Off the back of a season where he coached the team to three trophies and 6 trophies in his 6 years in charge, the Basingstoke Bison announced the decision of the club’s Director of Hockey Operations, Doug Sheppard to refuse a contract for 2018/19 and leave with immediate effect.
When asked Sheppard would not comment on the club’s press release mentioning that he refused a contract, nor on rumours of a reduced budget influencing his departure or where his next appointment would be, only saying that he had options to consider. Sheppard was quick to thank an array of people when BOTW spoke to him this afternoon. “I have to thank everyone, fans and volunteers. I do have to thank Plant Ice for the opportunity but it was the players that made it all happen and they’re the reason why we had so much success. We also had great off ice staff and I don’t want to try naming everyone because there’s too many people to thank. I leave with nothing but really good memories. It was a really good ride.”
Sheppard leaves the Bison after a second spell with the club. His first during the club’s Elite League tenure saw Sheppard join in 2004 and become player/head coach in 2006. Sheppard played 156 league, cup and playoff games for 165 points. At the end of 2006/07 the Bison’s operating license was purchased by David Taylor, then owner of the Bracknell Bees who wished to make changes including appointing Ryan Aldridge as head coach. Sheppard was offered the chance to remain as a player but instead left and joined Sheffield Steelers.
Following two playoff and one EIHL league with the Steelers, Sheppard spent a two year spell at the Slough Jets including 2011/12 as player/coach. After a cup and a playoff triumph in Berkshire Sheppard was enticed to return to Basingstoke, now in the English Premier League after Steve Moria’s contract was not renewed.
From 2012, Sheppard would play another 176 league, cup and playoff games for the Herd scoring 161 points until hanging up his skates to concentrate on coaching. Sheppard coached the Bison to their first trophy success in over a decade in 2014 with the side’s capture of the EPL over the MK Lightning, a second placed league finish as well as the Herd’s 2014 playoff weekend success where they defeated Manchester Phoenix in the playoff final to secure a famous double in the 25th season of Basingstoke hockey.
After a disappointing 2014/15 the Herd rebounded, with Sheppard coaching the Bison to the club’s first league success since before the club changed its name from the Beavers and ending a 23 year wait with the 2015/16 EPL league title.
Following the 2016/17 season and the demise of the EPL, the Bison were accepted into division 1 south of the National Ice Hockey League where Sheppard oversaw the Bison become the premier side in the new order of second tier hockey. The Herd were pushed to the final weekend but won the league title on goal difference after scoring 18 goals in two days. They followed that up with by winning the southern playoffs and then winning the national playoff weekend, defeating Telford 4-0 in the final to close out a memorable season.
For whatever reason, Planet Ice’s announcement on the departure of Sheppard has the news that the rink has passed whatever sort of survey was needed to allow the club to continue next season buried within it. Doug Sheppard or not at the helm this is a resolution, even if only a brief one, to allow the club to run in the 2018/19 season. There will be a title defence by the Basingstoke Bison
The future that the Bison face is one in a building that now can hopefully get some much needed attention given that surveyors have confirmed that it can continue but this team will be different. If all you have ever known is Doug Sheppard hockey then the big surprise starts now.
We all knew that players would leave. This site has long made a point of reiterating that this is the norm in minor league hockey. However we now must be prepared that some of our core players will now also likely leave the club. Depending on where Sheppard has gone they may well follow him to a new location. The Basingstoke Bison as we know it, the team that won the title last season is now a thing of the past.
If we turn back the clock to the end of 2011/12, some will remember how that season ended. The Bison had a 6th placed finish and were knocked out in the playoffs by the Sheffield Steeldogs; the surprise package of the season led by the goals of Janis Ozolins and an up and coming netminder called Ben Bowns. (Wonder what happened to him) BOTW was just about a year old and I wrote what, at the time, was my most literally critical piece about the club. I questioned the direction of the organisation as the club seemed to be stuck; stuck for a direction, stuck for a purpose and stuck accepting mediocrity. I genuinely didn’t know what the focus or the goal of the club was. The club responded by hiring Doug Sheppard.
As they say, the rest is history. In similar farewell pieces I’ve made a point to not trawl through all of the history of a person’s interaction with a club but we find ourselves again at a crossroads for the Basingstoke Bison as a club. The torch is being passed again to the next person to lead this organisation that many readers of this site love and many others at least begrudgingly respect.
The club is, again, in limbo. Despite the news that the club will play the 2018/19 season, home ice requires some urgent attention to make it an acceptable venue to welcome hockey players, officials and fans in to on a regular basis. This is coupled with the fact that ice sports participants and supporters find themselves in an unusual position where they need to keep attending the rink to show a lack lustre and seemingly blind local council and set of councillors that Basingstoke needs to keep any sort of facility there.
I threw a quick poll out on to Twitter and the majority said that the club should retire #28 for Doug Sheppard. If you also read social media or forums then you’ll see that the rumours are already in overdrive. Sheppard is going to Bracknell, he’s going to the Elite League, this player is leaving, that player is leaving; silly season is well and truly here and we understand that this is out of the blue and has caught the organisation off guard. Sheppard had signed players for the upcoming campaign already which only adds to the confusion.
Bison fans have to prepare themselves not just for changing faces but a changing style and changing outlook. We do not know who will be taking over and this change might see the club needing to step back before it can step forward again.
That bigger discussion is for another day. This door closing is someone’s opportunity. The person who has that opportunity has to step into some very big shoes left by the most successful coach in the modern era of the Basingstoke Bison.
Doug Sheppard was many things; the quiet man, the hard worker, the boss, the tinker. He left you jumping for joy as well as sometimes scratching your head. Why did we struggle to beat Peterborough so often? Why did he change the line combinations every couple of minutes? Why did he sign Kris Melachrino? Did he ever speak to the agent who recommended Jakub Barton ever again?
Aaron Connolly ruined at least three of his suits with alcohol. He took a solid foundation and pulled the club to the highest point it could muster. He was also accommodating to everyone who wanted to speak to him. He always knew that being a coach of a team was more than just drawing up hockey plays but about the people side of it. Whoever has secured his services have got one of the very best.
All the best, Doug. Go well.