Capitalising on the upcoming Olympic Qualifying Tournament which gets underway on March 10 in Belfield, over 325 boys from 24 clubs descended on the National Hockey Stadium last Sunday for a meet and greet with the Irish men’s hockey team.
The event was part of a day-long series of events organised by the Irish Hockey Association as they look to use the tournament as an opportunity to capture the imagination of the young hockey playing public.
Fiona Mills, the National Development Officer, explained to The Hook the nature of the initiative. “We engaged directly with clubs from all over the country with the Leinster based clubs generously hosting blitzes in their home grounds,” she said.
Following the blitzes around the province, clubs then centralised in Belfield to watch part of the Irish men’s training session and then meet the players and get signatures.
“The aim for the day was to raise the profile of the players themselves, the team and primarily the build-up to the tournament itself.
“Everything was done in conjunction with the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. All of the boys went home with a flyer, information about the tournament, the official tournament poster. It was all about making sure people were either coming back up in a couple of week’s time or checking it out online.”
Mills was delighted with the turnout, describing it as “phenomenal” as, with volunteers included, it saw 400 people engaged. It follows hot on the heels of a successful taster session in the Mardyke in Cork while the players have been out to schools around the country promoting the game.
Most recently Jason Lynch, Conor and David Harte were in Midleton College while Ronan Gormley was in King’s Hospital on Tuesday afternoon, conducting masterclasses and signing more autographs.
And its an experience the players are really enjoying too as John Jackson told The Hook at the event in Belfield: “If I had something like this when I was a youngster, it would have been fantastic and hopefully it will generate a bit of interest for the qualifiers and hockey in general.
“Signing all those signatures, it was like I was back at the school exam tables, getting a bit of cramp in my hand! But if it means these kids will pick up a hockey stick for the rest of their lives, then we’ll keep signing. That’s the most important thing.”
To that end, Mills hopes it can build on some recent inroads made in building the playing numbers in Ireland.
“The reality is it is all about pushing the number of boys playing the game up and up. We had an 8pc growth in boy’s club numbers in Munster and 13pc growth in Leinster so we’re just looking to build on that year on year.
“The players today were all U-12, all existing club members. It was a different slant from what we did in Cork. That was much more about introducing the sport to boys. What we wanted to do was to get our existing players engaged directly with the Irish team.
It also worked as a follow-up to an earlier initiative by the IHA to get youngsters looking forward to the competition.
“We interviewed eight of the players who put together video messages for clubs and schools which we then sent out. For example, the Corinthian boys came down and were all dying to meet Mitch Darling because he had his DVD played up there. They had already been up in the clubhouse and watched this message from Mitch. It was another layer onto that project.
“The fact so many of the players play abroad, the tournament is such a brilliant opportunity to get them to engage directly with our players in clubs and schools. The lads today were in their element, chatting away. It was brilliant and does so much for the men’s game.”