Boost for Irish hockey

IRISH hockey took its first step on the journey towards excellence in Dublin yesterday with the announcement that Ireland has been short-listed to host the men’s hockey qualifying tournament for the Beijing Olympics.

As the sport unveiled a branding and commercial drive that ties in with the hosting of the Women’s European Championships this August, Irish Hockey Association’s Chief Executive Paul Varian said making the short-list was a timely boost for the sport.

“There has been a major change in Irish hockey over the past six months and making this short-list is evidence of that,” Varian said. “The days of hockey being seen as a ‘backwater’ amateur sport in Ireland is gone.”

He feels confident Ireland are in running to host the qualifying tournament, even though they face stiff opposition from Switzerland, France and New Zealand. “Ireland has a good history of hosting these major events and that will stand to us,” he said.

Mr Varian felt, was the dawn of a new era for the sport in this country, with the launch of a plan to take Irish hockey to the next level. With the women’s team ranked 13th in the world, and the IHA having hired Dave Passmore as its first high performance director, there’s optimism the sport will climb to the next level.

Mr Passmore has made regular qualification for major championships his main aim as high performance director, with the more immediate aim of getting both the men and women’s teams into the World Cup next year.

“Within the next two years, we want not only to qualify for the World Cup, but to participate competitively in it,” Mr Passmore said. Key to achieving this is the development of a distinctive Irish style of play.

“Most hockey nations have their own style of play. And we want to develop that here. The Australian team that won the Olympics used the same style of play that their under-21s used when they won the World Cup in Milton Keynes in 1998,” he said.

The IHA recognise that success in sport is crucial if hockey is to succeed in attracting the casual sports fan, as they hope to do. Mr Passmore believes the future for Irish hockey is bright, pointing to the Irish U-18s that won the European Youth Cup in 2002 and were runners-up in 2003 as evidence of that. More than half the 40,000 players involved in the sport in Ireland are under the age of eighteen.

“There has been a lot of scepticism in Irish hockey for a while, wondering was it going to change,” said Frank Gormley, the IHA’s Marketing Director. “This is a new beginning for the sport in Ireland and the time for change is now.”

The IHA will continue that change in Belfast today and in Cork on Monday, where they will announce a major sponsor for the sport.

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