Last week, Tony Hand stepped down as team GB ice hockey coach.
After less than two years in charge had seen him take the GB team from where Paul Thompson left it (fast improving and on the way up with a regular place in Div I) to relegation to Div II, it was perhaps unsurprising that he saw fit to resign, particularly under the growing criticisms levelled at both his coach style, the selections, and indeed the team GB setup as a whole. People will point to the Olympic qualifying success, but GB were the top-ranked team in their pre-qualifying group…if they HADN’T made it to final qualifying, it would have been even more of a shock than them making it.
Now GB hockey stands once again at a crossroads, with IHUK advertising for a new coach, the national men’s team in disarray and leaderless, a danger of slipping back into the same “part time coach” pattern, and seemingly no real chance of any change in philosophy in the near future.
So, with that in mind, maybe it’s time for IHUK to show the commitment to improving the GB setup they’re always claiming to have, and rather than repeat the same template they have…destroy it. Slash and burn. And start a genuine new era in Team GB hockey.
Here’s how they do it, in five easy steps.
1. GET A OUTSIDER IN AS GB COACH
When I say “outsider” I mean a foreign (preferably North American) coach who, and this is the most crucial bit, has had no contact with British hockey before. While there is always something to be said for familiarity and it can’t be denied that possible candidates Corey Neilson and Doug Christiansen are very good EIHL-level coaches, they have jobs already, coaching Nottingham and Sheffield. They also, whether they’re aware of it or not, full of preconceived ideas over who is best to play for GB right now, friendships, rivalries and habits that will affect a GB squad selection. Certainly, they should be retained on GB staff…but as the head coach? No.
2. MAKE THAT COACH FULL TIME
This feeds into point 1 and away from it. Whilst IHUK will look at Christiansen and Neilson as the front runners for GB coach…they have a day job, which means they may struggle to actually see a wide enough sample of British players, (unless of course they’re playing for or against Nottingham or Sheffield). They have loyalties. And, most obviously, giving someone two teams to run is a hell of a lot of work, especially when you only see most of those players maybe eight times a year…and you’re not concentrating on scouting their games because you’re…um, trying to coach your players. A full time coach can go to watch the players he wants, when he wants, wherever they are, and whatever league they’re in. And more to the point, he can CONCENTRATE ON WATCHING THEM FULLY. Which is kind of key when you’re trying to work out whether someone would fit on a national team. It’s what scouts do.
3. NEW BLOOD, NEW RULES.
Look at GB squads over the past few years and you see the same names popping up over and over again like pit ponies being forced to work way beyond their useful life. While nobody can dispute the wonderful service given to their countries by the likes of Jonathan Weaver, it’s time to let them retire to their field in the sun…or, failing that, the knackers’ yard.
There is a lot of young British talent out there-it’s time for names like James Griffin, Josh Batch, Ben Bowns and Matty Davies to be allowed to step into the breach alongside the likes of Rob Lachowicz as part of the Young Lions. Short-term, this may cause the odd defeat. Give it a year or two of international development and all of a sudden there’ll no longer be worries about “lacking experience”.
The older generation like Weaver, Ashley Tait etc have served GB well, but their time is over.
4. IF YOU CAN PLAY, YOU CAN PLAY
Dual-nationals. They’re a thorny topic in British hockey…you get some saying “you can’t be truly passionate about a country unless you were born there” and others who’ll claim that a team with Canadian (or European) accents in it “isn’t Great Britain”, and “it doesn’t represent our country”.
Funny-this is a problem that never seems to occur to the majority of the nations in the IIHF. Germany have John Tripp (Canadian). Italy (who, let’s not forget, have played many times at the proper World Championships and not the lower-division ones) had six non-Italian-born players on their team for the 2013 event. Even at the lower levels the dual-national is endemic…one of Korea’s top players and assistant captain, for example, is Brock Radunske, born in Kitchener, Ontario.
Dual-nationals are a fact of life in international ice hockey in all but a few of the powerhouse nations. Great Britain simply doesn’t have the talent to compete at anything approaching an elite level without them right now, and it’s time we stopped pretending that we were “defending the game”, acknowledge that a strong national team is one of the few ways that the sport might actually get noticed by the media, and use every weapon at our disposal to make it so. Even if they come with an accent more London (Ontario) than London, England. Anything else is small-minded protectionism for the sake of it.
5. LET THEM PLAY
Let’s forget the fiction that only a few leagues in Europe have an “international break”. Taking the best players in the world and giving them only one training session or (at best) a non-contact game against lower-league Brits and a few cherry-picked imports is frankly embarrassing for a team that’s supposed to be in the top 25 in the world. Get the team together to play other European countries as a curtain-raiser to the season. Hold regular training camps throughout the season-maybe in midweek if you have to. If EIHL teams complain, tough…IHUK are supposed to be the governing body, aren’t they?
But, for god’s sake, find them proper opposition.
The GB team needs rejuvenating. It needs new ideas, a new approach, new emphasis, and new blood.
Whether or not it gets it or whether we’re doomed to be having this same conversation again in a few years is once again in the power of IHUK, and their new appointment as coach.