Road to London 2012: UK hockey and students

By Angus Elder    

It’s certainly no NFL Draft but British universities will be contributing towards British hockey greatly in the near future it appears.

Angus Elder reveals how students from all over the UK are making their mark in the hockey world and how it paves the way towards an ambitious London 2012.

April saw the start of Britain’s most significant annual hockey event: the 3rd GB Super League. For all those unfamiliar with the super league, it comprises of six regional hockey teams made up of Britain’s finest and rising talent.

Players compete to lay their claim for a place in their respective Great Britain Olympic squads. A series of high profile events held at venues within each of the three member nations showcase the six chosen squads (Caledonian Cougars, Celtic Panthers, Pennine Pumas, Saxon Tigers, Wessex Leopards and the Highland Jaguars), taking part.

The route to hockey’s Olympic talent identification process is set apart from the more mainstream team sports of football and rugby. Issues occur from the stature that a sport such as hockey currently possesses. Unlike the Rabo Hoofdklasse (the Dutch Premier League) there are very few lucrative contracts available in the British game, with only equipment sponsorships and travel expenses likely to be available to the game’s younger players.

Hockey players of England, Scotland and Wales’ top national leagues predominantly hold down full-time jobs making their preparation to get into suitable physical shape a dedicated pursuit. Certain obstacles therefore stand between ambition and reality.

Through a combination of these financial and temporal factors, and the establishments where hockey is primarily taught, the sport possesses an unparalleled amount of university students plying their trade at the top level. A quick glance at the squads for the 2009 Super League shows that a total of 26, of the 120 men selected, play for a combination of Loughborough, Exeter, Birmingham, Durham and Edinburgh universities.

However, this is not the overall total of participating students, given that only universities providing teams in the top national leagues are mentioned. A large number of the other students represent top club outfits, making the overall student contingent a large proportion of the combined squads.

The comparison to the American college system is written tongue-in-cheek; however this is as close to a successful approach that we have, got such as the one in US. Whether scholarships are being given out or players are choosing the educational route, university sport is contributing at the top level.

It is fascinating to see a sport in Britain where, of next season, the England Hockey League’s Premier Division will contain two university sides - Loughborough Students and Exeter University – out of the ten top flight sides. An unthinkable scenario in the world of football, where the thought of the London School of Economics’ finest lining up at Stamford Bridge is laughable.

An opportunity has been provided however, where contrary to belief if finances are injected into the sport, an illusive playing career and an education could be provided. The recent rise in European hockey, with the introduction of the televised Euro Hockey League, provides a fascinating parallel to the insatiable growth of modern football.

The league’s finale on April 26 resulted with the Wessex Leopards topping the men’s table after three intense and competitive weekends. Their success was largely indebted to goals from Beijing Olympians Matt Daly, James Tindall and Jonty Clarke of hockey clubs Surbiton, Old Georgians and Reading. Only time will tell whether their successors will be of a similar ilk, or whether university financiers will choose to continue to invest in the success of university hockey.

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