The latest World Junior Championships took place recently, and many eyes were focused on the Czech Republic to see if Team Canada could continue their domination of the tournament. They did indeed win the gold, but the gap perhaps has been closed between itself and the other top nations.
However, myself and the UK hockey fans were looking towards Latvia as GB U20's were taking part in the Div 1B championships. GB at this level tends to yo-yo between Div 1 and Div 2, and this tournament was to be no different as the British kids ended up finishing bottom of the group and relegated with a record 0-4-1 in the 5 games. Conceding an average of 5 goals a game is never going to do you any good in a tournament, especially if you're scoring less than 2 per game.
So what's the problem? Why aren't Britain better at ice hockey? We're not really a winter sports nation, we just don't have the climate, so perhaps people just don't think about playing the sport? The better athletes may well end up playing more "traditional" sports such as football or rugby, and so the talent pool that GB is drawing from may well be reduced compared to other nations.
With that in mind, you can take a look at the numbers involved in junior development. GB lies 14th in the world for registered juniors, 13th for registered players and 12th for number of indoor rinks. Climate becomes less of an issue with ice hockey since it's played indoors (unless you live in Buffalo on New Year's Day), so it is perhaps more about availability. But with more rinks than nations such as Latvia (promoted to U20's Pool A) and Denmark, surely the availability is there? If you purely compare within this year's Div 1 sides, GB had the 5th most junior players, and the 4th most overall players and rinks, but yet still got relegated. Out of the countries, only one has failed to produce an NHL quality player? Can you guess which? That's right, GB. All indications are pointing to the system so far!
Whilst the rinks exist, they are not utilised in the most suitable way for ice hockey. It's still very much a minority sport over here, and the teams that play out of them must compete for ice time with other events such as figure skating, public skating. My local rink also has more teams than it can handle playing out of it. Two senior sides, 2 junior sides at every level (U18, U16, U14, U12, U10), a Women's side and a recreational side. That's 14 teams off one ice pad. The end result of that is that the junior sides are limited to one hour of ice time per week, often at ridiculous times of the night. That can't be enough?
Still, other nations seem to manage it. I think perhaps the main problem lies with the coaches. They are all well meaning guys (or girls), often parents of kids on the team with more than a passing interest in the sport. But they're not coaches - not trained to a high level anyway. There is also a culture in the sport, and probably in the country, to win at all costs. The junior development system in the UK has a promotion and relegation set up between two divisions at every age limit, and player development can often be sacrificed for keeping the team up, or making sure promotion is achieved.
This can mean that a top line can expect to receive 60% of the ice time, a second line 30% and everyone else fighting over that last 10%. That's not going to develop anyone, the top players get tired and make mistakes, the other guys have restricted chances. And how they get assigned is purely coaches opinion, another coach may and often will see it differently, and some people get overlooked.
An interesting experiment is taking place with one junior program in the UK. The 1st line starts, and there is a line change on every whistle, rotating evenly between 1st to 4th lines. Apparently this is common place in North America, I wouldn't know because I have no experience of the game over there, but it seems like a reasonable idea. What's more - is that they are doing it in every team in every age level.
If this is shown to produce a good flow of hockey players over time, then perhaps other teams may adopt it. It may be taken on board sooner if their own junior system starts producing championship winning sides. What is clear though that we have enough players registered and enough facilities in the country to be a strong hockey nation once again (we have won the Olympic gold medal.......... in 1936 ;-) ).
There is no quick fix. There is very little chance that the senior team will make it to the 2010 Olympics (they didn't even attempt qualification for 2006), and the side that won the bronze medal in their Div 1 last April was an elderly side with few prospects coming forward. Development starts at an early age, and in the UK we just have not grasped that. What's needed is a strong lead from the people in charge of the sport, get good coaches and develop talented players. If the players can improve, then maybe the allocation of time can be changed, all with a bit of convincing.
It's going to be a long struggle, but the willpower is there. I'm not saying we should be aiming to compete with Canada, the US or Russia, but improvements need to be made to grow the sport in this country. Ice Hockey is the greatest sport in the world, and it'd be nice to convince a few more people of that. And in my mind, the best way to do that is to have a successful national programme churning out top quality players, who may well move on to bigger and better things overseas. Fingers crossed