The ‘British Hockey is Broken’ Blog Post

One of the most common debates in British hockey reared its head again this week. Team GB’s relegation from Division 1A at the World Championships has sparked the conversation back in to life – why is British hockey failing?

Some will insist that it isn’t, even try and tell you that it is succeeding, but it isn’t. It’s fragile at best. Collapsing at worst.

Most people have an ideal, a solution, of what the British game should be. Some have much more short term aims, others span over a much greater period of time. Either way, the game needs a massive and complete overhaul.

This isn’t going to be some post that pretends I have all the answers; perhaps I have no answers. But the following are a few of the things I see as major and somewhat concerning issues within the British game today.

I apologise now, as this is an incredibly long post; but naturally it’s a subject pretty close to my heart and I wanted to get a few things ‘off my chest’, so….

The Leadership….or Lack There Of

Any change needs to start at the top. The disjointed nature of British hockey stems from the disjointed nature of its leadership. And using the word ‘leadership’ feels somewhat generous in certain scenarios.

What is the direction of British hockey? What are it’s aims? It’s goals? What does it want to achieve? And who is driving that?

The answer to all of those questions is – I don’t know. And that is a massive concern.

Ice Hockey UK is affiliated with the IIHF, and ‘runs’ the national teams, but the countries top flight, the EIHL, essentially runs itself. The EIHA umbrella covers the EPL, NIHL, junior sections, recreational hockey and the university section. And yet the two senior leagues run themselves, the rec section has its own board and the junior development in this country is patchy at best.

It doesn’t exactly scream ‘joined up thinking’ when what should be your three strongest ‘selling points’ (the national side, the top division and junior hockey) are run by three different bodies. What is worse is that none of these bodies seem to have any real and effective power.

Whilst some will try and derail such suggestions, pointing at the failing of the British Ice Hockey Association in times past, British hockey needs one single, strong governing body to run the sport – roots and all.

Forget the mistakes of the past, what this sport needs is a strong body with a clear vision for the sport that everyone pulls towards. Hockey does not lack for energy, or good people. But it lacks inspiration and vision in a monumental way. That needs to be fixed before anything else can be addressed.

Unified Thinking

Tied to the above, but somehow we need to find a way to end the ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitudes and fiefdoms that are being protected.

I liked the comparison a friend made – British hockey is like a house with a great looking roof but crumbling foundations. You can add new slates and so forth but at the end of the day it’ll still collapse…

This need to shift attitudes largely ties in with the need for a vision that everyone can buy in to; but either way, for the greater good, the closed mindedness and selfish thinking we so often see at the moment needs to change.

This may be the hardest thing to change in some ways. People don’t like change, particularly those who might be seen as the ‘big fish’ in their respective ponds. But it does need to change.

Junior Hockey and Player Development

Forget import limits and salary caps – if British hockey wants to improve its lot then we need to fix those foundations; junior hockey.

Any change to the import limit will only ever really be a band aid on a broken arm. If that. Changing Cup competition formats or introducing token spending limits will do much the same. They’ll introduce short term changes that may distract but ultimately do nothing to fix the problem.

As the World Championship’s showed, British hockey is falling behind its international opponents, and the pool of talent we have to choose from is thin. For the sake of both our national teams, but also our own infrastructure junior hockey needs to raise its standards.

Cardiff under 18s won the Southern 1st Division playing just 18 games. 18!!! For starters, this is a tiny number of games for the ‘top level’ of junior hockey. Ice time is an issue, I accept that, but we need to find a way for our older age groups to play more competitive games to a high standard.

Worryingly though, participation is falling (approx. 10% over the last 5 years) and the quality of the coaching junior players receive also needs addressing (see below). Neither of these things are easy to fix, particularly the former, as it involves time and resources.

Thing is, despite what some may claim there is time and there are resources available. It’s just used up inefficiently. Largely because junior clubs run themselves. Hockey as a whole sees thousands of pounds, perhaps millions, flow in and out of it each season – and yet the kids (or more their parents) are paying their own way to a large degree. That doesn’t exactly scream good sense to me…

As said, the bar needs to be raised and the end goal is simply to be better. To increase the skill level and depth of the talent pool. To have more than one top quality British netminder per decade and to have numerous quality skaters coming through with each junior class.

