GB Hockey Hits The Crossroads

So, it appears talk of the revolution was greatly exaggerated.

From a solid run in Div IA under Paul Thompson to relegation under Tony Hand’s system in only two years, GB hockey has fallen back down another step in the international ladder.

Supporters of the GB system will point to the fact that they made final Olympic qualifying this season, forgetting that as the top-ranked team in their pre-qualifying group, they should have done (and even then the team had to force their way into another level). They will also claim that the reorganisation of the IIHF divisions for this season means GB faced a much tougher task, forgetting that the IA/IB system of divisions in the World Championships has existed for many seasons, including for almost the whole of GB’s run in Div I…certainly for the whole of Thompson’s tenure as coach.

But having watched a GB team that was tentative, outclassed in both speed and skating by nations ranked below them in the world (nations that GB had beaten as recently as Olympic pre-qualifying in November like Japan and Korea being among the most notable) and a team that, unlike those of Thompson, had no recognisable plan or adaptation from the North American style of the EIHL/EPL to the faster international game, British hockey is being forced to take a long, hard look at itself at the international level.

The problems are manifest. No-one can fault the commitment of those who pull on a GB jersey. The problems do not lie with the effort and commitment of those picked to represent GB, and not entirely even with those who do the picking and even those above them who run the system.

But before getting into those problems, let’s do a straight comparison between GB and one of the teams who finished above them this tournament, Hungary.

According to IIHF figures, GB has 1,484 registered adult male players as a pool to pick from, and 46 rinks, and is ranked 21st in the world. Hungary, meanwhile, has a total of 218 players, and 18 rinks that can used throughout the year. They are ranked 19th.

The Hungarians took bronze in this championship, beating GB 4-2 on the way.

So, the facts with GB hockey right now are that it has reached a state where a country with under half the available rinks and one-sixth of the available talent can out-perform it on a consistent basis.

That, frankly, is horrific.

Under Paul Thompson, the GB setup progressed-there was optimism under the setup and hope that the GB team could really challenge for a position in the top 16 of the world given time, even though it seemed that at time those running the GB setup were seemingly having to fight tooth-and-nail against those running IHUK in order to get anything done.

Then Thompson stepped down, taking his staff with him. Tony Hand was appointed to replace him-an appointment that was not only symptomatic of “jobs for the boys” but met with widespread apprehension amongst the GB hockey fanbase.

GB hockey then had a textbook “dead-cat bounce” that appeared to prove that GB could continue their steady performances, although the drop to last-but-one in April 2012 should have foreshadowed what was to come.

Then came the euphoria of the Olympic qualification, which only papered over the cracks in the GB setup. IHUK did a wonderful job of “spinning” GB hockey as on the up after that qualification, but the simple fact is that they should have gone through anyway, according to the IIHF’s rankings. The fact that their performance at the actual qualifying while on British TV was pretty much abject, in the same way that their performances in this last tournament lacked ideas, saw players who were slow and tentative in system and relied far, far too much on their goalie to bail them out is probably a much clearer indication of what GB under Tony Hand and the current organisation is.

So what’s wrong? Let’s go back to the comparison between GB and Hungary, two comparable squads in world ranking, for an illustration.

Despite only having 218 players to pick from in the whole country, the Hungarian ice hockey federation consider the national team important enough to commit to funding it for several tournaments, for which the Hungarian league stopped. Not only that-in 2011, when their last coach, Kevin Primeau, stepped down, they committed not to hiring an ex-local player who’s mates with all in IHUK as a cheap-option coach, but a proven foreign coach-ex-DEL coach and Canadian Rich Chernomaz.

Not only that, but the Hungarian team are encouraged to play together as much as possible-in fact, the vast majority of them already play for the same team-SAPA Fehérvár AV19. Chernomaz takes an active interest in the EBEL/MOL Liga and more importantly, the Hungarian team are his sole job.

Compare that with Britain, who appointed a coach who’s also a player coach in British hockey in the full knowledge that he wouldn’t be there for the first game of the World Championships. Oh, and he also coaches in a different league to the vast majority of the players, who he can never watch because he’s playing for his own team.

You couldn’t arrange a more shambolic scenario if you tried.

Couple that with some questionable personnel decisions already by Hand (a particularly glaring one in this World Championships being the omission of Hull’s Matty Davies, for example) and a hierarchy who is happy to trumpet receiving funding but never wishes to tell anyone what they’ve actually done with it, and GB has a problem.

