Travel Sickness: British Players And Their Lack Of Ambition

In returning to Belfast Giants yesterday, Craig Peacock becomes the latest top British player to come back to the familiar confines of the EIHL with his tail between his legs, being released from his Danish team “by mutual consent” after remaining pointless in the opening five games for Frederikshavn. Danish fans talk of him being “too slow” or “unmotivated” or “not good enough” for the Danish league-yet this is a league which has seen heavy movement of import skaters both to and from the EIHL over the past couple of seasons-a league which many consider to be of a slightly higher standard but not hugely so. Peacock himself is widely seen as one of the top British players out there-facts ably backed up by his statistics of nearly a point-per-game in the EIHL over the past four seasons with Belfast.

He follows the player some in Sheffield like to call the “Golden Child” Rob Dowd returning from Sweden in the summer to take a big paycheck in Sheffield and be near his family rather than spend another season with Troja-Ljungby in the Allsvenskan, despite more than creditable numbers in a higher-standard league that could have seen him make the step to the Swedish Elite League, one of the top leagues in the world. Dowd is unquestionably one of the top British players currently out there, if not the best British forward, and could likely have made it higher, as could Peacock given the chance.

Right now, though, the only British senior players playing outside the UK are Ben O’Connor, who is entering his fourth season abroad on the bounce and third in Kazakhstan for Arlan Kokshetau, and Rob Farmer, who is trying his luck with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces. There is a whole generation of young British players in their mid-to-late-twenties who’ve had the opportunity to move on to bigger and better things than the EIHL, and for whatever reason have, in the vast majority, elected to stay at home and take the (relatively) easy money or even come back to the UK to do so (Dowd and Peacock being glaring examples of the last two)

Before we carry on, though, let’s take a look at every British player that’s played pro hockey abroad (Jonathan Weaver just misses the cut, as he played for Mississippi in the ECHL in 99/00) that was on the team GB roster for Olympic qualifying last season, where they played, and the number of seasons they did so to date (thus including those playing abroad at the moment). Also, which league they were playing in at the time

Colin Shields (ECHL, France, 3 seasons, UK 2012/13

Stephen Murphy 3 seasons (Sweden (Div 1/Allsvenskan), Norway, UK 2012/13

Matt Myers (ECHL, 1 season, UK 2012/13

David Phillips (AHL/ECHL, 2 seasons, Denmark, 18 games, UK 2012/13

Ashley Tait (Italy, one season), UK 2012/13

Rob Dowd (Sweden (Allsvenskan, Sweden 2012/13

Craig Peacock (Denmark, 5 games)

Rob Farmer (Ottawa 67’s, 1 game, UK 2012/13)

Ben O’Connor (France, Kazakhstan, 4 seasons)

Of these players, most went abroad in the prime of their hockey careers or just before them (the exception was Ashley Tait, who left for Italy at the age of 33)-and the vast majorite headed to leagues similar to the UK and spent a relatively short time there before returning. If we look in the last five years and discount Tait, we see some of the brightest young stars in UK hockey, and we see them all go abroad and then return with the exception of Ben O’Connor-even David Phillips, with good reviews in the AHL and a solid ECHL spot elected to return…as did the “top player in British hockey” Rob Dowd. Peacock has even said in his press release that one of the reasons he left Denmark was because he wanted to return to the UK.

This is something we’re simply not seeing from other equivalent hockey nations. For a relatively fair comparison, let’s look at the French roster last season, for example, as the Ligue Magnus is generally considered to be of a similar standard to the EIHL and France a team on a fairly similar level of domestic hockey…and compare who on their roster had left France and…more to the point, where they were in 2012/13:

Yohann Auvitu (JYP, Finland)

Antonin Manavian (Innsbruck, Austria)

Yorick Treille (Chomutov, Czech Rep)

Damien Fleury (Sodertalje, Sweden)

Laurent Meunier (Straubing, Germany)

Charles Bertrand (Lukko Rauma, Finland)

Pierre Edouard Bellemare (Skelleftea, Sweden)

Sacha Treille (Sparta Prague, Czech Rep)

Johann Morant (Lugano, Switzerland)

Kevin Hecquefeuille (Karlskrona, Sweden)

Maxime Moisand (Odense, Denmark)

Since then, Yorick Treille has returned to his home country to play-but so has Rob Dowd…of the French roster that faced team GB last season-ten of them are still playing outside France, while only one of the British players who was outside the UK last year still is.

