Chasing Dragons Vault: Lions Led By Donkeys

The preliminary GB squad has been announced for the final Olympic qualifiers in Latvia in February. Ahead of an analysis later today, and to set the scene, here’s a post I wrote for another website ahead of last years’ World Championships. Later today will come another post looking at this year’s team and seeing if much has changed despite their heroic efforts.

This is a post that it hurts to write.

The Great Britain national ice hockey team currently ranks just outside the top 20 in the world. Over the past few years it’s solidly established itself at the second tier of international hockey-that twilight world of teams who aren’t quite good enough to join the really good nations, but good enough to think that one day, they might.

This is quite impressive. However, it’s nowhere near where the team could be. And it’s nothing to do with the fault of the players proudly wearing the GB shirt.

British ice hockey off-ice is a murky world. It’s populated by a mix of dedicated and proud people genuinely working for the better of the sport and those who seem to see the whole thing as some sort of personal pride project.

It’s a world seemingly driven by ego as much as pure pride. An incestuous, closed world which is hard to get into and once in, harder to stay in and keep personal pride and principles intact-at least if you want to be successful. Knowing the right people and more importantly having influence with the right people and boards is key.

Individually, those involved in the running of the sport are often shrewd, engaging and passionate about their chosen calling. Over the past few years the GB management team, led by coach Paul Thompson and GM Andy Buxton, made huge strides towards taking the national team to a level they had only, briefly tasted once before.

What’s made more amazing is that they achieved these great results and took the team to the brink of qualifying for World Championship hockey despite being sabotaged at every turn. Maybe not intentionally but sabotaged nevertheless.

The ruling bodies of British hockey agree that one of the major problems with the GB team is getting the players together to play warmup games, training camps, obtaining icetime, and money.

However, the same ruling bodies are often populated by those running the British clubs-clubs that they’ve often invested considerable amounts of money into and want to see a return on.
The British leagues, unlike many of the top leagues in Europe, run continuously without breaking for international tournaments like many of the top nations in Europe. The reason cited? It would harm the clubs, who depend on regular incomes of one home game a week in order to pay their players and keep operating.

Oh-and the GB staff? They’re all staff drawn from British clubs, who draw whatever pay they get (often none, but sometimes a little) from those same clubs. National pride may be a wonderful thing, but cold hard cash will always win in a fight between club and country.

IHUK pleads poverty, hence the lack of funding. However, this is an organisation which makes money from every single ice-hockey player in Britain by insisting that they are registered (at 50 pounds a year for adults) to play the sport. It’s an organisation which can afford to have a chairman based in Canada.

It’s also an organisation which spends no money on promoting the national team or even the sport in the media. Coverage of the national team is even less than the meagre amount given to the clubs.

And yet somehow, it’s not the fault of the people running the sport that it has no coverage. Somehow, it’s acceptable for a national team to have no warm up games and play no matches in its own country for a year (and only two the year before that).

Somehow, it’s acceptable to select a coach who can’t even make the opening game of the World Championships because his club team haven’t finished their season-and select players who have the same problem.

These are not new problems-they’re problems that have gone on for many years and will continue to run as long as club hockey takes precedence over country hockey.

And with the same people running the national team board as run the Elite League board, that will not change any time soon.

It’s worse, however. Prominent figures in the British game have said that women’s hockey (a sport in which GB rank higher than their equivalent men’s team and is funded almost entirely voluntarily) isn’t important. Which is one way of alienating most of the population to the sport straight away…

People are calling for changes. However, I believe the chances of that happening are minimal…simply because there is no genuine impetus at the top levels to do so. The Buxton/Thompson regime and the strides made under it were the exception, not the rule.
Traditionally, Britain is not a nation that prides itself on mediocrity. But with those running ice hockey in this country, it seems that’s just fine as long as the clubs keep ticking along somehow.

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