For Queen, Country and the Love of the Game
Far from the millions of dollars on offer in the NHL, the National Ice Hockey League is home to 37 teams from around the UK. Some clubs push a little ‘beer money’ their players way, but in reality it’s an amateur league which allows hundreds of players to continue their love affair with the game, whilst settling in to the ‘real world’ away from it.
Office workers, professionals, builders and students all rub shoulders (no pun intended) on the ice at weekends, before resuming their careers each Monday morning.
For Streatham Redskins forward Jamie McIlroy, combing life on the ice with life off it is a little more complicated; as he juggles family, hockey and a career in the Royal Air Force.
With British forces involved in conflicts in the Middle East, as well as their ongoing interests in both the UK and abroad, most servicemen have a lot on their plate already. Add in a young family and most would consider their lives to be pretty full!
With all that, plus weekly training sessions and more than 50 games during a packed NIHL schedule, it’s fair to say 32-year old McIlroy has a pretty hectic lifestyles.
I started by asking the gritty winger how he juggles these different elements of his busy life.
“The answer is, not very easily! Aiden is 2 and Alba is 9 months old; so having two children that young provides an immense challenge in itself.”
“Everyone knows that you don’t get the best nights sleep when you have kids, so adding in late nights from hockey makes Monday mornings interesting! I live 55 miles from the rink, so I never really get a “home” fixture and it involves a lot of travelling and time away from my family. Without the support of my wife, Emma, I wouldn’t be able to do it. She’s left with the kids on her own quite a lot, but has always pushed me to play at the highest level I possibly can. She’s left the decisions on where I was going to sign solely to me, regardless of the time away, and supported me every step of the way. This league has a pretty intensive schedule and it’s pretty much 7 months without much of a social life!”
As any player will attest; support from family is huge. Whether you are 10 years old or 30 years old, there is a lot of time away, a lot of late nights and, for many, a big financial commitment to meet.
Trying to combine a passion for ice hockey with a ‘regular’ day job is tough at the best of times. For an active member of Britain’s armed forces, it seems like an even tougher task – but McIlroy explains he’s had a lot of support from the Air Force.
“The RAF have helped out with time off and my bosses have kept me on shift patterns which allow me to train and play fixtures. The one thing which is unavoidable however is the overseas detachments. So while the rest of the boys will be away on their summer holidays, I will be heading to Afghanistan in May for 4 months!”
Very few players would want to swap their summer plans with McIlory, but it’s a testament to his love for the sport, as well as the RAF’s increasing willingness to support ice hockey interests among its servicemen. It took McIlroy a little time to truly find his place in the game though.
“Growing up in Seedhill, Paisley, I first became aware of ice hockey when the Council built an ice rink at the back of our street.”
“In the beginning all I was interested in was attending the Friday night skating sessions, trying to impress girls! I really had no clue about ice hockey until I saw a poster advertising the Paisley Pirates. I became aware of the buzz it was creating around town and went along to a game.”
Like many, it didn’t take long for McIlroy to develop a taste for the game.
“I was hooked! The speed, the aggression and the intensity of the sport drew me in and I was determined that I was going to start playing.”
It’s wasn’t until he joined the Royal Air Force that those teenage dreams started to really take off however.
“I moved in 2008, courtesy of a posting with the RAF, and up until that point my interest and involvement with hockey had become sporadic at best.”
“I stopped playing at 17 due to a lack of ice time, as well as disappointment with the way the Paisley Junior Development setup was run. It left me disillusioned with things, and at that age there are certain other ‘temptations’ outside of hockey that become more appealing than spending your weekend sat on a bench in somewhere like Ayr!”
“It wasn’t until I joined the RAF that I gave any thought to start playing again; but even then it was really by accident that I learn about the sport ‘within’ the Armed Forces.” McIlroy continued “One of my Sergeants heard that I had played previously and invited me down to a training session with the Lossiemouth Jets.”
“At the time, the team was a brand new recreational side, founded by Sgt Andy Harris, to give serving RAF personnel the opportunity to play hockey. The success RAF hockey has seen in recent years really stems from the creation of that team”
Hockey within the RAF has grown rapidly over the last few years, and with closer ties with the USAF and hockey within other branches of the armed forces, the annual Tri-Services tournament has become a huge event. But the sport wasn’t always as competitive as it is now within the military.
“I don’t think I’m being unkind by saying the standard was poor back then” McIlroy says “But the passion the lads had for the game was infectious and definitely helped to rekindle my love for the sport.”
Whilst it helped McIlroy re-discover his love for the game, it also brought its share of frustrations as well.
“I spent four years playing recreational hockey for the Jets, but found myself becoming frustrated as time past. It was probably the realisation that I had thrown away any chance I had at playing a decent standard of hockey in this country, and it became apparent through the way I played”
McIlroy admits the 8 match ban he received from the SRIHA, after an altercation with a referee, was not his finest hour; but a move South gave the forward something of a reprieve and the chance to have another crack at organised senior hockey – even if the step from rec to National League was wider than he had anticipated.
