A lighthouse called EHL

Farol Santa Marta – Cascais, Portugal

In my sunny hometown Cascais, there is this lighthouse called Farol de Santa Marta. I have always thought of it as a beautiful and meaningful building. 
It literally and figuratively enlightens, shows the way, it was a reference for the those at sea but also for the ones inland. 
It’s tall and colourful construction exists in a perfect symbiosis with our Mediterranean influence and Atlantic location.

This lighthouse is a perfect congregating element between our heritage as a fishing town and our present day existence as a premium tourist destination. All in all it represents our habitants identity and our authentic warm hospitality.

(Photo by Dirk Markgraf / www.265-images.com)

I chose this ‘romantic’ analogy between the Euro Hockey League (EHL) and the lighthouse because they both share common symbolic elements on mixing heritage and innovation. Both are meaningful and attractive to locals and strangers.

Light, direction and positive continuity

Hockey

Hockey was once again the central attraction of the EHL. This is a competition that has been trying hard and innovating since its birth. Some changes have been beneficial for the game, other’s  turned out to be a flop, but aside from those mutations and experiences, the EHL never fails to provide the most exciting club hockey in the world. 
In the meantime, hockey faces several challenges on a global scale and FIH is trying to reinvent international hockey with the new born competition Pro League, An attempt to boost  Hockey’s popularity and ultimately save it’s Olympic status. The problem is that the PL is overloading an already very busy calendar especially for the international players that represent a big percentage of the teams participating on EHL…
I believe solid national and inter-continental competitive structures such as EHL, might give hockey  a brighter and more sustainable future.
From a promotional, media, competitive and fan perspective the EHL is the undeniable benchmark and represents the very best of hockey worldwide.

As a side note and to be fair, it is starting to get a bit tiresome to hear the constant blame on the FIH or international calendar, while national federations don’t step up their game, their domestic competitions and their product.

The Game

(Photo by Dirk Markgraf / www.265-images.com)

Watching the best European clubs clashing against each other is always exciting, but expected more tactical creativity. On other hand, I  can hardly blame the coaches with scarce time to prepare any ‘special’ plan and need to stick to their usual game routines. There wasn’t any time to train, recover and adapt any special tactical elements as you need to play again within 24 hours time against the next opponent.
As a coach, part of the interest of watching and hopefully learning from the best exponents of the game, is to observe possible new trends and ideas and this edition wasn’t so rich in that respect. I would say that penalty corners presented the main exception, as there were some creative examples with different settings, concepts, some nice variations and also some interesting body and stick fakes on drag flicking that are all worthy of more in-depth analysis.
We saw predominantly man-to-man systems, with some mixed exceptions and build-ups with a conventional 4 man as the preferred set-up for the majority of the teams.

The mighty Ducks

(Photo by Dirk Markgraf / www.265-images.com)

Waterloo Ducks were composed, had an extremely balanced defensive structure led by Vincent ‘The Wall’ Vannasch, a pinch of flair  with ‘rising star’ Ghislain and the work ethics of a group of attackers, that might not get on the cover of a magazines but definitely work their ass off and are amongst the most effective around.
If the leading team of the current Belgian league season (and a constant title contender to boot) surprises you so much that they won the EHL, maybe you just have not been paying due attention.

Refreshingly enough we saw the Belgian winners Waterloo Ducks using a mixed and even zonal defence at times, which works better if you can count on the GK Vincent Vannasch and the experience of players from the calibre of Elliot van Strydonck or Gauthier Boccard commanding your defensive structure. The most positional of all pivots, the legendary John-John Dohmen is the epitome  of Effective Play.

(Photo by Dirk Markgraf / www.265-images.com)

There isn’t a bigger compliment to the Waterloo team than the fact that the RW Koln attacking behaviour ended up being ‘based’ on side attempts and smashes into the D. If the best players in the world attacking and associating in the centre (Koln / Germany) can’t find ways to do so, you have a big chance of winning.

