Hockey will enter a new era on the island next September with the introduction of a season-long Irish Hockey League for the first time, following the IHA EGM vote in the Stillorgan Park Hotel.
The shift sees the top men’s and women’s clubs taken out of their provincial leagues to play in the national competition, encompassing 18 league games over the course of the season.
The proposal came about with a view to providing more frequent high quality fixtures for the country’s top players, avoiding the regular mismatches in the provincial leagues.
Having one elite competition will also be much more manageable to combine with an ever increasing international schedule while the Irish Hockey Association are also hopeful that the new league will be a much more marketable proposition.
Until this vote, Ireland was the only country in Europe without a full national league.
For the men’s competition, the top four clubs from this season in both Leinster and Ulster and the Munster champions will make up the 2015/16 season along with one wildcard qualifier.
To make up the women’s league, four Leinster, three Ulster, two Munster and one Connacht club will qualify for the inaugural season.
After that, there will be one automatic relegation and one demotion playoff position for the ninth place finisher. Promotion will be earned via an eight-team, end of season qualifier system off the back of the regional leagues.
An initial proposal to introduce a two-tier national league for the men’s competition was not passed, receiving 52% of the vote.
Many reservations were expressed in the build-up to the EGM, most forcefully by Ulster Hockey, who expressed serious concerns about the consultation process.
Increased costs and timing clashes with schools hockey were also cited as big concerns with the northern branch feeling such arguments were being largely ignored by the IHA in their representations prior to the vote.
It led to Ulster Hockey to call for their constituent clubs not to attend the meeting.
They reiterated those concerns forcefully at the EGM, Executive Manager Angela Platt saying that while the idea has merit for the top end of the sport, on balance, it would do damage at grassroots level.
She added that there were “no changes to these key issues with no choices or alternatives” on the table and they branded the IHA’s promotion of the IHL proposal as “divisive”.
Such concerns were echoed during the debate prior to the vote with Pegasus’s Michelle Rainey explaining the impact on her club with the schools issue.
Ricky Lee, of Ulster Elks, was concerned that it would cost, by his club’s estimates, £67 extra per player per season to take part in the new model.
John Flannery of the LHA outlined that the province would be voting against the proposal, saying “the current model is so disruptive to the provincial, foundation league as to make it almost impossible for the branch to continue”.Like Ulster Hockey, he felt that the branches and the IHA need to get around a table sooner rather than later to thrash out a better proposal.
Annadale’s Andy Smyth said that his club’s position was that there were too many “ifs, buts and maybes” about the proposal for his club to be in a position to support it even though they really wanted to see it happen, suggesting if the proposal “were a business plan, it would be thrown out”.
Ten Ulster clubs, though, did attend the meeting and some were among the votes in favour of the new proposal which was passed with 87% voting in favour – 36 votes indicating a yes, five against with three abstentions.
On the flip side, Monkstown’s Trevor Watkins evoked sentiments akin to GAA’s inception in the Hayes Hotel, talking about the IHA’s history, setting up the first national competition in the world when they introduced the Irish Senior Cup 120 years ago.
On a more serious note, Watkins and club mate David Varian said that his club’s preparation for the Euro Hockey League next weekend has been fitful as a result of a lack of partciularly competitive ties.
The example of Banbridge’s 14-0 win over Belfast Harlequins in the Ulster Premier League was cited for the distance that now exists between top tier clubs, providing games of little value for either side.
Andrew Walker, of Three Rock Rovers, added that there is a need for international players to be fully available for the new league, especially from a marketing perspective.
The most passionate and best received speech came from Mark Murray from Lisnagarvey, as well as the Irish U-18 manager, who summed up the proposal as a “reasonable step into the dark, not a massive leap into the unknown” as the “status quo is simply not good enough”.
He was concerned with the distance between the IHA and the Ulster branch and added that there is a “need for change”.
“Our players are massively in favour of this and are badgering me, as an old geezer involved in the club, to get a full IHL. Those players are telling me they want this because the IHL is so good.”
He added that his Irish U-18 panel could not get training time together due to the volume of low quality fixtures last season.
“We need to reduce the amount of fixtures, increase the quality so we can work with those players for the Europeans and prepare properly.
“We need Irish hockey to have the best possible chance of being successful on an international stage. We need to provide better quality opposition and option two is a good compromise.
“If this works out to be rubbish, we can come back to it in two years time but, at the moment, everybody is saying it [the club season] is wrong and is not working. We have to do something and this represents a reasonable compromise for both elite hockey and grassroots.”
***Speaking after the meeting, IHA chief executive Mike Heskin cut a relieved figure and said that while a national league is now in the offing, there is plenty of work that must now be done.
“The real value was that there was a lot of opinions, concerns were out there and we are now aware of them. We have ten months now to get this right. There will be difficulties and teething problems.”
He added, the IHA now have “a product we can go and sell. We can demand more coverage media-wise because we have a national league.
“Following on from the participation figures we got recently which says we are up around 140,000 to 150,000 participants; they are the kind of figures that mean you can go to an editor.
“This is the interest level and we have a product worth supporting, With the media, hopefully we get the finance which we can invest in the competition and make it more lucrative for the clubs.”
Heskin paid tribute to Inez Cooper and her working group while he also thanked the clubs for their feedback throughout the consultation phases.
“We had a huge amount of information from around the country from the forums and the written submssions.
“We are also delighted the clubs have allowed us to record how they voted. From there, we can sit down and look at those and make them available to the public so people will know what way certain clubs were thinking and why.
“It was interesting also the involvement of clubs that might not normally be in the IHL environment. They felt it was worth travelling to express their opinion. Clubs from Connacht or as far away as Clonakilty travelled.
“It’s encouraging; these are people seeing that they are not there now but we want hockey to go there and hopefully we will follow. There was always going to be fear and a vulnerability and risk. But I hope that when we get to the start of the new IHL, a lot of the risk will have been removed and fear abated.”