Hockey in lockdown
by Andy Potts|06 SEP 2020
British youngster Emily Harris aims at going to study in the U.S. soon.
photo: Courtesy of Bracknell Queen Bees
The abrupt curtailment of the 2019/20 hockey season has left players all over the world waiting impatiently for a chance to get back into meaningful action. Within the professional game, the hiatus brings challenges: clubs face financial problems, with some already reporting that they won’t be able to compete next season and others launching fundraisers to help them through a difficult summer.

Below the pro game, however, there’s a vast community of pay-to-play hockey. It can range from the humblest of beer leagues right up to national championships featuring full internationals. Here too, there is frustration at the lack of action – and even as lockdown ends, not every team is able to return to the ice right away.

As England’s ice rinks reopen for socially distanced skating, we caught up with two teams facing very different circumstances.

Bouncing back

For Whitley Bay Squaws, of the Women’s National Ice Hockey League Premier Division, lockdown brought a sense of shock. The club, which plays in the second tier of women’s hockey in England, is home to GB internationals Steph Towns, Abi Culshaw and, when not at college in Vermont, Casey Traill. But it’s also a homely, pay-to-play community team. When the UK government lockdown meant the Hillheads Road ice rink closed its doors and turned off the refrigeration units for the first time in its 65-year history, the Squaws feared a ‘devastating impact’ on their hockey.

“At first we thought this might end our team,” Towns said. “But gradually we started to realise that it could be manageable if everything gets up and running again.”

In the interim, the team trained on inline skates, swishing up and down the North Tyneside seafront or setting up practice drills in a deserted carpark. “It’s our passion and nobody wants to lose that,” Towns added. “Right across our skating community, we just want to find ways to keep it going, to keep that spirit alive.”

Quiet optimism

The club moved online to keep up morale – skills challenges, juggling rolls of toilet paper (an iconic product in the days of COVID stockpiling) and a virtual awards night. Enthusiasm remains undimmed and, after fearing the worst, there was soon renewed hope. There are even plans to expand when the new season can start: the Squaws announced the creation of a U16 team for the first time, with Towns, 29, serving as head coach. Out of adversity, there are bright signs ahead. With no financial problems due to lockdown – a very different picture from the pro and semi-pro game in Britain, which relies on getting fans into arenas – and a good relationship with the local rink, there’s hope that this summer will be a blip, rather than a disaster.

“We have a lot of faith in the staff at our rink,” Towns said. “There’s been a lot of consultation throughout lockdown. Every team and every sport that uses the facility has been given full details about all the new regulations. Every team will have a COVID officer, we won’t be able to use the locker rooms – people will have to come to the rink at least partially dressed to play. When you put your skates on, you get a designated chair to use, and when you go that’s disinfected before anyone else can use it. Everything they are doing is ‘safety first’.”

Shutting down

However, for the Squaws’ last opponent – the Bracknell Fire Bees – the future is more challenging. The Berkshire town faces the loss of its rink after owner John Nike Leisuresport announced that it would not reopen after lockdown. For Paul Burton, long-serving head coach of the Bracknell Queen Bees, the parent club of the Fire Bees, the news came as a surprise, particularly after the rink enjoyed extensive investment over the last year. Suddenly, Burton was faced with trying to save a club that has produced 45 GB internationals and won more than 20 championships across three teams.

News came through that the Queen Bees will relocate to Slough, 12 miles away, meaning the club can continue and years of hard work will be preserved in a new home. Most important, all of the teams can remain under one roof – albeit amid a crowded schedule with Slough also hosting the Bees men’s team in the NIHL National, and the town’s own Slough Jets.

“We have two women’s teams and a U16 girls’ team and we aim to cater for players from six to 60,” Burton said. “We could break all that down and move the teams to different rinks, but it’s taken a long time to get to where we are.

“I’m the last old dinosaur; apart from me all of the staff are women. That’s all the coaches, all the off-ice officials. They all came through the ranks here.”

Bracknell is something of a hub of British hockey. The Bees operate a well-structured pathway from kids’ hockey to the first team, while the Queen Bees are among the leaders in the women’s game with a run of eight national titles interrupted only by this year’s lockdown. While hockey in the UK can be a precarious operation, this organisation looked like a secure set-up until this month’s shock announcement.

“You realise just how thin the line between staying and going really is,” Burton added. “We keep hearing about a lot of other rinks around the country having difficulties.

“Suddenly our community has realised that it is losing an asset, maybe something people have taken for granted. There was a good response to a petition in support of the rink but it’s not council owned so there’s a limit to what public pressure can achieve.

“And the owners have been losing money for years, then COVID comes along and there’s no income for four or five months.”

There’s a feeling that the funding model for British sport doesn’t help – “we have almost no contact with Sport England, the main funding body” – while women’s ice hockey is a minority within an already small group. But Burton believes that the spirit his team showed during lockdown can keep the club going in the face of even greater adversity.

“Women players are fiercely competitive, and they are unbelievably loyal to the sport,” he said. “We have players who have been here for 30-odd years. I’ve seen women have children and be back on the ice in the same year. How much dedication does it take to do that?

“Maybe 30% of our players come from Bracknell and the surrounding area. The others come from all over – Peterborough, the south coast, Cardiff. Right at the beginning of lockdown we started online sessions for off-ice work. We could get the teams together once or twice a week and the response to that was very interesting. The U16s really took to it, they’ve been enjoying the sessions and they’ve tended to stay online and chat after the ‘official’ end. They’ve become a lot more confident in themselves.”

Losing the rink will test that devotion, but confirmation of the club’s future in Slough gives new grounds for hope among the Queen Bees.