The State of our Game – Doug Clarkson’s letter to British Hockey

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.

 

Dear Sirs

(c) 5 Hole Photography

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.

Doug Clarkson

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27 Comments on “The State of our Game – Doug Clarkson’s letter to British Hockey”

  1. ianhowles says:

    Excellent article, well stated and needs an answer for the good of Hockey in the UK

  2. Colin bell says:

    Well said Sir. Great article. Having watched the sport for 36 years though I’m not optimistic that anything will change.

  3. Steve says:

    Absolutely agree, especially regarding the professionalism and conversely the lack of it in different quarters!

  4. Drew Lae says:

    Excellent article tackling some important issues and also raising points that need tackling. Well done DC

  5. Fred says:

    A well thought out comment for sure. But I tend to challenge one point raised. To better the calibre of local players it stand to reason that they must play at the highest possible level. Practising and playing with lessor skilled players does not lead to an improvement. It tends to stall development. Tournament abroad challenge players out of their comfort zone and offer a fair appraisal of where a player might be in his development, rather than within a closed environment. Similarly playing alongside better skilled players such as dual national bring out the best in those they are playing alongside of. When a dual national is added to a roster they repalce not the best of the remaining players but the lowest of the remaining players with the intention of making the best players better … hence progress.

    The need for one overall body governing the sport is well over due. Just think of the money being wasted currently with so much duplication

  6. Fenella Chandler says:

    Absolutely spot on!!! Well said 🙂

  7. Mark says:

    Great article have followed the game in Coventry for over a decade hope this article will open the eyes to the people who run the league

  8. Bill Barclay says:

    Hurrah a player of calibre has spoken out. Most of the points made by Doug I have made for years. To sum up what he and I are saying in plain English is there are to many people involved in British Ice Hockey who only looking to line their pockets at the expense of fans and players. Back in the 80s we were run by 1 organisation with sub sections the BIHA. However along comes one organisation with a couple of greedy players and it all changes with more and more imports and less local talent. It would be interesting to know just how many “imports” are taking part in junior development. In terms of the GB squad at present we have excellent under age teams doing well without any imports, why do these lads have to give way to dual nationals.

  9. Much respect for doing this as you didn’t have too ,I agree completley on all fronts and issue’s you have covered ,to put a finer point this league will never be taken seriously until there is hockey people at the helm ,not just greedy businessmen who are there to rinse it for what they can get ,the fans can play a apart aswell just refuse to buy into it until it changes .

  10. Andy says:

    Great points made. The Elite league is looking like it is going down the feed the greedy not the needy route and sadly the most of the Scottish teams look to be on a hiding to nothing. I love ice hockey but we’re now at a point where the elite league may be taken away from us in favour of money over sport. As long as the people that run the game in this country are allowed to continue then it will be the sport that will ultimately suffer. The league could certainly do with more people like yourself at the top table and a place made available for all teams under one banner as you say. Thanks for all you done at the Dundee Stars. Sadly players like yourself and some of the players we have witnessed recently may well be a thing of the past in Dundee, Fife and Edinburgh. Braehead clan of course will be okay as they bring a financial reward to the bigger clubs in England. I for one would not touch them with someone else’s hockey stick and will watch lower league hockey in Dundee if that’s what’s available and hope one day the set up improves and people who love the game more than money will eventually be put in place and hockey can flourish.

  11. Paul Allington says:

    Great article Dougie! Totally agree about one governing body running​ all leagues and also farm system. Elite are in the position where they could make it happen with the dimise of the EPL! Thanks for all the great games you have​ played, it has truly been a great honour to watch you. I wish you all the best in your new career choice! Go Tigers go!

  12. Doug Beattie says:

    Having been a fan & involved in ice hockey game wise over the years Dougs opinion is a true outlook of the game but its been like that for many many years & unfortunately its going to get worse before it gets better, in my opinion the Heineken league was one of the best with a few imports & lots of chances for home grown players to get a chance to prove themselves, But one of the biggest problems is the massive imbalance between teams from Arenas & Rinks as cash wise there miles apart & always will be & the Arena owners dont want it any other way.
    Cheers Doug.

  13. David Ness says:

    Great letter.
    Surely the simplest thing we can force as fans and sponsors is a change to the league structure ? Particularly in the off season. What if we said to our clubs we will not renew our sponsorship until these structural changes have been agreed to.

  14. Chris Walker says:

    Thank-you for this Doug. It is about time players and fans said, “enough is enough”. The import (non-British trained) quota differential between Elite and the proposed 2 imports for NIHL is a gulf that needs addressing. I’ve already bought my season tickets (for what I was told was an exciting new league in British Ice Hockey PIHL) but now find I will be watching a different calibre of hockey next season. A team that will not have 5 quality imports and who knows what will happen to our progressive young Brits that we ice?