“When I was posted to Oxfordshire, I started looking at the EIHA league structure, and tried to see if there was anywhere I might be capable of playing. I made some enquiries with teams and eventually managed to get a trial with the Oxford City Stars, who were playing in Division 1 at the time.”
“It was an eye opener for me, and highlighted how much match fitness I had lost and the bad habits I had picked up playing rec hockey! But while there were definitely some talented players there, I felt that I could bring something different to their roster and felt confident that I could do a job for them.”
“The Coach at the time invited me back for further trials, and led me to believe that he was going to sign me. By the time he informed me that he wasn’t, it was too late to find a spot on any other roster! It was infuriating and it definitely made me question whether it was worth the hassle but I returned to rec hockey, this time for the RAF Bluewings – who were the newest addition to the RAF setup.”
Despite the disappointment of missing out on a spot with the Stars, McIlroy continued to pursue an opportunity with a National League side, and found a new home the following season.
“During the 2009/10 season, I finally managed to take to the ice for my “rookie” season with the Slough Harrier Hawks – at the ripe old age of 28!”
Unfortunately for McIlroy, his first NIHL experience was short lived as the Harrier Hawks were forced to withdraw form the league.
“The problems that team had are well documented, and when they eventually folded I don’t think many people were surprised. It left me in a bad situation; but through special dispensation from the league, our players were allowed to sign for another team even though the transfer deadline had passed.”
“My services weren’t exactly in demand though, and the only offer I had was from a team in a pretty similar position – Streatham Bruins. I was just grateful for the opportunity to carry on with my season though, and set about bringing my own style of play to the team.”
Never afraid to mix it up, McIlroy found himself back in familiar surrounding the following year, when Slough Jets owner Zoran Kozic looked to establish an NIHL team in the town to help form a bridge between the existing junior system and Premier League outfit.
“The following season the Slough Jets organisation decided to enter a team into ENL 2, as it was then, to try and bridge the gap between their junior academy and their EPL team.”
“I tried out for the team in the summer, earned a spot and was subsequently appointed Captain by the coaching team of Craig Moran and Adam Greener! Even at that low level of British hockey, it was a role that I took immense pride in and gave everything to the team.”
The Scots ‘all in’ style won him plenty of fans, as the Jets national league outfit cruised to the league title, and promotion to Division 1.
“We had a stellar first season behind the scoring exploits of Zoran Kozic, Stas Prokofiev and Jamie Milton, managing to win promotion.”
Thing did not work out for the Jets the following year however, as rumours of internal divisions and money issues saw several players leave half way through the year
“Sadly the whole setup at Slough slipped the following season, and it began a chain of events that ultimately led to relegation.”
“I had signed on for another season as Captain, but it was cut short because of an overseas detachment to the Falkland Islands. Before I left, I knew things weren’t right behind the scenes though. Players began to leave, and the guys were being asked to start paying fees to cover the costs of running the team.”
Slough’s ‘demise’ was a major talking point within the league at the time, as the Jets organisation seemed to sacrifice its National League side in order to keep other interests going. But McIlroy believes the intentions were right, even if things did not work out.
“I can totally understand what Slough tried to do that year by running an EPL, ENL1 and ENL2 team – and I think it should be applauded for trying to create a ladder from junior to EPL in the town.”
“As a player though, it felt like we simply became an afterthought, and all the hard work that we put in to gaining promotion was lost. I definitely saw it as ‘my team’, and it was demoralising to see the scores each weekend, from thousands of miles away, knowing there was nothing I could do. We formed a tight unit over those two seasons and there are lads who I played with on that Jets team that I will be friends with for life – for that I’m thankful.”
McIlroy returned to Streatham the following season, this time joining the Redskins in Division 1. And it has gone on to become a fruitful relationship for both club and player.
“I’ve absolutely loved my time with Streatham so far, and I’m glad that I’ve been given the opportunity to play for the club in what have really been ‘transformational’ years for them.”
“I had the opportunity to sign for Streatham the season before, but I wanted to stay loyal to Slough – plus with our first child, Aiden, was due just before the season started!”
“The following Summer I was approached by then Redskins Coach Barry Spours about signing for Streatham. I went down for a skate at their temporary home in Brixton, had a chat with Barry about where he saw me fitting in and I felt there was definitely an air of positivity around the place – so I jumped at the chance to join them!”
“Ultimately that season became a massive disappointment for us all, especially after the big name signings that we made.” McIlroy said, with his usual honesty. “There’s no doubt we should have done better, but a bad start to the season was our downfall.”
“Warren Rost took over as Coach after a one particularly bad weekend. We shipped 20 goals and became the first team to lose to Gosport, so he had his work cut out from the start, but straight away everyone knew exactly where they stood! If they didn’t buy into his systems and work ethic, then they would be shown the door, regardless of reputation.”
Rost’s forthright style has been something of a hit with McIlroy, and has helped Streatham move steadily up the NIHL table over the past 18 months.
“That’s how a club should be run. I think it helps when it comes from someone like Rost, who has the club in their blood. They know what it means to the fans, and the pride that comes with pulling on the jersey every week.”
