Sarah Juggins, for PAHF
Fast, furious and great entertainment, indoor hockey is the lesser-known relative of the outdoor game, but with the advent of the seventh Pan American Indoor Cups in Georgetown, Guyana, in October, this is a chance for some of the nations who are still at the developmental stages of the outdoor game to really make a challenge for a podium place.
Seven women’s teams and six men’s teams are declared for the Indoor Championships, with both Canada men’s and women’s teams the current holders of the title. The prize for the winning team is a place at the Hockey Indoor World Cup, taking place in Berlin, Germany, in February 2018. It is an event that Canada men have been to every year while USA men have appeared twice. Of the PAHF women’s teams, Canada have played at the World Cup twice, including the last edition in 2015; Argentina have made one appearance in 2009; and Trinidad and Tobago played at the first edition in 2003.
While some countries taking part in the showcase event are old hands at the sport, for debutant countries such as Barbados men and Barbados and Guyana women, this is a step into the unknown. Like so much about PAHF hockey at the moment, the impact that the up and coming nations can have on the sport are very exciting.
So just what is it about indoor hockey that makes it so exciting? Surely it is just a mini version of the outdoor game?
In fact nothing could be further from the truth, indoor hockey is a sport that calls for skills and abilities that can be very different from the outdoor game and, perhaps surprisingly, not all outdoor players make good indoor players. The fundamentals are the same: players use sticks, albeit lighter and flatter; the ball is the same dimension as an outdoor ball, although slightly lighter; the aim is to score goals past a goalkeeper padded in protective clothing; there are penalty corners and penalty strokes. But the game is lightening fast; it is usually high scoring; the ball is not allowed to leave the ground unless it is a shot at goal so it skids at high speed across the polished surface; and one mistake or bad touch will almost certainly result in lost possession and possibly a goal-scoring chance.
The sport first became popular in the PAHF region at the turn of the century, with the northern nations, Canada and USA, the driving forces behind its development. For Canadian players particularly, it offered a chance to continue to play their sport during the harsh winter months. But it is a sport that has become popular in other PAHF countries for a very different reason – a lack of outdoor facilities mean that indoor hockey has become the perfect vehicle for hockey development. A nation such as Guyana, which is hosting the 2017 Pan American Indoor Cups, has a dearth of outdoor hockey facilities but sports halls can offer the perfect venue. In Haiti, indoor hockey was one of the sports that served as a means of improving the health of children and young people after earthquakes had devastated areas of the country.
Recognition of indoor hockey as a global sport came in 2003 when FIH organised the inaugural FIH World Indoor Hockey Championships in Germany in 2003. These Championships took place a year after the first PAHF Pan American Indoor Hockey Cup.
This year’s event will throw up some interesting meetings. Both the men’s and women’s events are round robin tournaments, meaning that every team will play each other. The most competitive games are likely to be between Argentina and Canada – both in the men’s and women’s competition – and the host nation Guyana. Guyana are an ambitious team and they have the added advantage of home support. They beat Argentina to the bronze medal in the 2014 men’s edition and have been concentrating their efforts this year to ensure they give a good showing, both as hosts and players.
Philip Fernandes is President of the Guyana Hockey Board and a month before the event bursts into action, he took time out of a busy schedule to talk about his national association’s adoption of indoor hockey and the plans that are in place for this year’s Indoor Pan American Cups.
“The upcoming Indoor Pan American Cups is the first competition at this level for Guyana,” says the President. “Prior to this, Guyana has only held competitions encompassing teams from Central America and the Caribbean. As a result, a great deal is going into the preparation to ensure that the event is a success.
“Among the priorities is of course to have a facility that is at the standard of a tournament of this caliber. Our local federation has made great strides in preparing the facility, including the installation of a floor that is better suited to indoor hockey than that which was previously being used.”
To run the event, the Guyana Hockey Board has enlisted the help of a large team of volunteers drawn from the hockey community. Fernandes is determined that players and spectators at the event will have a great time and really appreciate Guyanese hospitality.
The challenge will be coping with a lack of experience among the volunteers. It has been 25 years since Guyana hosted a major international competition, although many of the volunteers have been involved in running a successful regional indoor tournament that takes place annually in Georgetown.
Fernandes explained why indoor hockey has become so popular in Guyana. Much of the reason centres around facilities. “There are no artificial pitches in Guyana, for hockey or any other sport. The grass pitches, which serve as playing areas for outdoor hockey, are cricket grounds and, with cricket the number one sport in the country, hockey has to fit around the cricket schedule.”
The problem is exacerbated by the heavy rainy season. The resulting flooded pitches limits the months during which cricket can be played, meaning there is even less time for hockey. Most hockey teams are centred around the capital city of Georgetown, and this built up area suffers worse flooding than most areas of the country.
The conditions and lack of facilities have driven the players indoors. Fernandes says there are only so many indoor facilities, but these are utilised whenever possible. “Our players rely heavily on playing indoor hockey to keep active in the game. Quite often, even our national outdoor teams have to train indoors due to the unavailability of our fields.”
Being forced indoors does have its advantages however. “Some of the skills of hockey, plus the ability to work in small spaces has really improved many aspects of the players’ outdoor game,” says Fernandes. “It has really helped us tremendously with the quality of our national program.”
The thing that strikes me as Fernandes talks about Guyana’s situation is the ability of the President and his team at the Guyana Hockey Board to always look to turn what could be seen as a negative into a positive.
On such example is the introduction of an annual indoor competition. The Board was aware that no outdoor facilities meant that Guyana could not attract outdoor teams, so they initiated an international indoor tournament – the Diamond Mineral Water Indoor Hockey Festival, which invites club teams from all around the Pan American region. As Fernandes says: “This tournament has been a huge success and has contributed greatly to the popularity of hockey and especially indoor hockey.”
Grass roots growth is important to the future of the sport and the Guyana Hockey Board has started to run mini indoor tournaments around a number of schools. Most schools have an indoor space where hockey can be played, be it a sports hall or a general-use auditorium, so this is proving a successful way to introduce youngsters to the sport.
On the whole schools are welcoming the arrival of hockey onto the curriculum, with teachers seeing it as a sport that ticks many boxes. Fernandes explains: “Our hockey playing family consists of people from all economic levels and ethnicities. The sport has a good reputation and teachers see the benefit of a team sport like hockey, which encourages children to stay active, and also to interact with their peers. In this modern world, there are so many distractions including electronic gadgets that can consume the time and attention of children without interaction or physical exercise. And parents also see hockey as a welcome addition to their child’s life.”
While the Diamond Mineral Water festival and the mini tournaments are drawing in new players and spectators, there is still an enormous mountain to climb to really get hockey into the national sporting psyche. Most hockey is played in or around Georgetown. There have been efforts to spread the game to outlying areas but the cost of transportation for teams based outside the city to travel into Georgetown for competition is prohibitive.
Looking to the future, there are ambitions to place professional coaches in outlying areas and develop leagues and tournaments within those communities, but this is a long way from fruition.
While there are many challenges to overcome before Guyana can start to compete regularly on the international hockey stage, there is no doubting Philip Fernandes and his team’s determination that the Pan Am Indoor Hockey Cup will be both a rip-roaring success for the participating nations but also a signal to the Guyanese population that hockey is here to stay.