With four World Cup stars populating sides who reach the German playoffs last season, it was perhaps something of a surprise Tipperary woman Edel Nyland was the first Irish player to net in the Bundesliga this season.
She was on the mark for newly promoted Bremer HC against Uhlenhorst Mulheim about 10 minutes before Katie Mullan got her first goal for Club an der Alster. A day later, Nyland scored again in a 1-1 draw with TSV Mannheim, marking a decent start to life in the German league after four years in the US with the Longwood Lancers.
It continues one of the more interesting routes to the big leagues, one that started at Ursuline Thurles when she first picked up a hockey stick in PE in first year.
Prior to that, Gaelic games were the main event but any sort of activity was embraced.
“We are that typical sporty family and my parents gave us the opportunity to try everything under the sun when we were younger,” she told The Hook. “Over the years I did horse riding, taekwondo, and am a qualified lifeguard, but GAA was always our main priority, and there was rarely an evening of the week where my Mum would be free from bringing my siblings or I to a match or training!”
She played camogie and football with Loughmore Castleiney from the age of five. While that club did not have enough girls to field teams after Feile (Under-14s), her trips to Drom for camogie and Templemore for the big ball were fruitful enough to see her play county up to minor level in both codes.
Through her schooldays, hockey became a bigger and bigger part of her sporting make-up, becoming an expert at interchanging her stick and ball skills.
“Tipperary is obviously not exactly a notorious hockey stronghold, so if I had gone to any other school I most certainly would never have discovered hockey.
“Because of my years of hurling, I was reasonably competent from the start as a little 12-year-old. However, ask any trainer that had to deal with me and they will tell you of the struggles of me essentially playing hurling with a hockey stick!
“I used one hand more often than two, the ball was rarely on the ground and when I did use two hands, my right hand often made its way to the top of the stick. That said, arguably not much has changed now, I am just a bit more refined in the art of hurling hockey!”
Indeed, it is something that stayed with her all the way to the US where coaches eventually stopped trying to fight it and embrace her unique stylings.
“Coaches generally find it a little worrying. The first few years in secondary school if my trainers said ‘put your two hands on the stick’ once, they said it one million times. In college Iain [Byers] did not know what to make of me, and at first was adamant that I should adapt a more normal style of playing.
“This did not work for either of us because playing hockey with hurling tendencies is my innate style of play and when I tried to stop, I lost who I was as a player. So we compromised and worked to refine my skills more so that I play inside the line of legal – for the most part – have better control over my 3D skills and a better idea of when to use them (and not to overuse it).
“But also retaining my individualistic flair that makes things, I am told, at times difficult for defenders! Iain put the word ‘unconventional’ on my style of hockey, and I couldn’t agree more!”
It is a style that caught the eye for Munster and Irish Under-16 and 18 teams and her next plan after school was to head to UCD to study psychology. One of her coaches on those teams – Mark Egner – had moved to Longwood and suggested an alternative option.
After a few Skype calls with Byers, she was on her way, starting off a college career laden with awards. It included setting a Division 1 goalscoring record of 18 in 2016 and she was named in the All MAC (Mid-Atlantic Conference) selection for four successive years.
She adapted to the American way of things perfectly despite the format and the approach to the game being a world away from anything she knew before.
“Americans love statistics in sport, and with those statistics come with plenty of honorary awards and teams. I didn’t even know what an assist was when I went over first!
“The accolades and awards are not my favourite because they are pretty much all statistic based, and so there are some people who are looked past, just because they aren’t either putting the ball over the line at one end of the pitch, or saving it from going over the line at the other end.
“Hockey, in general, was definitely different. They love to run and love to gym and they bring this onto the field. The standard varied so much as there were 70 odd teams in division one, and the way the season works, you play teams in your conference as well as out of conference.
“In the same weekend, we could have played against #1 UNC, and #67 the following day. Just from the variety and volume of training and playing though you get so much hockey in four years, it would be impossible not to develop.
“You find out a lot about yourself by being put in a position where you might have 7am running, lectures for a few hours, an individual in the afternoon, a two hour training session, and an assignment due the next day!