    • Paul Allington says:

      I’d ask for my money back as “Not fit for purpose” LOL If it is going to be NIHL standard then I won’t be getting a season ticket as I shall pick and choose my games and probably do more Elite league. But each to his own!

  15. Janet says:

    Fantastically well said Doug, couldn’t agree more with the very thing that You have written, there is a real opportunity for change for junior players currently coming through the system that needs to be grasped with both hands. A great start point would be that single governing body ….,

  16. Janet says:

    Fantastically well said Doug, couldn’t agree more with the very thing that You have written, there is a real opportunity for change for junior players currently coming through the system that needs to be grasped with both hands. A great start point would be that dongle governing body ….,

  17. David Ness says:

    Woke up thinking about this letter after having read it last night.
    My company sponsors Braehead Clan.
    What if sponsors across different clubs got together and we forced change by refusing to renew our sponsorship until the structural changes within the league had been promised / achieved.
    Surely the financial pressure on clubs / owners created by sponsors working in cohort at this time of the year would create an upward pressure on the owners/ leagues to change ?

  18. Rob Trumbley says:

    I played in the UK in the late 90’s for 8 almost 10 years. I agree with everything that’s been said. Nice article.

  19. Alex M. says:

    I started playing hockey in the late 80s, and throughout the 90s, to a fairly decent standard representing GB at various junior levels. I fell out of love with the game for many reasons, but check in with it through friends from time to time. Seems like the issues people are debating are the same as 25 years ago. Too many imports, too few opportuities for British players. When I was breaking through to senior level, often the path was blocked by an aging Canadian, picking up the cheques, not interested in the developing the sport over here at all. We were as good as them, but it was a closed boys club. The coach would bring over mates from his home town team, often chasing one last pay day before retirement, and the good young kids would never get a look in.
    What I will say is, though, I remember various clubs having decent owners really committed to developing the sport – inplementing junior programmes that still exist today and imparting a legacy. I remember a lot of these owners being hounded out of the clubs by ‘fans’ who just wanted to see the clubs win the leagues and spend a lot of money on imported players to do so. Some good owners were there, they just weren’t appreciated. I see there is still one owner of a club involved in the South – I remember him coaching me. I also remember him refusing to lace up his skates for a junior session until he was paid fifty quid for his time (I hour training session for under 10s). He was paid, and spent the session sitting on the boards, doing some chew, and letting a few local kids run the session for him. ‘For the love of the game’.

  20. Andy Holmes says:

    Great to see someone stand up and point out what everyone knows is wrong with hockey in this country. To often comments like this are born out of self interest and not the concern for the development of this great sport. From a junior point of view, the powers that be are squeezing the life out of hockey because in my opinion they have no sight of why they actually exist and that is to allow young players to develop into hockey players for the future. They seem very concerned in beaurocrasy and dampening of any ambition shown by our young players.
    Most junior teams get 1hour of age group prictice per week while many recreational teams are getting 2 sessions per week. I’m not saying Recreational teams don’t deserve ice time but surely there has to be a balance here. Junior hockey is very broken in my opinion and until we move away from the jobs for the boys mentally and ALLOW! Fresh, willing, unconnected people who’s sole focus is the development of all junior players to come in and help then it will stay broken.

  21. […] A retiring player in the United Kingdom has some suggestions about how to grow British ice hockey. [Banners on the Wall] […]

  22. Kevan M says:

    What a great interesting read Doug, as a fan of the Basingstoke Bison, only been going to watch this sport for about 3-4yrs, absolutely love watching ice hockey now, having the banter with other fans, like me other fans don’t see the under lying problems, well done for writing this Doug & hopefully change will come & help the GB team & young British talent coming through.

  23. Corey Beaulieu says:

    I just happened upon this article and I appreciate, as well as agree on the points brought up. As a player in the 90’s the import rules for dual imports allowed me the best 3 years of my career. The passion of the supporters and the hatred from opposing fans was at a level I had never previously experienced. Unfortunately I had never had to worry about being paid or wondering if the team was going to ice or fold.
    I see that the true homegrown talent is improving as they are given the chance to shine.
    Play on boys, play on,!

    • Hi Corey,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. Certainly the 2016/17 season in British hockey was wacky and I think that played into a lot of what Doug mentioned in the piece, especially as he was at the brunt of some of it.

      British hockey will find a keep finding a way to stagger along, it always does. Hopefully retirement from the game is treating you well.

      Anthony


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