“That’s one of the things that has stood out for me since joining Streatham; it is definitely a big hockey family, with a strong identity and heritage that the whole organisation is justifiably proud of.”
Streatham’s extensive history took another twist recently, when the Redskins staged a dramatic comeback to knock National League powerhouse Invicta out of the Cup at the semi-final stage, setting up a showdown with defending League Champions Chelmsford at the end of the month.
“That tie was the craziest experience I’ve ever had in hockey” McIlroy said, after the Redskins came back from 9-4 down to win in a shoot out in the second leg. “I don’t think anyone who witnessed it will see anything like that again.”
“Gillingham (Invicta’s home rink) hadn’t been the happiest of stomping grounds for us in the past, and our victory there earlier this season was our first in 6 years! So tying 4-4 after the home leg wasn’t ideal, but we were still confident we could progress and nick a result in the return game.”
To say the Redskins upset the apple cart may be an understatement. Invicta were firm favourites headed in to the game. Despite an early goal for the Redskins, the home side opened up an 8-3 lead in the second period and looked destined for the Final – cue one of the most incredible turn arounds the league has ever seen.
“To come back from so far down and tie the game 9-9 with just over a minute to go in regulation showed massive character, spirit and belief!”
“To then go on and win in penalty shots was incredible! The boys who stepped up showed immense courage. I was especially pleased for Callum Best after his experience last season.”
Best parted company with Invicta on questionable terms, but like McIlroy has found a new home in London and is now an integral part of this close knit unit.
“That’s one of the main factors about this team; we never seem to know when we’re beaten” McIlroy said “We have players who will pop up and score important goals just when they’re needed. It’s no use having players who are going to go on a points spree against teams near the bottom of the league; you need them to come up big in the big games – and we certainly have a few guys who do”
It’s that strength in depth that has helped the Redskins move forward as a club; with several strong additions to the line up over the summer.
“There’s a number of contributing factors to our success, but the main one has to be that Warren had the summer to put together his own roster. We lost Jakub Klima, who had been the league’s top scorer during the 2012/13 season, but we replaced him with Sean Scarbrough – who’s no slouch in the scoring department either!”
“There’s also far better chemistry in the forward lines this season. When we have injuries, there’s enough quality in depth for someone to step up and fill the void. Everyone knows their role within the team and sticks to it, which has made us a much more solid unit. For example, I know what’s expected of me and I just try to play to my strengths to help the team in whatever way I can. It’s the same for all of us”
The new look Redskins also moved in to a new home this season. With their High Road rink rebuilt as part of a massive redevelopment effort in the area.
Moving in to a new rink wasn’t without its pitfalls however.
“The move to the new rink has been a blessing, although there was definitely some apprehension about it at first. We knew that moving rinks could have an effect on our results, and we definitely struggled to adapt in the beginning. The 10-1 loss to Chelmsford at the end of November was a painful wake up call, in only our second home game there.”
“Since then, we’ve only lost once at home though, and managed to gain a bit of momentum from that. It’s a fantastic facility that we are lucky to call home, with such a shortage of decent rinks in this country.”
The continued absence of a top flight team in London is a major talking point for all fans in the UK. But with two professional teams disappearing in the past 15 years, and few rinks with sufficient capacity to support Elite or Premier League hockey, Streatham seem perfectly placed to become flag bearers for the hockey in the capital.
“I think hockey in London has always been destined to fail, because of the level it has been pitched at. We are playing in an extremely competitive league.’Blowouts’ are a thing of the past, with most games providing freat entertainment for the fans. Plus we don’t have the massive overheads that an Elite league team would have for example, which helps from a business point of view”
McIlroy also noted the increased interest in the club, and sport, since the new rink opened.
“We have seen a massive influx in the amount of families coming to watch our games; and the kids are always eager to meet the players and ask questions on the game. It’s encouraging kids to take up the sport, and hopefully in the long run it will provide Streatham with the next generation of homegrown Redskins.”
“Our match night attendances have been regularly high and particularly impressive for our big fixtures. I’ll never forget skating out for our first game against Bracknell in front of 1,000 fans, the atmosphere was electric. Add to that the attendance figures that the London Racers have been getting over at Alexandra Palace and you can say that hockey is looking very healthy in the Capital.”
As with any club, things don’t just happen by magic, and the veteran Scot was quick to praise all those who put their time in behind the scenes to make the team a success
“The amount of work that has gone on behind the scenes at Streatham has been astounding. We have a great supporters club, who devote a lot of their time for free to raise the profile of the team in the local community, and help get people through the door. The journalistic and advertising work that defenceman Dave Carr does through our website and on social media has definitely gone some way to increasing attendances as well.”
McIlroy’s journey has taken him almost the length of the country. And his ‘in your face style’ has made him a player opposing fans love to hate, and I asked him how he’d like to be remembered when the time comes to hang up his skates.
“Considering how late I started playing senior hockey, I think I’ve made a decent impact and hopefully I’ll be remembered for the right reasons, by ex-team mates at least!”
Thanks to Jamie for his time. You can follow him on Twitter @McIlroy81.
All photographs © Rick Webb