OPINION: When is a ban not a ban?

** Ulster-based journalist John Flack talks about how the EY Hockey League has impacted on media coverage in Ulster since its introduction this season. (Article not to be reproduced without permission of John Flack)

One of the positive spin-offs from the introduction of the EY Irish Hockey League has been the increased media coverage the competition has generated.

BBC NI have a weekly round-up of all the action as a regular feature on its Saturday Sportsound radio programme as hockey has returned to the football-dominated programme after an absence of almost a decade.

The broadcaster showed highlights of the opening women’s game between the Ulster Elks and Pembroke both on television and online and there are plans for more of the same later in the season.

However while Ulster Hockey will welcome the increased amount of hockey on the airwaves they won’t always like what they hear.

Last weekend, it was suggested that the men’s and women’s clubs who opted to take up their invitations to participate in the IHL had been ‘banned’ from taking part in their respective knock-out compeitions namely the Kirk Cup and Ulster Shield.

The Ulster authorities would reject the terminology and point to the fact that the clubs concerned are ineligible after a proposal to reinstate them failed at the AGM last May, prompting the question: ‘when is a ban not a ban?’

Anyway, the clubs aren’t permitted to take part, prompting Cookstown coach Stephen Cuddy (speaking on BBC NI) to partly attribute his team’s disappointing start to the IHL to a dearth of fixtures before hostilities resumed at the weekend.

The Ulster governing body was disappointed that the clubs concerned defied a recommendation that they shouldn’t take part in the EY League. The Ulster clubs, having gone against their governing body’s wishes, were then excluded from their domestic cup competitions in a move that one non-IHL coach described as “petty and vindictive”.

In contrast, Leinster allows its IHL clubs to participate in the province’s knock-out competitions and, from an Ulster point of view, the decision to restrict the competition to bona-fide Ulster Premier League sides could be viewed as an own goal.

The two finals staged back-to-back in a St Stephen’s Day double-header, is, or rather used to be, the biggest day on the local hockey calendar and a big earner for the cash-strapped Ulster Branch, whose funding has already been cut due to budgetary constraints imposed by local government.

Four-figure crowds were the norm on December 26 but it is doubtful that the two finalists this, and in future years, will provide as much spectator appeal although they will, of course, still welcome their big day out.

Take Sunday’s Kirk Cup semi-finals, for example, when fewer than 100 spectators turned up in Belfast for the game between Instonians and Belfast Harlequins after the first semi involving Mossley and Civil Service was called off due to a flooded pitch.

Kirk Cup match-ups like Cookstown vs Lisnagarvey will not happen this season. Pic: Adrian Boehm

Kirk Cup match-ups like Cookstown vs Lisnagarvey will not happen this season. Pic: Adrian Boehm

BBC NI had covered the semi-final double-header in each of the past three years but, on this occasion, the cameras were conspicuous by their absence.

And, speaking from personal experience, I know for a fact that sports editors have scaled down their coverage of the knock-out competitions as the ‘big-guns’ aren’t involved.

Media coverage although I may be perceived as somewhat biased is, in my opinion, vital for the sport of hockey to raise its profile and act as an incentive for sponsors to become involved.

Ulster’s decision to exclude or ban, call it what you will, the IHL clubs from the knock-out competitions in the province has certainly backfired as far as the Kirk Cup and Ulster Shield are concerned.

Most Ulster IHL clubs were unhappy at the decision – Ards captain Caroline Adams actually stood up and publicly said so to the Ulster President David Larmour during the medal ceremony at the conclusion of a pre-season tournament.

The decision could, of course, be overturned at next year’s AGM and Stephen Cuddy and Caroline Adams, to name but two, would certainly welcome such a course of action.

Kirk Cup semi-finals: Mossley v Civil Service postponed due to flooded pitch; Instonians 5 (J Dowling, W Robinson, S Kelso, A Coulter 2) Belfast Harlequins 2 (A Smythe 2)

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