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'Long time coming': Belfast Giants star Ben Lake thrilled as elite action returns after year-long break

Ice Hockey

Elite ice hockey officially returns in the UK this afternoon when the short-term EIHL Series begins in Nottingham.

When the 2019-20 Elite League season was cancelled in early March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, what was hoped to be a short-term stoppage ended up extending into a year-long absence of the sport at the highest level when the 2020-21 campaign was also quashed, putting the Belfast Giants on a lengthy hiatus and forcing fans to go without local hockey.

But today, that changes. While some players have been able to play in the lower-level NIHL to stay in shape, the Coventry Blaze, Manchester Storm, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers will compete in a four-team tournament over the next five weeks based entirely at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham - the first elite action in the UK since 2020.

"It's been a long time coming for hockey in the UK and the Elite League. It's been great to see everyone back on the ice and skating again," said Belfast Giants forward Ben Lake, who is on the Storm roster.

"We're all grateful to be back on the ice. It's been over a year now since we had Elite League hockey - a little longer than I think anybody wanted! But we're back and hopefully we can put on a good show for the fans and hopefully we have some success."

The tournament has been set up to help the British players get into shape ahead of next month's World Championships in Riga, Latvia, however there are also some familiar faces involved from abroad too.

And while the Giants as a team won't be involved, several Giants players will be, with their British stars having been drafted by three of the four teams.

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The Storm will have three on their roster, with forwards Lake and Ciaran Long joined by netminder Stephen Murphy, while the Panthers have two in defenceman Mark Garside and winger Lewis Hook.

Canadian netminder Shane Owen will represent the Blaze having been signed as one of their eight imports, while Paul Swindlehurst is also on the Coventry roster having been drafted by them, however the defenceman's participation is in question due to a shoulder injury sustained while playing for Blackburn Hawks last weekend.

All six British players will have designs on forcing their way into GB head coach Pete Russell's plans and, with the coach expected to take an extended roster to Latvia, these next few weeks will afford them a big opportunity to stake their claim.

The Blaze and Storm get things under way in today's first game at 2pm, followed by a clash between the Panthers and Steelers at 7pm, with each team playing 12 games prior to two-legged semi-finals and then a best-of-three series final.

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