Not only will it help our national sides, but our league sides too as there is a greater number of players able to play at a high level. It helps restore some parity to our leagues and boost the competition level.

The kicker is it’s a long term plan – it’d take at least 10 years to really pay dividends. But is essential to the games long term success.

Attitude Towards Coaching

There are two major issues I have with coaching in the UK.

The first is the constant use of ‘rookie’ coaches; oft veteran players. I am sure they are all ‘good guys’. Maybe even ‘knowledgable guys’. But why is the highest level of British hockey a proving ground for so many untested coaches?

A rookie player has to prove his worth – but a rookie coach should be given the Head Coaches role right away?

For its many faults, at least the ISL sought to bring in some decent coaches to guide their teams (some were more successful than others, granted. But that’s part of hockey!).

Braehead were the only club to recruit an experienced hand (i.e. someone whose sole experience is not on these shores). And even he only came in after the veteran player/coach had failed to meet what was expected of him. Sheffield opted for a veteran player, Nottingham a player coach.

Hey, I get it, Panthers won the league – good for them. But what might they have achieved with someone with a big more under their belt? How good might they have been?

Naturally there should be a place for British based players to cut their teeth in coaching; but why does it have to be behind the bench of one of the countries elite clubs? (No pun intended)

My second issue with coaching in the UK is the lack of quality coaches in junior.

Before I get lynched; this is not a shot at the hundreds of parents and helpers who give up their time every week. Because those folks are HUGELY important to the process. But if British hockey is really going to move on, it needs experienced hands at the helm of junior teams – not Little Johnny’s dad with a text book…

I understand that sentiment may not be popular in some respect, but it’s a cold hard truth. If the standard of junior hockey is to improve (which as I’ve already said is key in my eyes) then you need quality people involved in junior hockey – quality breeds quality.

Advertising the Sport

People want to see full arenas. Despite some of the fundamental issues the sport has right now, I still believe it is a good enough product to attract new fans. Even at the lower levels it is still a fast, adrenaline pumping affair.

EIHL teams actively employ known ‘fighters’. Many EPL and NIHL clubs also have players they will happily advertise as ‘willing to drop the gloves’.

Whatever your stance on fighting in hockey, this is just something you have to accept.

So please can we stop advertising this as a family sport?

What exactly is ‘family’ about two guys punching each other in the face? Or one man slamming another man in to the plexi glass at 30mph?

Embrace it!

Stop pitching at families, asking them to find £20, £30 or £40 plus per weekend from September to April. We all know we’re in a tough economic climate; so why chase the most fiscally ‘challenged’ with a bogus marketing theme of ‘family’?

Go after your early 20s, who only responsibility is their phone bill and having a good time every weekend. I’d wager there is more disposable income among late teens and early twenties than there is the ‘family unit’ right now.

Get the loud foot stomping music cranked up and sell the in your face nature of hockey to ‘the young people’.

Snobbery

The EIHL is the top league – lets accept this.

Equally the EIHL needs the EPL and the NIHL. And all of them need the junior section and even the rec section.

Can we please all stop looking down our nose at the division below?

The NHL doesn’t just tick along on its own – it has AHL and ECHL affiliates, scouts watching junior hockey. It is a symbiotic relationship in many ways. If it works for the best in the world, why not for the UK?

Also, Please Stop Talking About…

Can we also please stop talking about the following:

Promotion and Relegation – British hockey isn’t in a position to support promotion and relegation. Even in the NIHL it is questionable how well it works. Basingstoke and Manchester have ‘tried’ the EIHL. Just as Chelmsford and Romford have ‘tried’ EPL. None could sustain it. Pretty much everyone is roughly where they want to be right now, give or take. So lets stop with promotion/relegation. This isn’t football.

