JUST days before its flagship closing weekend, the Elite Ice Hockey League has been plunged into controversy after accusations that three clubs were being 'managed out' of the League.
Fans of Manchester Phoenix, Edinburgh Capitals and Newcastle Vipers have flooded fan forums with comments after rumours started to circulate about a meeting on Monday to which the three clubs were not invited.
The meeting - held by representatives of Sheffield Steelers, Belfast Giants, Nottingham Panthers, Cardiff Devils, Coventry Blaze and Hull Stingrays, has allegedly culminated in a proposal to run a six-team League for the 2009-10 season, if Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle are unable to agree to new operating criteria.
The League has operated with 10 teams so far, but Basingstoke Bison resigned from the league last week having successfully applied to join the English Premier League.
The Bolton News understands that concerns were raised by the three clubs in line with the tightening economic outlook and that some assurances were sought going forward to help protect their businesses.
It would seem that those concerns were not accepted nor recognised as valid, and the subsequent meeting was held at which it was suggested that the current top level salary cap would be adhered to and that just the six teams would participate.
If the move is ratified, it is expected that the Elite League in its current form would be dissolved, and a new organisation formed with the six members.
Fan forums such as The Hockey Forum have been inundated with comments from fans of all EIHL sides, with some announcing planned protests at this weekend's Playoff Finals at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham.
There has been no official reaction yet from Edinburgh, but management at Newcastle Vipers are said to be 'furious' about the developments.
Manchester Phoenix - a founder member of the Elite League - confirmed the meeting had taken place, and that its representatives had not been invited.
The club's General manager Andy Costigan released a statement which said: "Until such time as either Neil Morris and/or myself receive due notification in writing of the outcome of Monday's meeting, and any decisions being taken without Manchester being consulted, we can say little more officially.
"Naturally, the club is keen to learn of what was discussed in our absence and upon receipt of such written detail, we will issue our official response."
The club has now confirmed that such written notification has been received and Costigan advised that the Phoenix will be making a “major announcement” on Thursday morning.
The Elite League issued a statement which said :"Over the past months there have been considerable consultations and meetings between the Elite League clubs regarding a plan going forward.
"All clubs in one way or another have had to consider how best to adapt to the economic climate in order to ensure progress for their club.
"The process culminated in a meeting on Monday 30th March of those clubs who were, without conditions, committed to participation in the 2009/10 season. The clubs not present, but fully aware of the meeting being held, had consistently, throughout earlier meetings and correspondence, put forward a number of points which they required to be considered or adopted by the league.
"Immediately following the meeting, all clubs were advised of the outcome, which is to continue effectively under the same playing conditions as was the case in 2008/2009, and the league presently awaits the remaining clubs to formally confirm if they are continuing their involvement in the league.
"2008/09 has been a thrilling year of ice hockey and both fans and sponsors can look forward to the fantastic playoff weekend and standards being maintained in the Elite ice hockey league for the 2009/10 season."