Young players key for Scottish ice hockey

By Craig AndersonBBC Sport Nation
Braehead Clan player-coach Drew Bannister
Bannister believes youth development could attract big names to the sport

Ice hockey may be becoming a popular sport among new fans in this country - but two coaches in Scotland believe more can be done to improve the game in the UK.

With the Elite League recognised as the top league in the country due to its media exposure and revenues it generates, thousands of fans visit rinks up and down the country.

But there's a fear that not enough is going on to develop young players in this country to keep the momentum going. At least that's the view of Braehead Clan player-coach Drew Bannister.

He said: "There's no doubt the Elite League has a lot of potential, but, for me, the biggest problem is the development of young players coming through.

"In my opinion it's hard to improve and develop the league if there aren't enough younger players to come and play and that has to be the biggest need."

Bannister is certainly well qualified to speak of such a matter, given his vast experience in the game, including stints in the NHL.

He is also of the belief that to help the game grow in this country, having a decent youth set-up in place could also help bring in some star names to really bolster the league.

He added: "I believe you can bring in bigger and better players if you have the infrastructure to support youth development.

"There are already some good, talented British guys out there, but that has to be kept going to maintain and improve the levels already set."

The sport received a boost earlier this week when news broke that Liam Stewart, the son of rocker Rod Stewart and model Rachel Hunter, was cleared to play for the British team.

Although currently playing in America with Western Hockey League outfit Spokane Chiefs, London-born Stewart qualifies through his father's nationality and is set for big things.

GB senior head coach Paul Thompson is keen for him to make his own name as an ice hockey player, despite his famous bloodline.

Thompson said: "We will keep an eye on him and look at his development for the senior team down the road, but he'll be trying out for the Under-18s initially.

"The sport in this country has received a lot of publicity because of who Liam's parents are, but he's at a great club in a league that produces so many guys for the NHL.

"From the Under-18s, if you look at the players that progress to the Under-20s then the senior level, it shows our youth programme is working."

There has also been criticism over the different league structures in the UK as well, with no feeder league acting under the Elite League.

The English Premier League is the closest thing to it, while in Scotland there's the Northern League, from which Fife Flyers joined the Elite set-up in the summer.

Scott Neil, a veteran of British ice hockey for over 30 years in capacities as a player, a coach and as a general manager, believes this needs addressed also.

Neil, now the newly-appointed hockey director at Edinburgh Capitals, believes more should be done with the infrastructure of the game, starting with the bringing the game together.

He said: "There needs to be a well thought-out process in the development of the game, which has been disjointed and we need to take it forward.

"For me, there's a bigger picture that has not been grasped due to the different factions and someone at some point has to stand up and start looking at ways to bring it together again.

"When the sport hits a peak in popularity, there never seems to be any way of aiming higher and there's been a constant cycle without establishing proper roots.

"We stumble from year to year instead of putting a plan together about where we want to be in five years' time, looking at the grass roots level and the development of young players."

But GB coach Thompson, also the head coach of EIHL outfit Coventry Blaze, does not believe the picture is so gloomy, although he would welcome some level of change.

Thompson said: "For me, hockey in this country is on the rise and the talent is getting stronger. Sometimes there can be too negative a view.

"However the jump from junior level to professional is mammoth and I believe there should be a national junior league to act as a feeder, perhaps associated with pro clubs.

Thompson also believes having four Scottish sides in the Elite League should give the sport a much-needed boost north of the border.

He added: "There's an opportunity for restructure in Scotland on the back of having the four sides in the top flight and to reignite things.

"I think the coaching set-up has to be addressed all the way and assist guys like Martin Grubb, the Solways Sharks coach, that want to produce and give opportunities.

"There are good people looking to develop and nurture the talent, but we've got to use them more productively."