With employment opportunities on Irish soil scarce, the country’s hockey players have been exploring opportunities within the sport. The majority of the Irish men’s squad currently play semi-professionally in the Dutch, German and Belgian leagues, while the women are now opting to experience student life in the United States.
Omagh’s Ireland international forward Megan Frazer was the first of the current crop to be lured on scholarship in 2009, winning consecutive all-American titles with the University of Maryland before being crowned the country’s best student hockey player last year. College recruiters have since awoken to the talents of Irish players. The result is that 16 more starlets — the majority of whom have previously been involved with Ireland at U18 or U21 level — have opted to follow the American dream, 11 of whom are heading over as freshers this year.
Limerick native Rebecca Barry, 19, now into her second year with Richmond Spiders in Virginia, said the side’s assistant coach — Bangor native Ryan Elliott — made her “an offer I couldn’t refuse”.
“I love my sport, I love to travel and I love meeting new people. It fitted perfectly,” she explained. “Having completed a year here already, I believe I have learned an awful lot, be it about American culture, the intensity and professionalism that is involved in college sports, or the mindset they have in approaching different aspects of their lives.”
With the return of Ireland to the international stage at U21 level after an eight-year hiatus, Barry returned home in time to compete for Munster at the U21 interpros and put her hand up for Irish selection.
But Ireland aren’t back in European Championships action at that grade until 2014, when most of the players departing will still be underage.
Some may have been in contention for elevation to the senior squad, particularly with a new full-time coach to be appointed in the coming months, and Barry admits going out of sight and out of mind is a risky move.
“I worry it may affect my international ambitions. The bottom line is I’m not in Ireland for up to eight months of the year, meaning I can’t be scouted.!”
Barry’s former Institute team-mate Róisín Upton is among the new batch, having linked up with the University of Connecticut before even receiving her Leaving Cert results from Crescent College Comprehensive last month.
“I felt it an was opportunity that couldn’t be missed and one that may never come around again,” explained 18-year-old Upton.
Irish Hockey Association chief executive Angus Kirkland admits it is not an ideal scenario for Irish hockey.
“Hockey scholarships in Ireland are few and far between... I don’t think you can blame the girls for taking these opportunities,” he said.
“But it is a challenge for the coach in terms of monitoring players and ensuring we don’t lose talented players from our system who have benefited from it.”