With the signing (the return, in fact) of Rob Dowd to Sheffield today, a lot is being made in Sheffield of the “massive coup” they’ve pulled off in getting arguably the best currently active British player to return from what is undoubtedly a higher standard league in Sweden. Dave Simms has of course been using this to shout praise of Sheffield (and Dowd himself, the liking of whom Simms makes absolutely no secret of) from the rooftops. The Sheffield PR machine has been churning all day in an attempt to turn the return of Dowd into a vindication of the EIHL, the signing of Christiansen as coach and the rising standard of the league in general.
However, there is another view that I subscribe to, which is excellently summed up by Freddie Black in his blog here-that Rob Dowd returning to Sheffield is just the latest example of a British player showing a lack of ambition and preferring to remain a big fish in a small pond rather than genuinely trying to advance their career when given the chance.
The argument that British hockey players are seemingly uncomfortable testing themselves outside of their comfort zone is a persuasive one. If we look at the players from the UK who have moved abroad after establising themselves in the British leagues, going back to Tony Hand turning down a chance to play in the NHL because of homesickness back in the mists of time.
In the past 15 years or so, only Colin Shields (and recently Ben O’Connor) have really managed to make any kind of impact abroad, Shields after being drafted by Philadelphia Flyers and spending time in the ECHL, and O’Connor recently in the Kazakh league.
Don’t get me wrong here-I’m not saying British players haven’t tried their luck abroad-Stephen Murphy spent time in Norway, Stevie Lyleand Shields again in France and last season Dowd himself in Sweden.are some of the most notable. But almost without exception, these players have spent one season away in a higher-standard league (or maybe two) and then come trailing back to the UK with their tails between their legs.
Matt Myers (ECHL) and Joe Watkins (both with the Bakersfield Condors) Davey Phillips (with a myriad of AHL/ECHL teams) David Longstaff in Sweden and (briefly) Switzerland, and Lyle and Shields (again) in France are some of the top British players to play the sport over the past 15 years or so. But look at their career statistics and the pattern is always the same-a meteoric rise to the top of the British game, followed by the chance to test themselves in higher leagues, followed by an almost immediate move back to (usually) one of the big teams in the UK.
It’s easy to say that this is down to the standard of UK players not being high enough to compete in these “better” leagues-and ten years ago that might have been the case, but possibly not even then (for example Longstaff was a consistent if not spectacular scorer during his time in the Swedish Elite League, one of the best in the world, and Dowd earned rave reviews for his time in Troja-yet both chose to return to their comfort zones in the UK rather than continue to acvance their careers abroad_). The problem with the British players seems to be drive-even those who could make it in a higher league for better wages seem perfectly content to play beneath themselves in the EIHL.
This attitude of “big fish, small pond” appears to be one that goes right through the British game-look at the players in the EPL who are perfectly happy earning a decent chunk of money and scoring hatfuls at EPL level rather than taking the step up to EIHL in a move that might further their career but involve a few sacrifices along the way. It’s an attitude that I struggle to comprehend. For ecample-I like calling EIHL games as a commentator, but my ambition is to reach a level where I’m commentating on the NHL-a move to North America to call (say) ECHL games would involve sacrifices and probably taking myself out of my comfort zone, but I’d make it in seconds because it’s an upward step in my career. Having got to North America, I’d be reluctant to come back while their was still a chance of climbing higher. But British players, it seems, are perfectly happy to take the same money or even a pay cut to play at a lower level than their hard-earned skills deserve for the sake of familiarity, perhaps damaging both their own personal career development and the development of the GB team as a result. But why?
Perhaps this is partly the league’s fault. Elite Brits can command stupidly high salaries in the EIHL that are often out of all proportion to what they’d be paid in an “open” system due to the inordinate value placed on a skilled Brit by the import limit. And thus we come to another question-far from “promoting” the development and ambitions of the British game, is the import quota not only holding GB hockey back not only at a league level because of the fact that the best UK players tend to all end up at the richer clubs, but also at an international level because, far from giving British players an incentive to push harder to reach the top of their careers by showing them a valid path tot the top of the UK leagues, it actually makes them feel far too comfortable in the UK to test themselves in better, more competitive leagues?
Are the import limits effectively making sure more British players are involved in the game at the expense of actually encouraging them to better their careers beyond the (limited) ambitions of the EIHL?
It’s a problem that needs to be looked at-perhaps by imposing a wage cap not on the league as a whole, but just on the salaries of top British players-effectively positively discriminating in favour of imports in order to encourage the best British players to seek jobs in better leagues and develop their games to benefit the GB squad at international level.
I’m sure the above solution will not be popular with the “protectionists” who want to see the best British talent playing in Britain even if it means they effectively place a ceiling on those same “top Brits” development, and by extension on that of the national team.
But Rob Dowd, as Freddie Black says, is just the latest in a long line of British talent who have seemingly placed a comfortable, easy life over potentially blazing a trail for the talented Beitish hockey players of today to follow.
And that, far from something to be celebrated, is something that should cause British hockey to be asking itself some more uncomfortable questions about its level of ambition.