Fatigue

The most significant challenge presented to the magnificent teams competing in this 2019 edition was the ‘dark cloud’ of physical overload and fatigue. 
Needless to say that the need for  the stars to play 4 high intensity matches within 5 (hot) days is exposing the players to a very high risk of physical and mental fatigue as well as possible injuries.If that isn’t enough, we shouldn’t forget that a lot of these players have already been ‘squeezed’ by previous weeks of traveling and international demands.
The brutal facts are that we are talking about (some) athletes covering almost 10KM per match and some reaching heart rates of almost 200bmp (!). 
RW Koln from all teams presented the most ‘rigorous’ substitution rooster and you could feel that they reached the final days with fresher legs than other teams.
It is such a pity that the EHL,  of all events had to ‘foot the bill’ of an overloaded calendar but mostly it was a pity that we are not ensuring the physical and mental well-being of our stars. These are the same athletes who have been given the responsibility of ensuring the well-being and sustainability of the global game.

The Dutch Collapse?!

(Photo by Dirk Markgraf / www.265-images.com)

The Dutch ‘collapse’ could easily be the comment or title of any article pointing out that Dutch (Male) hockey is in a crisis.
Two quick comments about that…

1. ‘Narrow-minded’ people envy successful cases. 
2. Drama sells. 

Well, let’s talk facts. Netherlands had 3 teams in this year’s edition of the EHL:
Kampong, Amsterdam and the hosts Orange-Rood. Bloemendaal, the reigning champions couldn’t qualify. Should the reigning champions receive a wild card for the next one? Something to consider.

Kampong lost the first match of the competition against the German powerhouse of Koln playing without Lars Balk, Robbert Kemperman and having the captain Sander de Wijn stepping on the field for the first time in about 4 months.

(Photo by Dirk Markgraf / www.265-images.com)

Oranje-Rood lost 3-2 against Mulheim who are  the current German champions led impeccably by 2 outstanding players: Tobias Matania and maybe the most exciting player in the world right now… Timm Herzbruch. 

Amsterdam won their first match categorically 12-1 against  Grove Menzieshill from Scotland, then faced RW Koln which resulted in a 2-2 draw   in regular time, but ended-up losing on shootouts.

Yes, the Dutch hoofdklasse is by far the best, most competitive and exciting competition in the world but the very best German and Belgian teams are on a level with the top Dutch teams.

Rules

(Photo by Dirk Markgraf / www.265-images.com)

Everyone has their own interpretations and taste regarding rules and their application. Personally, the least I hear a whistle and the more flow I see in the game, the better!

In my opinion that are 2 rules that need some review:

  • The definition of stick tackle. I think  the problem  starts  with the  semantic misunderstanding of tackling vs foul. To simplify, I think that umpiring is interrupting the game too much based on stick contacts, that are often triggered by noise or the impression of contact. We need to retain and allow the flow and the growing pace of the game and we need to be open to understand what the modern game and athletes require. If there is no break in play, no physical unbalance or dispute and a tackle that challenges an opponent’s ball and stick, let it play. The game will get more exciting and everyone will benefit. The stick foul would then be exclusively considered an aggressive stick swing or a stick/physical approach that unbalance the ball carrier body.
  • The aerial rule. I think we all love a beautiful aerial ball and I think we all get annoyed by the ‘grey area’ that is a lot of the whistling going on in these situations. Let’s please find a way to keep this complex technical situation still preserving players safety yet without cutting the flow of the game so often.

The experience

I wish the EHL organisation and sponsors the wisdom to realize that they carry a benchmark concept in the world of hockey  and simultaneously they are guardians of a competition that can define the future model of European and World hockey.

(Photo by Dirk Markgraf / www.265-images.com)

It is already impressive what the EHL achieved but the future needs to be more defined and needs to set the standards on the way clubs and players promote and expose themselves. The EHL shouldn’t be the platform where fans are discovering Timm Herzbruch and William Ghislain, that should be on their own domestic platforms where hockey is among the most amateur of all sports… the EHL should be the annual  stage to show-off all these stars.

I believe that a one of the biggest future challenges for the EHL, respecting sponsor and organisation deals is to step-up on their fan engagement, live experience and enable the possibility of bringing their own show (circus) to different and interesting markets.

There is a still lot to do which is frustrating and exciting at the same time.

Thanks to the EHL for enlightening the way!

Bernardo Fernandes

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