Inter League Cup Competition – No, just no. Logistical nightmare and the odd chance that Chelmsford might play and beat Telford does not justify sending Guildford or Nottingham Panthers to Streatham or Bradford. The word ‘massacre’ would be appropriate at this point…

Once again, apologies for the length – just wanted to get a few thoughts off my chest!

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on April 22, 2013, in British Hockey, Hockey and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Howeaboutthat

    “Hey, I get it, Panthers won the league – good for them. But what might they have achieved with someone with a big more under their belt? How good might they have been?”

    They won the main three trophies in the EIHL, what more did they need to achieve!

    As for your comments regarding bringing in ‘expericenced’ coaches, this appears to be the comments of a Brit who doesn’t fully understand the role of various non-playing positions outside of this little hockey backwater. To use the example of NA coaches, the type of coaches who have been often demanded of on low-rent gossip forums such as THF, NA coaches don’t generally get too involved in signing of players, this being the remit of NA GMs. This suddenly becomes an issue if you take said NA coach and place him in an environment where team GMs often have little hockey knowledge and likely to be completely incapable of hiring players off their own back. Could this be the reason the only team who brought in an ‘experienced’ coach (Braehead) have parted company with said coach?

    I do agree on some of your points though, especially the folly of selling the sport as a ‘family game’. This said though, the only consistently financially sucessful team in British hockey has followed this line for a fair while now and it seems to work ok, so go figure.

    Like

    • I take your point about the Panthers success this year – I was more looking at ‘raising the bar’ in general. Just feel that some teams are not getting the best out of their roster, Sheffield is probably the most obvious example this year. But in general I don’t think teams always get the best out of their players. This goes for the EPL as well in a number of cases.

      And I’m fully aware of the differences between what most clubs in North America (and some other more established markets) ‘do’ and what we do – for better or worse depending on your view point.

      We have seen examples of coaches coming in to the British game – yes it’s a change of pace from just being the coach, but equally it must also represent a unique chance to mould your own team for many? Granted it will not be for some, but putting inexperienced hands on the reigns of our premier clubs is surely not the way forward for the British game?

      Of course, once the ball is rolling nothing is stopping the British game adopting the GM/Coach system – but one step at a time on that front I think.

      As for the marketing side, one thing I probably should have noted is that it’s more how the sport as a whole pitches its product. There are a few clubs who are VERY good at selling themselves in the local area (Guildford, Nottingham – your ‘financially successful’ clubs!) but the sport as a whole does a terrible job selling itself in the wider sense. It’s all very localised, at times feels a bit ad hoc and more than a little misguided in a few clubs cases I feel.

      Many thanks for the comment! Always good to have a bit of debate and engagement!

      Like

  2. Hi

    Do you think the very latest generation of synthetic ice rinks (in the last two years) would help the cause, if it could be cheaper and more a accessible facility. You could slowly build up a regional league or comp like a football power league. This is only if the syntheitc product is go enough. Hockey is never going to compete with football as a armchair tv sport as the puck moves to fast for tv, but I feel it could compete for participants if it was more available and promoted correctly. I offend wonder how many lads and girls from ice skating disco’s nights (and there are some awesome skaters) who would love ago at hockey but realize it’s too expensive for the majority of parents. There is a massive pool of natural talent out there for for this fast and exciting game, but so many are just not going to get the chance, which is a shame.

    Like

    • Hard to say on the synthetic ice – as an entry point, possibly. But there would still need to be somewhere for them to be set up, set up costs, maintenance costs, running costs etc. Having a synthetic ‘pad’ capable of hosting hockey (even at a sort of very basic entry level) would require a reasonable amount of space and resources. When we don’t make the best of what we have, I’m not entirely sure if it would help or not.

      Hockey on TV is a different discussion in my eyes – I agree with you it is not very TV friendly though (I’ve blogged about that before!)

      I think the cost of hockey is a global issue though – even in established nations like Canada! The Hockey News writer Ken Campbell did a study on what it costs parents to get their son to the NHL; we’re talking literally thousands and thousands of dollars.

      Like

  1. Pingback: Save the Day (aka BOTW throws out four ideas to try and improve British hockey) | Banners On The Wall

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