Mid-season interval could help boost indoor game

Sarah Macaulay, Elks
Sarah Macaulay, Elks

The University of Ulster is to upgrade its indoor hockey facilities which could provide an alternative venue for major tournaments, such as the all Ireland series, in the future.

And Ulster Elks coach Ricky Lee has added his weight to the argument that there should be a mid-winter break from the outdoor game here when indoor hockey should take pride of place.

Lee points to the fact that the domestic season will be over for his team, and the vast majority of the other senior sides, by the first week in March.

That will mean that his players will face a massive seven month break before the new season which traditionally starts in September.

Lee’s team and most of the others who played at the weekend battled against the elements as driving rain and the bitter cold made conditions awkward so much so that the players had difficulty holding their sticks - and that was on one of the ‘better’ days weather wise!

Irish hockey is out on a limb as far as the rest of Europe is concerned when it comes to the indoor version of the sport where it is very much a second class citizen in this part of the world although it was massive 20 years ago.

Just four teams took part in the recent all Ireland championship at the Queen’s PE Centre although all but Galway were from Ulster.

That represented a reduction on the previous year and at present there is no obligation placed upon teams to play indoor hockey.

Vienna hosted the European Nations Championship at the weekend and a full house saw Germany beat hosts Austria in a dramatic final.

Closer to home England, Scotland and Wales all take a winter break and play indoors and it’s not just confined to adults as schoolkids take part in a wide range of leagues as well.

Various obstacles have been placed in the way of teams in this part of the world following suit and the rush to complete the fixture list by the end of February is due to the fact the Irish Hockey League gets under way in March.

Some people will say that having a break from outdoor hockey in say January might not be the answer as the worst of the weather may occur later in the year like was the case in 2013.Others will point to the fact that there simply aren’t enough dates on the calendar to complete the outdoor fixture list and the situation would worsen if we had a bad winter.

But if having a winter break when indoor takes over, works across the water where the weather is not dramatically different, why can’t it work here? That is the question Lee poses.

“Players want to be playing in decent weather when they will be able to enjoy their hockey and I know my team would love to have the chance to play in say April and May but to have potentially seven months off before the new season is not something they want.” he said.

“In England they play outdoor hockey on Sundays as well as Saturdays and there are weekend double headers when teams often play two matches.

“I don’t see why that can’t happen here and then there wouldn’t be a problem fitting in an indoor tournament or league during a break in the outdoor season.

“There are a lot of players who are involved in hockey on Sundays with representative training sessions and youth leagues, for example, and at the Elks our under 11s play then as well.”

The Elks are certainly leading by example with their new investment into the Sports Hall which used to be one of the venues for the Ulster Indoor League in what some would call the good old days when the game was taken seriously.

“The university is in the process of buying new boards for the perimeter of the hall, new goals and indoor hockey sticks and we will be using the new facilities for the younger players at the club as well as the older ones.” Lee added.

“At this time of the year many teams have to train indoors with the weather as pitches are often frozen at night as ours was on Monday.

“Watching the recent tournament at the Queen’s PEC there were quite a lot of spectators from other teams watching and enjoying it.”

The latter point is important as there is very little enjoyment in watching outdoor hockey at this time of the year and clubs who don’t have indoor viewing areas for spectators are very much in the majority.

Mossley, Lisnagarvey and Banbridge are among the exceptions but sitting in the neutral dug-out at the Dub at a game before Christmas provided an argument, if one was needed, to emphasise the virtues of indoor hockey.

At one point the game had to be stopped as the goalposts had moved off their spot due to the gale force winds and on another occasion during the match the dug outs were about to take off!

It seems likely that it will be player and club power and not support from the national governing body which will keep indoor hockey alive as the main focus, understandably some would say, is on the international teams and the IHL.

But if the likes of the Elks, Ards, Queen’s and Portadown can continue their efforts to spread the gospel and maybe ‘go it alone’ with an Ulster Indoor League or an invitational tournament then we might just see Ulster falling into line with the rest of Europe.