And there’s no age difference, either-the majority of the players listed above for France are in their mid-to-late 20s (only Treille and Meunier are older) and have already spent significant time outside their home country.

On the French roster that faced the UK last year, ten players had spent multi-year periods outside of France and weren’t playing in the domestic system, including a multitude of players playing in Scandinavia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland-the French were even missing Antoine Roussel and Stephane Da Costa, both of who have spent significant time in the AHL. Even allowing for Treille’s return and the age differences of Treille and Meunier, that that still leaves an impressive number of players in the prime of their careers still looking to better themselves, still looking to make a living out of hockey.

Compare that to Britain’s best and brightest-the likes of Dave Phillips, Dowd and now Peacock managing to get noticed by teams in a better league than the UK, taking a season or two and then, seemingly, deciding “actually, I’d rather come back and take the (relatively) easy money. Peacock, one of the top stars in UK hockey, decided after 5 games in Denmark that actually he’d rather return to being a big fish in a small pond than battle in an even slightly higher league-at least Dowd went for a season before deciding to come back to Sheffield.

I can hear the responses now of “oh, but they must be doing it for family reasons”. I’d imagine that the French players have families and loved ones in France, too…and yet they’re still willing to travel hundreds of miles to graft away in a far better league rather than return to their domestic league despite being almost guaranteed to become the highest earners and top stars in that league.

In short, the French players are, seemingly, far more ambitious and not willing to settle for merely being the biggest fish in a relatively small pond. So why aren’t the Brits?

It can’t be due to the wages dropping from an import limit-the French league is even more strict on imports than the British, and so top French players are paid like superstars, considered difference makers and feted just like top imports and Brits are in the UK, perhaps more so. The schedule in France, too, is far lighter than most Euro leagues, even the EIHL.

Language problems? I’d imagine it’s a lot easier to leave England and find someone who speaks English than leave France and find someone who speaks French. Besides, Ben O’Connor seems to manage to overcome his fine.

Standards? That can’t be right…the Ligue Magnus is the same level as the EIHL and yet French players still seem much more motivated by the prospect of playing at a higher level and making a true career out of hockey than do most British stars right now.

Simply put, looking at the efforts of our cousins across the Channel shames the likes of Dowd and Peacock in their ambition…these French players are willing to make the most of their talents and see just how far they can take them.

British stars, on the other hand? Let them earn relatively easy money in the EIHL and given a chance to rack up the points every season, and the prevailing opinion seems to be “why should we bother trying harder-we’ve got the majority of it on a plate here if we want it due to the import limits and demand for British players of real talent”.

It’s a lack of ambition, manifested in the fact that even when the new generation of top British player has gone abroad to try to make his fortune in the past few years, they’ve always come back knowing that there’s a comfortable safety net in the UK.

While that life may be suiting their aspirations just fine, and it can’t be doubt that the players still put a ton of effort into their physical training, the fact still remains that there seems to be a lack of will to push a career beyond a certain point for many players once they’ve reached the top of the domestic game-the drive evident in European and North Americans to constantly climb the hockey ladder just seems to be missing or fade away in the current generation of UK stars once they reach “top Brit” status.
Such a laissez-faire, unambitious outlook will be the one that continues to ensure that British hockey stays a relative backwater, as native-born players reach a certain point and then stop, content to reap the relatively minor rewards in the UK rather than compete and make the most of their talents by moving abroad. While that happens, the GB team will not have a hope of competing on the national stage even if they sign the greatest tactician on earth.

And more to the point, these players will continue to be the ones cheating themselves as well as their country as they throw away opportunities many young players in other, similar-level hockey countries would kill for.

If returns like Dowd’s and Peacock’s continue to be the norm and players like Ben O’Connor continue to be the exception, then GB hockey has already gone as far as it can go, and all that this attitude will give rise to in the eyes of many is dreams of what might have been for the national team, time after time.

And the fact that it could have been avoided had some of the stars of UK hockey truly made the most of their talents will only make it more tragic still.

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