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Nick Irvine: “Are HIL eligibility rules fair to all?”

It was interesting and puzzling in equal measure to read that English league rules apparently prevented Ashley Jackson and Barry Middleton playing for East Grinstead and Holcombe respectively last week, denying their teams and the fans the talents of two of the leagues most influential and iconic stars.

I thought it worth following up on particularly as the same rules and restrictions obviously don’t apply in Holland as I was able to watch on the web Mink van der Weerden and Rob van der Horst playing for Oranje Rood having checked out at the same point of the HIL.

I took my enquiry directly to England Hockey’s Competitions Manager, the long serving Stephen Barlow, for clarification.

“We had dialogue with teams over players returning from HIL this season. We revised league regulations to allow players to take up this opportunity when the HIL started in 2014 but we need to ensure that the overriding principles of our league registrations are consistent for players at whatever level they play.”

As you would expect a fair bit of regulation speak underpins this position.

“To allow players to play in HIL Reg 4.2.9.3 was introduced. This allows a player to be re-registered by January 30 but to start at a post dated date.The post-dated date is the Monday following the conclusion of the HIL tournament, Monday February 27.

Throughout our registration system there is a Monday deadline for players to play the following week. In this case 4.2.7.2 refers. So a player cannot play games for two different clubs in the same week; a week being Monday-Sunday. The HIL teams all had games on or after Monday February 20.

Rule 4.2.9.3 states a player who has been de-registered by an MHL club in order to register for a club or team outside of this country and was previously registered by the same MHL club in the same season, may re-join that club and have his eligibility to participate in the MHL post dated to a date after the deadline. This is subject to Regulation 4.2.12, provided that a valid re-registration submission has been fully completed and all necessary consents have been submitted by the Registration deadline set out in Regulations 4.2.9.1 and 4.2.9.2.

So, clearly England Hockey has applied their rules perfectly correctly but are they fair to all? Fair to the affected clubs and to those who support the league and look forward to seeing the top stars in action?

I asked whether it was possible for the HIL to be considered as something of an anomaly and therefore outside of these regulations and allow the league administrators a bit more flexibility and wriggle room. Again the defense was rapid and robust.

Ashley Jackson playing in the Hockey India League

“In the league we aim to treat every player equitably. One of the fundamentals of player eligibility for the league is that a player can only be registered for one club at any one time.

“If we didn’t have this we would have to make subjective decisions if players played elsewhere. We also have players, for example. who go to Ireland for the Christmas break and play, might go home from Uni and play a few games for their home club in January. Or go to South Africa and play for state or Super League teams.

“We have to have a system where player registration is managed in one place. It is not dependent on an individual’s assessment of the status of another hockey activity someone has played in.  and we have tried to make the registration system as easy possible.”

I raised the different approach in the Netherlands and wondered if this could be adopted here but again I was met by a straight bat and a sturdy defence.

“The Dutch and other countries do have different league regulations.  Ours have been developed over the years to provide a framework for our domestic game. There are odd issues that arise as with any league but these are managed equably and, in general, I think we have a pretty robust set-up.”

Having made no headway with England Hockey, I turned my attentions to the Dutch league. My investigations show that in the Dutch Hoofdklasse it is only permitted to play in one National Championship competition in the same season.  The KNHB has decided that the HIL is not a National Championship, but only a tournament. Simple enough!

Personally, I think England Hockey has no need to class the players contribution to HIL as a new club              registration as I find it difficult to accept it as a club event at all but more of a commercially franchised road show. If the English pair had gone off on a grand tour with, say their school social old boys side, would they have been so dealt with?

Let’s have this rule revisited again. There are already too many occasions when clubs are denied access to their star players without adding to the problems. Perhaps if the spirit of the rule becomes as important as the letter we might be getting somewhere.

The league administration is right to protect its league but it also needs to protect the clubs and players that play in it as they, ultimately, will determine how successful and attractive it can become.

*This article originally featured in The Hockey Paper, which is available every Wednesday.

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