But wait, there’s more. This is the same hierarchy that won’t arrange any international breaks during the season for fear of “clubs losing revenue” but WILL allow clubs who lost GB players to the Olympic qualification not to play that weekend, lost revenue or not.

A hierarchy that seemingly doesn’t see the benefit of having the national team of Great Britain involved in non-World Championship tournaments despite the fact that seemingly every other country in the top 20 in Europe will do their best to get involved in them.

A hierarchy whose former press officer publicly rubbishes all but the top league in Britain.

A hierarchy who until recently wouldn’t even pay for their own media officer to travel with the team.

A hierarchy who think that the methods (and seemingly the players) who got them by in 2005 will still get them by in 2013.

Team GB hockey is an amateur setup in a professional world. One of the great strengths of Paul Thompson and his backroom team was that they somehow managed to succeed seemingly DESPITE the efforts of the governing body, not because of them.

Forget the talk of import limits, junior development, and all the other issues that invariably get brought up at this stage…the very fact that GB’s u18 and u20 teams seem to be more successful than the seniors tells me that somewhere at the top level, the setup there just doesn’t cut it.

GB hockey now stands at a crossroads. A lot of the great work done by Paul Thompson and his team is seemingly being piddled away piecemeal by a governing body that refuses to change, refuses to adapt and refuses, point blank, to consider any thinking that might be considered as adventurous.

So here’s what they should do. Given that IHUK has around $100,000 in free money this year as a grant from the IOC, which was earmarked to cover costs of “training camps, travel etc”…(and you’re not seriously telling me they spent it ALL on the Olympic qualifying jolly to Japan) on top of their regular funding, some of the money must still be lying around. Here’s what to do with it.

Hire a dedicated, international coach: By “dedicated” I mean a coach whose job is “Team GB coach”. Not “Team GB coach when not doing his club team”. A coach preferably from a genuine hockey nation, who can bring in new thoughts, new systems, and new philosophies to a jaded setup. Not a GB legend who is coming to the end of his career who you’d like to keep around-no-one’s saying they can’t be given jobs in the setup but not a head coach, surely?

Actually let the team play together. Whether it be a pre-season training camp in August, an entry to an international tournament in February or a pre-World Championship training camp that lasts longer than “meet up on the plane and pick lines”, the GB squad has to be given more time together. If that means that the season starts and finishes a little earlier, then so be it.

Open the borders: There’s a hangup in the team GB setup about only using “British” players, not dual-nationals. Interestingly, though Hungary only used born-and-bred Hungarians, every other team competing with GB used dual nationals to boost their squad with the exception of Kazakhstan. There is a sizeable “Little England” mentality in the GB setup which argues that the GB squad must NOT use dual nationals.

And it’s bloody stupid. It’s holding the GB team down, weakening the player pool available and, while laudable in theory, it’s not grounded in the reality of international hockey, which is that, in the vast majority of nations, dual nationality is used to gain an advantage.

If GB don’t do so, they’re handicapping themselves before the games have even begun.

Let the young blood in: Look back at the GB squads over the past few years and they’ve all, almost without exception, contained 90% of the same names. There is no wish to experiment and blood younger players or break the status quo until it becomes absolutely necessary. Players like Matty Davies, Ben Davies, and even the likes of Gary Clarke back when he was tearing up the EPL simply don’t get a look in until the older guard are injured or even retired. Now, the GB squad is ageing. Jonathan Weaver is still being forced with the pressure of carrying a defence-and he was shown out badly for it this tournament-particularly by the speed of Japan and Korea. The international game is getting faster-it’s changing. But GB are not changing with it.

No-one is expecting GB to magically become an elite ice hockey nation. The chances of that happening with the current infrastructure are nil. But even staying in place with this current setup is looking like it could be too much to ask as the smaller hockey nations adapt and change with the times, proactively securing investment and putting long-term plans into place that are more than just “oh, we’ll let the guy we know do it and sit on our hands”.

One thing is certain-if the Team GB setup doesn’t change soon, then, like Nero, those presiding over the fragmented empire of UK hockey may merely be fiddling while their sport burns.

And tragically, like Nero, as long as they remain at the top, they don’t really seem to care if it does right now.

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