Cooper calls on clubs to debate future of Irish Hockey League

Inez Cooper, the Irish Hockey Association’s Chair of Competitions, is encouraging all clubs to debate the Irish Hockey League proposal that is being brought before an EGM on Sunday, October 5 (11.30am Stillorgan Park Hotel) and to then come along and make sure their vote counts.

A vote in favour of the proposal on the table would see a “full IHL” coming into effect for the 2015/16 season with a two-tiered national competition proposed (full details can be found on the IHA website here).

IHA Chair of Competitions Inez Cooper

IHA Chair of Competitions Inez Cooper

She explained that there are a number of drivers of this proposal, the development of the sport at elite level while key among the reasons is not the only reason.

“Firstly, we really need a platform to promote our sport. The Sports Council survey asked schoolchildren what sport they have played in the past year. The results are pretty astounding; hockey came out at about 100,000. (This is the Republic only)”.

“At times, I think we are like an underground movement – why doesn’t this level of involvement get recognized? We need to create heroes, attract sponsors and bring more money in through sponsorship and the Sports Council to increase the visibility of hockey. Funding currently is really poor compared to other sports.”

“When we see women’s rugby getting in €1.3m with 3,700 adult players. We’re missing a trick here and we are not helping promote ourselves. A national league would be a pillar for helping to get regular exposure for hockey.”

The often cited comparison is to Belgium, a country that made a move toward a men’s professional league, a move credited with boosting the country’s rise to the world’s top four having languished outside Olympic qualification for 32 years between 1976 to 2008.

The sport has developed significantly at elite level but also at participation level where Belgium is set to overtake Ireland in the coming year or two having had less than half of the playing population a decade ago.

Wentink (Belgium’s Technical Director) has previously admitted that it was a financial risk but that without a target and a method to get there, Belgian hockey would stagnate.

“You look at Belgium and ask which came first? The money or the success?” Cooper adds. “I think they go hand in hand. But for a few seconds [at the 2012 Olympic qualifiers], we could have had that success and I’m sure the financial outcome would have been very different.

“We have got to take a risk and create a positive situation. Women’s rugby has proved a point; cricket has proved a point. They have got money and exposure because they have had success. We are not doing nearly enough to promote our sport. It is not visible; we are not giving those 100,000 children something to aspire to.”

The proposals for an expanded IHL came about following a lengthy consultation process that initially saw the competition’s committee consult with the provincial branches and their competition groups as well as the IHA’s high performance unit.

From there, the floor was opened in a series of provincial forums, actively seeking players, clubs and umpires’ opinions about the best format to progress the sport in Ireland.

Following the forums in the respective provinces, Cooper says that the overwhelming feedback was that there is a need to change and develop the IHL.

2014 Irish Hockey League champions UCD Pic: Adrian Boehm

2014 Irish Hockey League champions UCD Pic: Adrian Boehm

“When we did the consultation process, I never heard ‘it’s not broken, don’t fix it’. There was a resounding voice for change; the difficulty is there isn’t consensus on what that change is to be. There was a consistent message – even from the most resistant – for change.

“The final driver for a new IHL is that our players want to be the best, to play against the best.” That is the nature of competition. It is not just elite players who want this, we hear it from senior club players.

Should change not occur, Cooper feels this could cause significant damage to the progression of the sport.

“For our players and our sport, we are always looking inwards rather than outwards. We should consider our competition that is out there and hockey is losing young people to other sports and we are now losing our female adult players to rugby and other sports. We’re just missing a trick.

“If we go back to the Belgium example, it wasn’t just that more money came into the sport, the participation levels shot up – clubs filled up, new clubs and facilities emerged – all challenges, but exciting challenges.

“I think without foresight and a move to a full IHL, we would continue to tread water possibly getting hit more and more. We would see players go to other sports, particularly in the women’s game as well as continuing the lost opportunity with all those school kids that we aren’t converting into regular club players. Women’s rugby provides an opportunity to try another sport and maybe an Olympic appearance or represent your country.”

“People have asked ‘what would happen if there was no change?’ I think it will create a vacuum. When we go back to 2008 when the IHL was formed, the best part of two or three years were lost after the initial proposal was rejected.

