Proposals to create 12-team Irish Hockey League come under spotlight

Ulster Elks coach, Ricky Lee
Ulster Elks coach, Ricky Lee

Ulster Elks coach Ricky Lee has broadly welcomed proposals for a new look Irish Hockey League although, like many, he does have his reservations.

The Ulster hockey fraternity will have its chance to join the debate on the proposals at a forum Deramore Park next Monday night (7.30pm).

Basically the idea, if accepted, would see the top five finishers from the Premier Leagues in Ulster and Leinster joined by two from Munster in a 12-team, 22 match season-long format.

The balance in numbers in the residual Premier League would be made up by elevating the top five finishers from Senior One which, incidentally, would mean a reprieve for Armagh who are 10th in the table and the team that finishes in the relegation play-off position which has still to be determined.

Among the main concerns already expressed are the cost for clubs of travelling around the various provinces, the availability or otherwise of schoolgirls for a significant proportion of the matches.

However, the two student sides at least have the benefit of their own facilities unlike other clubs who have to hire pitches on a fortnightly basis.

And one assumes IHL qualification would be regarded as a boost to both Queen’s and UUJ’s corporate, academic and sporting reputation and funding opportunities from within the two institutions would be opened up.

The Elks are largely students at the University of Ulster although they do have a few schoolgirls in their squad.

Their coach doesn’t necessarily share other clubs’ concerns over travelling distance and costs, but he is worried that the introduction of the new format could lead to player ‘drop out’ because of family or other commitments.

And looking at the bigger picture, Lee does empathise with other clubs’ reservations over the schoolgirl/school teacher issue.

Both Pegasus and Ards, who are guaranteed IHL status next season, have voiced their concerns in that regard.

“Overall, I would welcome the idea and the variety of opposition that it could bring but I do have some concerns.” Lee explained.

“One would be the tradition behind Saturday morning school hockey in Ulster having an impact on IHL teams reliant on schoolgirls or our teachers and students coaching those school teams.

“Another concern is the potential that this new format devalues the Irish Senior Cup and the significance of the that competition as a pathway to Europe.

“I have a feeling that many will complain about travel but in my opinion this isn’t a problem in itself. Ireland is such a small country.

“However, I wonder if we may see a drop out of older players with family and work commitments who either cannot (or don’t want to) commit to double header weekends and all day away games.

“I had also wondered that if wanting to reform, why stop at just one IHL Division? Rugby have two or three All Ireland League Divisions so would there not be an argument to have at least two tiers and incorporate all teams in the Premier League?

“Finally, I’m not sure relegation from the league is entirely fair. To keep the balance of the reworked Ulster Premier League if an Ulster team were to go up into the IHL, ultimately an Ulster team would have to come down.

“Should all five Ulster based IHL teams finish in the top five of the league, is it fair that one gets relegated out of the league?

“I think this manner of working the league compromises the very purpose of it.

“The strongest 10 teams in Ireland regardless of the province they come from should compete, with the weakest teams being relegated each year.

“A two-tier league approach may provide the cushion of allowing simply the 10 best teams regardless of province forming the top league while the second league was used to ensure a balance of numbers from each of the provinces.

“Having said all that, anything new will have teething issues and I think we probably just need to get on with it.”

Queen’s coach Simon Bell certainly agrees that the current format of the IHL is in need of change pointing the fact his team’s season will soon be over.

The Belfast students have never qualified for the IHL in any of its formats and Bell feels the fact the Premier League campaign for his and other teams in the same boat ends by early March or even earlier needs addressed.

“I haven’t really given a lot of thought to the future format of the Irish Hockey League as, up to this point, Queen’s has not been involved. “ he stated.

“The arrangements for this year’s competition may work well for the four Ulster Premier League teams that are playing, and in accommodating international commitments, but I am not sure that it will have been that well received by those sides that are not involved.

“For some, the competitive season may be over before the end of February!

“That leaves players without competitive hockey for the best part of six months and means that a lot of Premier League players will be left kicking their heels during two traditional ‘hockey months’, March and April.

“Therefore, I think a comprehensive review of the IHL is timely and the working group deserves credit for the amount of time it has invested in producing a very detailed proposal for consideration by the different branches.

“It remains to be seen how the ‘paper’ is received, particularly in Ulster and Munster, where the biggest commitment, in terms of travel and money, will have to be made.”