Now that the 2014 season is over, the EHL have announced that they have listened to the complaints, about a busy schedule and changed the format of their excellent tournament, although no players have publicly voiced these complaints. The change has been in reaction to the fact that the Champions Trophy returns in December and the World League starts again.
In the past, nations ranked 1-3 received 3 places for Round 1, nations ranked 4-6 received 2 places for Round 1 and nations 7-12 receive 1 place, as a result of the number of teams round 1 was split into rounds 1.1 & 1.2.
The new proposal is to only have Round 1, but to ensure this is not too protracted 12 teams receive byes, 2 from each of the top 4 nations and 1 from each of the nations ranked 5-8. Then we go to the ko16 format, the same as the 2014 season, where it all takes place in the one week.
The apparent reason for this change was due to the stress on the international and club calendars. In my opinion this is rubbish. Yes, the 2014 season was messed up due to the world cup dates being arranged to clash not too much with the Commonwealth games and the football world cup. However next year the calendar should be fine, as there will not be the clashes with these major sporting events. There is a Champions trophy, some Hockey World League rounds, the HHIL and potentially an AHL although this will only affect two players in Europe, Matthew Swann and Fergus Kavanagh, I am unsure as to if there is one but for the sake of the argument there is, Bloemednaal in 2012 competed without Swann, Kavanagh and corner man Ciriello for this reason, getting through without any issue. These are all as preceding years, so nothing extra ordinary to prompt such a change. There are of course as normal a few extra Aussie’s going to play in Europe but not players in or on the verge of being in the training squads.
Consider for a moment how many internationals play in each team that receives a bye, and how many extra minutes young talent receives by giving the internationals a rest during round 1.1 & 1.2. Now think, is reducing the playing time of these talents, reducing the number of chances for fans to see top level hockey, reducing the chances for clubs (and nations) to host tournaments and reducing the overall exposure of the sport worth giving 20-30 players across all the teams receiving byes a 90-140 minute reduction in their total playing time for the season? For me it is a resounding NO!
The average player runs 9km per game as discussed here. Just think that that is 1km shorter than the athletics event the 10,000m but is made tougher by that 9km being sprints of varying lengths and with multiple direction changes whilst performing offensive or defensive actions, and the world record for the 10,000m is in the region of 25.5 minutes, and don’t even start on the comparison to football which takes 20 minutes longer to cover a slightly longer distance. This makes elite hockey players read as though they are incredibly fit, which they are, fit enough to play a game every two days for 2 weeks as in the 2014 world cup, or even in the Dutch Hoofdklasse play offs until the 2014 season when 3 games were played in 5 days (Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday) or the EHL 2014, when Oranje Zwart played 4 games in 5 days at the pinnacle of European club hockey! Such weekends and weeks are common place in hockey, yet do not result in reduced quality of play, due in the first place, to the athletes being able to do it, and this includes women, often put down in other sports, but in hockey they are given the same schedules which they keep to with an impeccable equality with the men. Secondly hockey is ultimately a student/amateur sport, so due to work and studying commitments players cannot commit 100% of their time. This was of course the case with Christopher Zeller who missed the entire EHL finals week due to exam commitments. This would not have happened with the old ko16/ko8 Easter weekend and then the final 4 weekend on WhitSunday weekend, but the new system will not avoid the loss of top players for such reasons. I am in fact a fan of the week long KO stage rather than the two separate weekends as it reduces cost for clubs who do progress as they do not have to travel twice, and it means that due to the prolonged period it allows sponsors and other evens to buy into hockey and it allows the hype to build.
Currently only 15 internationals come from this years Netherlands based EHL teams, out of a total of 48 players competing from those clubs compared with the 384 players involved in rounds 1.1 and 1.2, thus any EHL calendar change will have a minimal impact on the majority of players. And please consider the fact that Spain hardly ever train as a national squad so club outings are of vital importance for a nation ranked 4th in Europe at club level yet at international level are only ranked 10th (5th in Europe). Will saving 12 clubs, one weekends hockey really ease the strain on the players and international calendars? No, those dates and nothing even near those dates will get used for international hockey as it is normally a club weekend, recovered with a mid week game later that month or in a blank weekend later in the year.
So what is the impact of this change? Well with what EHL are now saying is the 12 ‘best’ teams in the competition not competing in round 1, you will loose the mismatches of Kampong v St Germain and the Amsterdam (Dutch champions of 2012) v WKS Grunwald Poznan shocks of round 1 2012 producing a 4-4 draw if memory serves me correctly. You will also lose the showcase of top hockey, so why would TV and sponsors be interested, the two things we need to improve the sport! The world cup finals received 1.7(men) & 1.3(women) million TV viewers in the Netherlands alone, because it was the best 12 mens and womens national teams playing in one place, with perhaps only the Olympics presenting a higher pinnacle within the sport. Hockey was all over TV and radio here in the Netherlands and became almost mainstream. That is why sponsors came in big time for this event, and helped the event become a success. EHL as an event receives Eurosport coverage across Europe and has even been screened on TV in Australia! If you take the talent away, you lose the TV and as a result you lose the sponsors.
The bye system is of course flawed. One unanswerable question is that what gives anyone the right to forego the lottery of a cup game? This ultimately distorts the tournament. Why give a bye to someone on paper deemed better than someone as that removes the point of playing sport in the first place. This then advantages them further by having played a game less. This is then mostly removed by the fact that the previous game was 5 months before but it is the principle. The next point to consider that if byes are earned by ability how can you justify on paper that a Russian team (a nation ranked 19th in the world) are more deserving of a bye than Kampong, a team with 7 top 6 nation internationals next season?
Having considered all the above in my opinion there are a few solutions to the problem that I hope the EHF and EHL in consultation with the new FIH athlete committee withdraw the new format and apply one of these changes.
- Restructure the tournament permanently, make it a sort of UEFA cup format. Knockouts with qualifying rounds. And announce this in advance of the qualification tournaments, e.g. the leagues, starting. So the current round one is then the qualifying stage for the new round 1, KO16.
- Merge all the challenge cups into various stages of knockout qualification. So someone from the current (2014 format) round 1 plays someone from CC3 etc. Until you have a number of teams to add to the ko16 or even a round of 32 first.
- Go back to the format used in 2013/14 season. Simple, effective and it worked.
My preference is torn between options 2 and 3. The format from 2013/14 worked well and drew a good spotlight on hockey; however, option 3 creates the opportunity to make a super tournament presenting chances for supposed minnows from lower nations to progress up the pyramid, which is ultimately good for the sport in those regions and is needed to ensure the strength of all club and national competitions.