IHL debate: serious questions need to be addressed by IHA

** Dutchman Arjen Van As gives a very interesting perspective of what he believes an increased Irish Hockey League needs to address. He has lived in Ireland for the past three years, playing with Three Rock for two seasons before linking up with Rathgar’s first team this year.

He brings a relatively outside set of eyes from his experience of playing with Gronigen in northeast Netherlands, far away from the main base for the sport, and in Rome.

While he says he is in favour of a full Irish Hockey League, he does suggest that there are large number of unanswered questions that need to be addressed.

You would almost call Ireland too small a country to not play a national league. In France or Italy or Spain it is not uncommon to travel the entire day just for one match.

I remember getting up at 6am to take an airplane to play a game in Sardinia when I was playing in the second highest division in Italy. Yes, travel costs time and money but, for those willing to play at the highest level, sacrificing a bit more time should not be the issue.

You either aspire to play at a high level or you play it recreationally. But those two concepts do not necessarily bite each other.

Let me be clear that I am all for an IHL, I have played nationally in Italy and the Netherlands, and have had many adventures on my travels to and from the games. For me it was a real team-bonding experience but, in the discussion, there seems to be so much unclear and, echoing the Ulster’s branch view, it does sometimes feel a bit as if the IHA wants to push this through no matter what.

Arjen Van As, right, in club action last season Pic: Mark Elmore

Arjen Van As, right, in club action last season Pic: Mark Elmore

I often hear arguments where Belgium is seen as example. But this comparison cannot hold true. The big factor in Belgium for hockey is the family aspect of the game.

All clubs have their own facilities, including a bar and/or cafeteria, and very often all family members(kids and parents) are involved in activities during the weekend. The same is true for countries like Germany and the Netherlands.

Although as a Dutchman, I do not know that much about GAA, it seems that the way they are organised might be more comparable to the way hockey is organised in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In that sense, Ireland seems to be a bit more comparable to Italy, where most clubs do not own the pitches and most clubs won’t have the luxury of a bar/clubhouse next to the pitch.

They have managed to organise a national league, mainly due to government support and fiscal advantages for corporate sponsorships, supporting the clubs financially and seeing that they more than once have foreign players flown in to play in the highest leagues, they do seem to be able to generate enough cash to arrange this.

They even have some television exposure on RAI for the final play offs and cup competition, but still the sport is unable to gain any momentum in Italy. Most players in Italy will be second or third generation players, there is almost no expansion in its hockey family.

If you want hockey in Ireland to grow it is not only a question of a national league, it is a question of how to socially organise it. Do you choose for a quick gain in level, or do you want to choose for sustained growth in the number of participants in the game? And there seems to be ample room for growth if the numbers of the Irish Sports Council are correct (about 100,000 kids played hockey the last year).

There is no question about the advantage of an IHL for the players and clubs at the higher level; they will have more games on a high level and players will be challenged more and this effect you might see almost directly. But in the discussion of how this might affect the clubs or branches I feel that there is a lot of guessing being done.

I see many arguments but I am missing numbers in the discussion. I hear arguments about why it will or will not work, I hear arguments about what will or might happen, but I have seen no numbers anywhere. In this digital age, it should not be too hard to set up a survey somewhere.

Why do we not ask the players and coaches of all teams involved to fill in an survey? Ask simple questions like whether they want a national league, whether they will try to play in it if their team qualifies, would they change club for playing in it?

Are they currently involved as a coach, trainer or manager for another (club) team, or school. If so, do they foresee conflicts arising from that and will they then choose to play or coach. Are they willing to contribute more if necessary to accommodate travel? And how much could or would they be willing to spend on a yearly basis?

With answer on questions like these you might at least be able to foresee part of the impact the IHL might have on local hockey in the first two years, not only based on assumptions.

Talking about assumptions, The IHA hopes to find more sponsors but how? Is there already an action plan? How do we increase exposure for sponsors, expecting the amount of spectators during games to increase will probably not be the best action plan.

As an example would you allow the league to be renamed like they do in Belgium (e.g. national men’s league is called the Audi league), or would we allow club names to contain the sponsor name like in Italy ( e.g. HC Roma de Sisti, de Sisti being an Italian lighting company).

Is there contact with journalists and RTE over possible increase of exposure? In papers and on television, or internet? All of this might increase the marketability of hockey, for corporate sponsors. But is it possible, legally allowed and socially accepted?

I am unfortunately not able to answer all of these questions, but I hope it helps people to think of the reason why and what they are actually choosing for.

Arjen Van As

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