In the field hockey world, Great Britain’s Ashley Jackson is one of the brightest stars. Three times an Olympian, his country’s all-time record goal scorer, and described by some commentators as the ‘Pirlo or Iniesta’ of Britain’s program on the turf.
But the 30-year-old’s first sporting passion was on the ice, chasing a puck around the Medway rink in his native Kent almost as soon as he could walk. This season, he’s taking a time-out from field hockey to return to that first love, skating for Basingstoke Bison in England’s National Ice Hockey League Division 1 (South).
“I started playing ice hockey when I was about two-and-a-half or three years old,” Jackson said after helping his new team to a 2-0 victory over Sheffield Steeldogs in the Autumn Cup. “It was a family thing. My granddad played many, many years ago, and my uncle played in the era before us. They were both playing in that Essex / Kent border area, for teams like Romford Raiders and Medway Bears, as they were back then. I used to go along with my dad to watch, it was a bit of a family day out and that was it, really.
“This was all quite a long time before I started playing field hockey, I must have been eight or nine when I first tried that.”
When Jackson reached his teens, though, pressures at school and a burgeoning field hockey career meant that something had to give, and it was ice hockey that fell away. “I stopped playing in about 2000,” he said. “A lot of that group did. We were so young, we moved up to secondary school and suddenly there was no time for late night road trips places like Sheffield. In the end, my dad decided that it was time to concentrate on other stuff.”
‘Other stuff’ included a stellar field hockey career. Jackson’s achievements for club and country have made him one of the biggest stars in that sport. Three Olympic appearances, including a fourth-place finish on home turf in London in 2012 for GB, Eurohockey Nations gold and a Commonwealth bronze representing England tell part of the story; a starring role in Hockey League India, captaining the Ranshi Rays to the 2015 title and an English championship with Holcombe represent some of the highlights in the club game. But the itch to play on the ice again was still there, and as early as 2010/11 he was guesting in a handful of games with the Invicta Mustangs. This season, though, is Jackson’s first full-time campaign on the ice, the first season he’s an ice hockey pro; his field hockey role is currently limited to the coaching school he runs with his brother, Wesley.
After so many years at the pinnacle of one game, life at a more modest level of sport offers new challenges. For one, the similarities between field and ice hockey begin and end with the name: there’s not much else in common, from the equipment to the size of the playing surface. Transferable skills aren’t easy to find.
“It’s all pretty different,” Jackson said. “On the ice, I shoot left-handed, but field hockey is exclusively right-handed, for example. I guess there are general things like hand-eye coordination, vision, that are transferable to a certain extent, but other than that I’m really trying to remember what I was doing 15 years ago. I just need practice, time on the ice, the challenge of trying to get better and better.”
That challenge is a big motivation, the need to establish a reputation and earn the trust of the team is something new for an elite sportsman. “It’s different when you’re not the go-to guy, when you’re trying to earn the respect of your teammates and your coach,” Jackson added. “Maybe somewhere down the line I can get the trust to be put in those big situations, but that can only happen over time if I do the right things up to that point. It’s been a lot of fun so far – we’ve got a great bunch of guys here and they make it a real pleasure to come and train during the week and get up for the games at the weekends – so now I’m hoping to push on with my performances.”
Then there’s the physical side of ice hockey, where full contact is not merely permitted but often demanded by coaches keen on total commitment to the cause. At Basingstoke, head coach Doug Sheppard has a reputation as a systems guy. Those systems brought him the English Premier Championship in 2016, along with the coach of the year award, while earlier in his career the Ontario native won Britain’s top league, the 2009 Elite League, as a player-coach with the Sheffield Steelers. For Jackson, physical play and slotting into those systems is another part of the learning process. “I’m still learning how to play that physical game, and how not to be played by it,” Jackson added. “I’m on the wing, so I’m up against the boards and I’m having to think about how to play that, how to use my body and get the puck off the boards.
“Everything is developing. Doug’s a very, very good coach, he knows what he’s talking about. It’s a case of listening to what he has to say, working out the different scenarios and situations on the ice, and putting it all into practice. Over the last month there’s been a lot of information to take in, hopefully it’s starting to be a bit more natural so I don’t have to be thinking about it all the time.”
One of the biggest differences between ice and turf, even in Britain, where ice hockey is still a minority sport, is that atmosphere at games. Crowds at Basingstoke may not be vast in comparison with the big leagues, but there’s a loyal following that noisily supports the team home and away. The Invicta set-up also enjoys similarly vocal support, in contrast with the less raucous world of pro field hockey.
“We’re lucky down in Basingstoke that we get great crowds week in week out and it’s really enjoyable to play in front of that,” Jackson said. “We can’t get that in field hockey, not for our club games. We have it at some international tournaments but even then it depends where you are and what time your game is on.”
However, GB’s field hockey programs do have some big advantages over their icy equivalents – especially on the international stage. While Jackson has gone to three Summer Olympics, his skating colleagues have not appeared at that level since 1948. The nation’s international standing on the ice has some way to go to get close to the prominence that British field hockey enjoys around the world. So what can ice hockey learn from this?
“If you look at the two programs right now, they’re incomparable,” Jackson admitted. “The field hockey teams are together five days a week, all year round. They play tournaments right through the year, it’s basically their club environment. They live and train around the corner from each other, they’re together all the time. I don’t know so much about the ice hockey set-up, but as far as I know players spend most of their time with their clubs, whether it’s in the Elite League or around the world. Then they only get together for a short time before the tournaments in the summer.
“If they want to seriously push on [with the national program], maybe they could look at other programs and spend more time together as a team, but then you have that club and country argument that goes on in so much sports. At the end of the day, the clubs are paying the salaries and don’t want players going off and training for GB, and certainly don’t want to risk injuries with the national team.”