The State of our Game – Doug Clarkson’s letter to British HockeyPosted: 19/04/2017
Former Cardiff, Dundee and Telford forward Doug Clarkson recently retired from hockey after the end of the 2016/17 season. Doug recently announced that he wanted to publish an open letter to those who run British hockey about his thoughts on how things are run. He asked BOTW to help out, we accepted and we present this to you now, without editing on our part. They are Doug’s thoughts, rather than those of BOTW but we feel that it was in everyone’s interests to publish this given recent events.
Having now retired from the game I love, I am writing this letter in the hope that the people following in my footsteps by playing hockey professionally will be ensured of the best possible experience. A career as a professional sportsperson is short, and can pass by without you ever realising what opportunities you might have missed, or how things could have been improved.
I want to start by saying that the time I spent in the UK was, hands down, the most fun and rewarding time I have ever had playing hockey. It was an amazing experience both on and off the ice. I played for great teams, met amazing players and people, and was lucky enough to leave the game on my own terms, and on the back of my career season!
As hockey players, we are used to being liked and disliked, jeered and praised in equal measure. It comes with the job, and most of us embrace it. But, in all of that madness of a game, weekend or season, the fans always deserved our best. They are the ones parting with their money to watch us play, and to pay our wages. I prided myself in always giving my best, every game and every season. From my experience of hockey in the UK, most other players took the same approach.
Sadly, however, the unwavering support of the fans, and the efforts of the players, is not enough to help hockey grow and thrive in the UK. Great games and strong attendances are an important first step, but they are arguably just papering over the cracks in the system. As a league and sporting governing body, I believe that the fans and players are being let down, and that the situation will not change any time soon unless action is taken.
My first issue is with the league structure itself. Hockey in the UK is not a mainstream sport – I do not think it has the resources or the capabilities to operate with a number of different leagues run by separate, independent governing bodies. As I understand it, the EIHL, SNL and EPIHL are operated and governed by separate organisations, with what appears to be little (if any) cohesion between them.
Why is there not one governing body, with a system in place where player development is a priority? You can still have the high quality hockey by having teams operate with a ‘farm system’, which will only help young players to develop and play, to the point where the leagues can start lowering the import levels but without compromising the quality of the on-ice product. It might even be possible to get help from the IIHF, which has helped other countries grow and sustain local, home-grown talent.
For a sport that is still trying to develop, I cannot see how the current approach is beneficial in the long run. I would like to see a more central governing body – an overarching board that has ultimate responsibility for the development of the game in the UK. Is this something that is being considered?
The issue of the GB National team still confuses me. Whilst, as a dual national player, I would have been honoured to represent GB, I am concerned that the home-grown talent will never thrive whilst that is still permitted.
The GB team looks strong at the moment, and some of the more recently eligible inclusions have added a great deal of skill to the squad. However, this has clearly been at the expense of British talent. Two excellent players have recently been cut from the GB squad, arguably at the expense of dual nationals. I feel strongly that this is not the message that GB ice hockey should be sending.
This decision, when combined with the EIHL increasing import levels in a short amount of time, is only going to hinder the longer-term development of British players. The current system feels short-sighted to me.
If the British players don’t play, either at club or international level, they don’t develop, and the next generation of young kids will shy away from making a career out of hockey. I understand that coaches are answerable in the ‘here and now’, and that that results in a moral conflict of sorts. I get why they would not want to sacrifice short-term results (against which they are judged) for a longer-term and more sustainable program.
I would argue that the GB team at the moment will be the best it will be for a while. When the Mark Richardsons and Jon Weavers are done playing, the gap left will be huge. I would like to see this reviewed to ensure that GB hockey has a bright long-term future, and would welcome clarification on what steps (other than limiting EIHL team to the number of Brits over the age of 23) are being taken to nurture young GB talent..
My final concern surrounds the image and reputation of hockey in the UK, both domestically and internationally. Sadly, there are people involved in the game, some of whom are ‘high ranking officials’ at clubs or in the league, who have no background in playing or managing hockey, and who offer little else to compensate. Others lack the professionalism to be in a position to influence the league in a positive way.
Whilst I appreciate that you don’t need to be a player to understand and love the game, I strongly feel that clubs should be led by people who understand both the game and the need to be commercially minded and professional.
I think it is really important that clubs engage with, and employ fans, particularly as there is no substitute for passion. That said, senior officials of large sports clubs are not brought it because they are fans. Chief Executives of large corporates or charities are not there because they like the brand or the cause their organisation is promoting. They are there because of their commercial skills, and the value they can add.
Until clubs, and the league, realise that they need shrewd business people (with a love of hockey, of course) at the helm to be able to grow this league, I fear that any progress made will be minimal.
Take the new Cardiff ownership for example. They come across to me as passionate hockey fans, which is great! But they are, first and foremost, successful business people, each and every one of them, and the team is doing well as a result of this combination. In contrast, one of the larger clubs continues to employ an individual in a key role whose inappropriate actions and comments appear to be constantly swept under the carpet.
If you were to review the forums, or ask the fans whether their conversations focus more around the commercial success of Cardiff, or the inappropriate actions of this individual, I am confident it would be the latter. Players, coaches and owners hear of these situations, which cannot be good for the league. It was not long ago that a well-known, former NHL player described the EIHL as a ‘beer league’ – this reputation will not disappear, and the league will not grow whilst unacceptable incidents continue to be tolerated. I would be interested to know what steps are being taken by the league to hold club officials to a particular standard, rather than relying on the clubs to take the correct action.
As I mentioned above, I am retired now, and am excited to be starting a career in coaching young hockey plays. The changes I am proposing have no bearing on me in any way, and I hope people realise that the purpose of this letter is not to criticise for the sake of it, but to ask for clarification and to try and raise awareness of what I believe is holding back hockey in the UK. It is terrible to see the wasted potential.
As I said above, I loved my time in the UK and I think the British born players and the fans deserve to have a league that is progressive, exciting and effectively operated. I feel strongly that the image of the league needs to be one of developing British talent, together with other young players just starting out. This will raise the standard at grass-roots level, and will hopefully ensure that hockey in the UK becomes a reputable and appealing alternative to the AHL and the other European leagues.
In short, I believe that better development, a more professional and structured approach, and the right people making decisions will only result in positive changes.
I look forward to your response.