren Brown, and Elliot Dervish, Coach Clements (will we ever get used to calling him that?!?) is clearly confident that Chieftains will have what it takes to be competitive. Would they have been as competitive if they'd remained in Division 1? I guess that's the answer we'll never get to find out. With Oxford and Bracknell both making some big signings over the last couple of weeks, the argument that Chieftains would drop down a league just to remain dominant is surely looking unfounded. With the expected start of the season just a little over 10 weeks away, we expect more signing news from Chieftains sooner rather than later.
For now, though, we'll let Ben have the final word: "I really hope the fans continue to support the team as they have been over the years. It really does make a difference come game day. And I would just like to say a big thank you to everyone for their kind words on my appointment. I know I might not be everyone's first choice, but I love this club and I will do everything I can to make this season a successful one and I hope to see you all come September."
A massive thanks to Ben Clements for taking time out to talk to us, and we wish him the very best of luck in his new role.