These 2 coaches were former hockey internationals and was entrusted for the 1st time with such a task. They are straight talking people whose passion is to transform the country's hockey. They were not interested in the "politicking" in hockey that was so prevalent and as such they were not PR people who would otherwise provide the necessary "spin" to any issues in order to safeguard themselves. Their passion was to do the job properly.
The 2 coaches in getting down to their job had to identify some of the key issues including about the players. Apparently their findings were as follows:
- The country's team was low in esteem as allegations were made on match fixing. gambling and other vices.
- There was talk of financial dealings in the form of lending and borrowing among players and officials.
- Consumption of alcohol and cigarettes were rampant and the amount consumed was unusually high including when the team was at centralised training.
- Late nights including "clubbing" were a prominent feature with the players whether they were at training or not.
- Team training was previously only to commence at 7.30am but more often did so at 8.00am
- Trainings were cancelled at the 11th hour and this was something that was becoming frequent.
- Absenteeism at training was common.
- A clique system had developed in the team where 1 or 2 people became the "godfather".
- Training drills became so repetitive that the sessions became boring.
- Weights and gym training were more an option rather than compulsory.
- Video sessions became a place for players to take a snooze.
- Players were regularly faking injury.
- Injured players on rehabilitation were taking unusual long to recover and there was 1 who took over 2 years, yet he was able to work full-time as a mechanic and still earn a player's salary.
With this as the backdrop, it would seem that only "fools" would take up such appointments. Still they were there and they wanted to expeditiously make changes. Obviously these 2 coaches were not philosophers, if they were they would have understood what a renowned Polish philosopher had said ie " It is not bringing the new that is difficult, rather removing the old".
From the onset the coaches set into motion the following:
- Training to commence at 6.30am sharp. Those not punctual would be taken as absent.
- Fitness was a key issue and with a National Sports Authority's involvement to undertake regular measurements on fitness level of players.
- Smoking by players to be minimised and eliminated with the National Sports Authority's assistance.
- Weights and gym training became part of training curriculum.
- Injured players and those on rehabilitation were required to check-in for medical examination on a regular prescribed basis. Note the player who was on 2 year rehabilitation without coming for medical check-ups was finally dropped.
- Video sessions became interactive.
- Training drills were carefully blended to eliminate boredom.
As the coaches put this in place, the hockey administrators selected a team manager who by taking the position had created conflict of interest and may have also breached ethical issues. He happened to be the paymaster of most of the national players at club level. Effectively, he was managing his club boys at a national level. Some may say it is a "convergence of interests" and therefore it is perfectly ok. Maybe this is where the subtleties of the problems start.
As the coaches got tough some of the past open activities like the financial dealings and betting issues had to go "underground". Effectively things started to be done covertly and certain senior players and other young key players felt threatened and resorted to a whispering campaign to "bad mouth" the coaches. They could not do what they liked to do and therefore the only other way was to undermine the programmes laid down by the coaches.
These clique were the ears of the team manager and a group of hockey officials who originate from a particular province of the country and are referred to as the "province mafia". This "mafia" created bureaucratic issues by laying down what the coaches could and could not do including accessibility to the President of the national hockey body, which could only be done with the team manager. Now the coaches were caught in a "spider-web" and it was no more just managing the national team but also trying to untangle the "spider-web". The distractions were mounting. The team manager and the "mafia" were putting pressure as to who should be selected including who should be in the starting line-up.
Fortunately these 2 coaches were not easily pushed over. They remained steadfast to their objective and continued with the pre-planned journey. In an invitational tournament the coaches did not use a certain player and this did not go down well with the "mafia" and team manager. Following that at a continental tournament held locally, some of the players led by a senior player started a mutiny and were trying to ostracize the coaches from the team. Anyway the actions failed. However at an overseas tournament where the country's ranking would be reappraised the video recordings of games seem to show how certain players at open goal scoring opportunities intentionally fumbled.
In all these the key point is that some of the players were more keen on their own self-preservation rather than the country's interest and this was supported by certain peculiar officials. What was strange is how the team manager seemed to take the side of the players rather than of the coaches. This was probably expected as they are his paid club players.
In all these disciplinary issues were building up, notwithstanding the allegations of match fixing, gambling and financial dealings which remained unresolved. Players coming stenched of alcohol for training, while players were caught "red-handed" coming back at wee hours of the morning in a drunken state and to add to all of it a player lied to the coaches and was caught gambling in an internet cafe. Strangely, even the Disciplinary Committee could not be convened because of quorum and when the punishments were meted out, the team manager just "tapped" the players' hands. The greatest height of insult to decent people was how the player who lied to the coaches walked away freely because the matter was orchestrated by the team manager. He went to the team manager who was his paymaster to resign from the team. No action was taken against him and he continues playing hockey with the intention of playing for the country again.
The coaches' determination to bring young and disciplined players nearly paid off when they entered the finals of the qualifying tournament. The fact that the team had removed the major "bad apples" shows no one was indispensable. Despite this the "mafia" and the team manager are still doing the needful to ensure their influence on the team remains.
Unceremoniously, the hockey administrators have removed one of the coaches. All because he was a strict disciplinarian and cannot be easily influenced. They have kept the other more as a "window dressing" and it would be a matter of time they would "demote" him and make him "eat" his words to deal with players whom he felt cannot serve the nation. I may be wrong but my sense says otherwise.
The morale of this story is that there is no room for anyone who wants to do a good job in hockey. The "forces" present have other agendas and that is why a foreign coach in the initial years could escape such entrapments as the officials do not know how to stand up to a foreigner. The moment he is here for more than 3 to 4 years he too gets swallowed by the system.
To the 2 coaches i think they have done a great job ie attempting to bring sanity in an ill-disciplined hockey environment and considering the "forces" they had to handle and live with. The job they have done may not be appreciated but time would only tell the results of maneuvering and manipulations undertaken by certain officials to place and displace people. In all this there is a price that would have to be paid ie hockey in the country would revert to the days when everything and anything can be done. Bless the country's hockey.
This is a story and if it happens that "the hat fits anyone, they can wear it". If not it remains a figment of my imagination cautioning our hockey administrators to take note that such things are possible.