“You have no choice but to learn how to balance your time so that you can stay on top of things academically, as well as performing athletically to a consistently high level over the three month span of season. I have no doubt that I came home from America a better hockey player, and generally more well-rounded athlete.”
There is the fear of being left outside the loop when it comes to the Irish pathway. Nyland, though, says it was not something that would be “enough to stop me taking these opportunities”.
“I reckoned if it was meant to be, it would come. I would learn more and grow more as a person by moving away.”
She did add that Irish hockey has made more of an effort in recent times to keep tabs on those abroad. In particular, Dave Passmore reached out the Christmas before the Euro Under-21s in Valencia to offer a trial which eventually led to her inclusion last summer.
Nyland has since gone on to be part of the Irish Under-23 selection this summer that played in Antwerp following the conclusion of her American hockey career with a psychology degree with a minor in German.
“I really believe the American set up in terms of facilities, opportunities, volume of play and financial support is something that young players should seriously consider, and knowing that Irish hockey is not going to disregard you as a lost cause when you are 18 for making that decision is very reassuring.
“The fact that every match is either live streamed or readily available afterward and every statistic from each match on an individual player basis is available, it makes it easy for coaches to keep tabs on individual players, it does not have to be a mystery how someone is getting on!”
And so to Bremen, a move that dovetails her multiple interests perfectly.
“I minored in German and always wanted to be able to speak it fluently, and I think this is only really possible by living in the country, so it had always been in my head to take a year out there!”
She plans to do a masters in dietetics but is missing a few modules from her time in America. Handily, UCD offers the elements online to fill the gaps.“So I thought why live in Ireland? Iain had contact to a German player in America who is from Bremen so put me in touch with her. Shortly after, Martin Shultze, the head coach expressed interest that I join them for the year. I also talked to the likes of Nikki Evans who is playing with UHC Hamburg, and everything I heard back was positive.”
At Bremen, she has joined an ambitious squad on the way up. They have also signed South African internationals Quanita Bobbs and Lilian du Plessis and have a number of German youth internationals who have won national underage championships in recent years.
Schultze, himself, has previously been a head coach with the UHC Hamburg men’s side, winning three Euro Hockey League titles in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
“It ticked all boxes; a good standard of play and a great coaching set up. It is also very exciting because they are a grassroots club with some members having playing since they were eight years old, who were just this season promoted to the Bundesliga.
“I saw it as the perfect opportunity to play at the highest level in Germany, for a family oriented club that was on the up, and I am delighted with my decision!”
Schultze has also organised Nyland with a three-month placement with a dietitian at the local hospital in between her regular German lessons. It means it will be a very productive year amid an “incredible” standard of hockey.
“It is very different both to America and to Irish hockey, and only being a month in, every day is a learning curve.
“Like most things in Germany, it is definitely very precise and technical, you are made to focus on the smallest details, and every day I come across aspects of the game that are explained to me as just being ‘typical German’, but it is exciting to play in a new atmosphere.
“Although the Bundesliga match schedule is exhausting with two games each weekend, the German culture that surrounds the sport makes it easy to keep going.
“Hockey is just so popular here, and that is something I am definitely not used to in Ireland. Before each home game, it is normal to walk into a sports shop or supermarket and see pamphlets of the team promoting a game, or to be driving down the street and see a big banner on the side of the road!
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“Each morning after a match or in the lead up to matches there will be big write ups in the paper and, recently, the local TV channel even came to our game. It is really cool!
“The sport, particularly with this years Bundesliga promotion, means so much to the members of the club of all ages and the support we get at home games each weekend is incredible.”
And does she hope it will be a springboard to a senior Irish cap, especially in the wake of the Green Army’s World Cup exploits?
“Of course, who does not want to play for their country at the top level? However, playing top international hockey is a vocation, and despite how hockey-oriented my life thus far seems, I have never really let hockey solely determine my decisions.
“America was a fantastic life opportunity that hockey allowed to happen for me, and the same here in Germany. Hockey has just continued to give me opportunities, and as long as that keeps happening I will continue to take them.
“If I am good enough and the opportunity to continue playing Irish hockey is available to me, it is definitely something I would be interested in, and I believe playing this year in Germany –both outdoor and indoors – will only help in continue to setting me up on this path.”