By Rod Gilmour | Analysis
No one said international hockey was easy.
On the fixtures’ front, just ask Graham Shaw, the Irish women’s coach who had tried to get a match with world No 1 Holland for the last three years prior to last month’s World Cup final.
On the playing front, just ask the world’s top goalkeeper, Maddie Hinch, who announced that she will be putting her international helmet aside and take a break from England and Great Britain duties.
In another era, when players held jobs to supplement their careers on the field and nations played fewer matches, the England No.1’s decision may have put an end to her future international hopes altogether.
But world hockey is certainly becoming a different beast these days.
As the sport’s chiefs increasingly look for ways to entice a wider audience share and, in turn, find ways of earning a bigger slice of potential TV revenue, it is the players who are being asked for extra effort.
She can now look after her own interests. A prolonged stint in Amsterdam, where she is based with her club Stichtsche, will now see her “recharge both physically and mentally”.
Given that Dutch-based Hinch would have been required to return to Bisham Abbey as a centralised player – thus adding to the pressures of a player trying to earn a living and becoming an even better goalkeeper in the process – Hinch’s mindset should be applauded.
One wonders, then, whether the looming FIH Pro League has impacted Hinch’s decision, with players now at the behest of their countries from January to June.
As our columnist Todd Williams wrote around the issue back in April: “Let’s just hope hockey is ready and waiting to listen to our players if we start pushing them too far.”
For Great Britain and their Pro League rivals, players will be racking up serious air miles, playing 16 matches (eight of them away) from January to June.
If Hinch, 30 in October, had kept to international duties her 2019 diary would be bereft of foreseeable social commitments, barring a brief hiatus in January when the team will train ahead of a whistle-strop week in Australasia and one match in China.
The back end of March sees two matches in the US and Argentina before the European Tests kick in from April through to the end of June. Then there’s the small matter of the EuroHockey Championships in August to contend with.
Hockey hasn’t seen the like of it before. An uncluttered, calendar-friendly set of matches for the hockey fan – on the face of it, there is no denying that the Pro League is a great addition for the game – a condensed year for the international player.
“The sport’s elite will be entering new territory on the body and mind”, added Todd in the aforementioned column.
In effect, hockey will be joining a similar path to rugby’s hemisphere Tests, Autumn Test series and Six Nations with the Hockey Pro League’s inauguration. Fans now know where and when the stars will be playing well in advance.
Yet, the Pro League will convene without an international, domestic players’ union or umbrella body of any public note and, in doing so, no players’ voice.
Coupled with this, those players from lesser nations without a centralised programme and support have no fallback in terms of independence; or even a safe space to seek an independent voice, be it mental health concerns or otherwise.
One can hardly call this an over reaction to what’s coming in 2019.
If the FIH’s self-billed ‘hockey revolution’ is to be just that, the players – the key generators of income for the world governing body – need protection.
Not that Hinch need be concerned at this juncture. Or even her Dutch colleagues in the Hoofdklasse for that matter.
For it is understood that the Dutch will send a second-string team – from their nominated Pro League squad – to some of their far-flung Pro League matches, giving the top players the chance to play for clubs in the world’s best league.
International hockey made easy, the Dutch way.