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Young blades take to the rink

Patrick Hayes reports on Britain's first academy devoted to ice hockey

A college in Coventry will be teaching students how to win a face off, effectively deck opponents, wield a waffle pad and avoid the referee's crease. All thanks to the creation of the first ice hockey academy in the UK.

Coventry is rapidly gaining a reputation as an "ice-hockey town", as students seize opportunities offered by their local team to hit the ice and enjoy a fast new sporting challenge. Already boasting the largest junior training program in the country, the Coventry Blaze ice hockey team is now working in partnership with the city's Henley college to establish an academy. This will, in the words of its co-ordinator, "allow students to take their devotion to an extra-curricular activity an extra bit further".

Henley is selecting 40 recruits for the 16-19 academy, due to open this summer, which will build on their format for successful football, swimming, athletics and basketball academies. Ice hockey training academies are common in Canada, the birthplace of the sport, where freezing winters make knocking a puck on the pitch more feasible than booting a football. Over the past four years, however, Coventry Blaze has managed to capture the imagination of the city's youth.

Head coach Paul Thompson claims that: "With more than 220 young players, Coventry is quickly becoming the biggest centre of junior development in the sport." As members of the under-16 team reach college age, the academy will allow them to develop their passion for the game seriously while studying for A-level or BTEC qualifications.

Henley college plans to allow 18-year-olds to study for HNDs at the academy. Paul Thompson is lending full support to the academy: "When I was younger I took the risk of leaving education early and focusing on ice hockey," he explains. "Kids today are smarter and more streetwise. They know they need an education that will help them on and off the rink."

Thompson has offered to take charge of the on-ice training and will be enlisting members of his squad to demonstrate techniques. There will be three half-days training a week with at least two hours on the ice.

Students will also undertake intensive fitness and conditioning courses in the gym as well as taking modules on subjects such as nutrition.

Alan Shaw, head of leisure and professional studies, discovered that members of Henley's sports academies score higher than average grades for the college.

"These are individuals who love their sport first and foremost," Shaw says.

"They know that part of the academy is studying for qualifications and the fact that they have the opportunity to do both this and the sport they love drives them on in both fields. It gives them an identity and something to aspire to."

Henley college has produced a series of successful athletes, including World Indoor 200m Champion Marlon Devonish, Coventry City striker Gary McSheffrey and Commonwealth Games gold medallist swimmer Adam Whitehead.

At present Coventry Blaze has few players from the Midlands on its first team but Richard Taylor, co-ordinator of the Ice Hockey Academy, believes that it will provide the opportunity for home-grown talent to play for the team. Word has already spread far beyond Coventry, however, and he has received enthusiastic applications from all over the UK, including Edinburgh and Belfast.

"Ice hockey is fast, exciting and, importantly, a new challenge for teenagers," says Taylor. "Unlike in Canada, there is limited time to get experience on the ice and rise to the challenge. The academy will help maximise ice time."

Those who complete the academy and remain a long skate from fame need not feel time has been wasted: Henley structures the academies so that after two years of study for the HND, students can opt to enter the second year of the sport and exercise science degree at Coventry university.

"We find that students from the academies approach the degree with a much greater level of confidence than they would have had otherwise," says Val Cox, subject group head for physiology and science at the university.

Students will be encouraged to use examples from ice hockey in their coursework and plans are being made to incorporate practical training into their studies.

Richard Taylor emphasises that the academy is not just about improving student's ice hockey skills, but also raising awareness of health and fitness: "We aim to help students develop routines of fitness that will aid them on the rink and throughout their lives."

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