Get your skates on

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Pass the puck ... with the right instruction and encouragement, Scotland could produce ice hockey hotshots, Roddy Mackenzie writes

The Fife Flyers ice hockey club was started in 1938, making it the oldest in Britain. So it knows a thing or two about survival.

With the club no longer competing in the British Elite League, 2005 was not the most momentous year. However, it has meant focus has now fallen on developing home players.

Canadian coach Todd Dutiaume has been spending a lot more time working with young players at the ice arena in Kirkcaldy. Drafted by the New York Buffalo Sabres into the National Hockey League in 1995, Mr Dutiaume knows the value of a club rearing its own talent.

The Fife Flyers hope to be in a proposed Northern Premier League next season, which would include three imported players and help the current junior players to improve. The Kirkcaldy club sits top of the Scottish Junior Leagues at under-12, under-14 and under-16 levels, so there's no doubt about its potential.

Former club coach Jim Watson, who is now the coaching director for the Scottish Ice Hockey Association and assistant coach to Scotland's under-17 team, is convinced talent will come through in the Scottish game, even if it now faces a difficult period.

He believes that by restructuring the coaching to ensure young players receive the correct instruction, the game will have a bright future. There are around 150 registered coaches in Scotland and Mr Watson is keen to ensure that all are put through at least one relevant workshop a year. "We have to get it right," he emphasises.

"The history of ice hockey in Scotland has always been about peaks and troughs. The sport will come back, I have no doubt about that."

The game has survived in spite of the expense. In addition to fighting for ice time with social skaters and curlers, the cost of equipment can run to several hundred pounds.

Mr Watson is not surprised to see some young players drift away. "It is an expensive sport and it demands a big commitment from parents.

"At under-10 and under-12 level, the emphasis is very much on fun and rotating the team so that everyone gets a game," he explains.

"At under-14 and under-16 level, it is a bit more competitive as the next step is playing for the senior team. It can mean that some players do not get as much ice time with the team and they can get fed up.

"Skates cost pound;300-pound;400, then there is a helmet, around pound;40, a visor at pound;25, shin pads at pound;30-pound;40 and gloves can cost up to pound;100. There is a limited second-hand market but, in my experience, most children want the latest equipment.

"On top of all that, they have travelling expenses to matches and the cost of training.

"Many youngsters are now opting to play inline hockey, as it is cheaper and there are more teams to choose from.

"There are four ice hockey teams within a 40-mile radius of Kirkcaldy - Perth, Dundee and Edinburgh being the others - but there are 20-30 inline hockey teams within five miles of Kirkcaldy. So if a player cannot get into one inline team, he can simply try another."

The lack of ice time also means training is often late at night. Although that is avoided for the younger age groups, coaches at Kirkcaldy take the under-17 squad at 11pm on Fridays. If there is a match at Elgin on the Saturday, the schedule can be exhausting.

The peak times at ice rinks are 5pm-10pm on a week night. That often means hockey using the end of a rink while other parts are in use.

But Mr Watson is convinced the game has a bright future. In the past, there was a huge influx of imported players starring for Fife, Ayr, Dundee and Murrayfield; now the clubs do not have the money to spend on wages and the doors have been thrown open for Scottish players.

"The imports were full-time players and it was easier for them to go into schools and encourage youngsters to come along to matches and try the game," Mr Watson says.

"It's a bit more difficult with Scottish players who are only part-time and have other jobs. But, in the long term, this change is likely to be good for the Scottish game. Teams now have to rely on home-bred players, so more resources are put into the youth game.

"I think we will see the benefit a few years down the line, as players are now getting experience of playing at senior level at a younger age.

"I see a lot of talent coming through and the game will be much stronger here in another 10 years. But we need people from their local regions to get into the schools and get youngsters involved in the sport."

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