“I understand and accept there’s a fear of change. That was the same when we went into the IHL first time round and now, nobody wants to go back to the old system. With all its faults, clubs and players aspire to be in the IHL. There are some genuine fears – costs, loss of players – but these are things that can be managed and are addressed in the proposal.”

In terms of player movement, Cooper says that there is an onus on clubs to provide an attractive environment for their players.

“At the consultation stage at the forum in Dublin, Trevor Watkins was very eloquent on this point. Your club has to work hard , create a development plan, to develop from within and set out an ambitious and attractive stall.

Monkstown club man Trevor Watkins Pic: Adrian Boehm

Monkstown club man Trevor Watkins Pic: Adrian Boehm

“Monkstown epitomise that. If you go back to year one of the IHL, they scraped into the IHL and weren’t really contenders in the first few seasons. But they were working on a plan and went from there.

“If we are promoting our sport, getting visibility, creating heroes, I feel we could see a lot more youngsters and players coming into the game. It’s a cycle, but if we see participation shoot up, I don’t think clubs will be worrying so much about player movement..”

That idea of creating heroes is a central theme in her proposed marketing and promotion of the enlarged IHL, making role models of our top stars, going beyond simple coverage of games and major events. “To see the numbers of kids in Boom (European Championships) and The Hague (World Cup) and the excitement generated by being with the players and at the game, it would leave you in awe – fantastic to see’

“We have very sporadic opportunities to promote our sport. We don’t get enough media coverage to focus in on individuals. We have some fantastically marketable people in our sport; they ooze vitality, competitive, leading healthy lives. Why wouldn’t they be out there as role models for our youngsters?”

“I firmly believe, if we have something we can promote, the financial side of things will come together. Money coming in would be about promoting the league but also about supporting the clubs. For Leinster and Ulster clubs, when you breakdown the actual number of away out of province games, the cost differential is not much, the increase is approximately 2 to 3 games – definitely there are people creating noise on this without actually looking through what a season’s program would look like.

“Ireland is the only top European country without a national league. With my role in the EHF, I get the chance to talk to other countries, places like Italy which is huge in size but does not have as many players as us.

“Their national league has teams in Sardinia and Sicily and the north of Italy; it’s totally dispersed. They fly to matches – there and back in the day; match times are scheduled around flights. When we compare to other sports and other countries, travel and cost should not be an issue. I believe it is a mindset issue.

“Similarly, we are talking about [this affecting] 2 percent of all teams in Irish hockey. The key thing is, it’s not the whole club that is no longer playing provincial hockey. It’s one team. The province is still central and paramount for that club so I think such fears are overstated.”

Cooper added “It gets suggested to me, that this is only for the elite clubs and while other clubs may understand the arguments for growing and promoting the sport, there are clubs in Leinster who will see this as a threat. I say quite the opposite! – It’s an opportunity for many clubs.

Cooper believes clubs like Muckross could be beneficiaries in the new structure

“I’ll use the women’s game to illustrate. Division 1 has 3 ‘competitions’ – those four to five clubs battling for IHL, two to three clubs battling to avoid last place and the remainder for the midpoint position. We have Division 2 as a barrier for developing clubs to break through due to the number of second teams.

“A full IHL would see a competitive Division 1 with the top 3 finishes in the play-offs with the other provincial top finishers and 9th in the IHL with two IHL places up for grabs. I know clubs like Muckross, see this as very attractive – they have a successful development plan in operation for a few years and can see that being in the IHL within 1 season of a full IHL is within their grasp and potential.

“It really is what lens you look through. That same opportunity is there for any club who can set out their stall and ambitions to their players and puts a plan in place to achieve it.”

It provides plenty of food for thought and Cooper is hopeful that clubs, having been given the opportunity to vote at the EGM on the introduction of an increased Irish Hockey League consider the proposals seriously.

She believes it is in the long-term interests of the sport, benefiting the elite and senior club players with an elevated stage while also giving a much higher profile to market the game to newcomers and bring more kids and players into the sport.

“I would love to see every club debate it and whatever vote they take, they have a mandate to go to the EGM and represent their club’s wishes. I would say to players and clubs – make sure your club does turn out and vote!”

** Written by Stephen Findlater on behalf of the Irish Hockey Association.

Make sure you have registered your delegate who will cast your club’s vote by emailing by Sunday 28th September (queries 01 7163269)

EGM Details: Sunday 5th October, Stillorgan Park Hotel

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