The Rise of Swiss Hockey
A long held frustration of mine is that British hockey does not learn from its peers – either past or present.
Whilst the British game more or less stands still, and the protection of fiefdom’s seems to come ahead of the good of the sport as a whole, other nations appear to be making progress.
Whether you measure this by representation at international tournaments, or the number of players from a given country playing at a ‘higher level’, Britain has fallen behind nations such as Denmark in recent years.
One nation, which may once have been seen as our peer, has now left our game so far behind it’s not even in the rear view mirror anymore – Switzerland.
Often the country I point to when I express my hopes that those in charge of the Brit game will look for a font of knowledge, the Swiss are becoming a force in the hockey world – with more and more players reaching the very top of the sport and a domestic league now considered one of the best in the world.
But how did they get there?
The Swiss hockey set up seems to be underpinned by one very simple notion – teaching the basics.
When I interviewed Sarnia Sting netminding coach Dave Rook earlier this month, he noted the eagerness to ensure core skills were being taught during his tim coaching in Switzerland:
“One thing I noticed in Switzerland, that I don’t notice even in Canada, is the emphasis on skill development as opposed to team systems.”
“They spend alot of their practice time on developing skills (passing, shooting, skating). In Canada we spend alot of time on defensive zone coverage, break-outs etc. However, without being able to skate or pass, these systems aren’t going to be very successful.”
With players like Roman Josi, Damien Brunner and Mark Streit now established names in the NHL and other stars, like Reto Suri, garnering NHL attention, this approach seems to be paying off.
It has allowed Swiss players to compete at the highest levels of the sport, whilst having the knock on benefit of turning the national team in to a serious contender at the World Championships, were they were finalists in 2013, and the Olympics.
They remain a dark horse for a medal in Sochi in a few weeks time; but their continued improvement makes then a serious contender in 2018 whilst also bringing the Swiss domestic setup in to greater focus. The top tier NLA is now considered one of the best leagues in Europe; behind the KHL and Swedish Hockey League.
Again, the NLA’s success is underpinned by a strong development system which ensures Swiss players can progress within the sport which in turn gives clubs access to a larger pool of domestic talent from which to build a team.
Whilst some will, perhaps fairly, suggest Switzerland were always a little ahead of Great Britain, the gap has only widened dramatically over the past few years – or more accurately, the last couple of decades.
Because, over that time, the Swiss have ensured their grass roots hockey is teaching young players the right skills, and providing them with the best opportunities to succeed, the British game continues to run through the same old cycle – allowing the junior game to stumble along whilst attempting to prop the top leagues up with ever increasing sums of money.
As a friend of mine put it, the EIHL is a lovely roof placed on a house with crumbling foundations (junior hockey). Eventually it will topple over and that nice roof will be for naught.
One can only hope that one day someone will pay attention to what nations like Switzerland have done and seek to learn from them – that a long term plan can be introduced, and that the benefits of playing the long game will help snap the sport in Britain out of its current circle of short term thinking.
There is no quick fix, and change will be difficult and require a strong vision and no small amount of patience and resolve – but the British game has the resources at its disposal to make the change.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds (millions even) flow in and out of the sport in the UK every year, whilst there are still a number of rinks and many hours of ice time given to hockey across all levels. It may not be quite in the volumes we’d all like, but it is there.
When the sport here learns to focus these resources, then real progress can finally be made – the key skills for young players and coaches will be taught, and, over time, the sport will grow and improve.
To quote George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
The biggest hurdle seems to be making that change though. Breaking the status quo, and being ‘big enough’ to ask the questions and learn the lessons.
Until then, I’ll keep dreaming of a Team GB vs Switzerland gold medal game.