HOCKEY isn’t everybody’s cup of tea as either a participant or spectator sport, but it continues to prove itself nothing if not innovative, as anyone who watched the Easter weekend action in the EuroHockey League will testify.
Europe’s premier men’s club competition is barely out of nappies as it heads for the conclusion of just its fourth season, yet somewhat arrogantly declares itself as “the best way hockey has ever been presented”. The thing is, it ain’t wrong.
Irish interest in the knockout rounds of the EHL is higher than usual this season; Dublin clubs Pembroke Wanderers and Glenanne were both involved in the last 16, while a smattering of Irish international players are representing clubs from Spain, Belgium and England.
I therefore spent much of the weekend glued to the superb EHL website, watching either the live stream or highlights, as 12 games unfolded over four days in Bloemendaal, near Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
That the entire last 16 and quarter-finals took place at a single venue is a hallmark of a sport which places a heavy emphasis on tournament-style competitions, where games come thick and fast over a short period of time.
You certainly couldn’t manage it with the Champions League or Heineken Cup, but for smaller sports this is a clever move — it creates a festival atmosphere, increasing the neutral crowds at matches and allowing players and fans from across Europe to mingle.
From a broadcasting perspective, there is also much to admire. Split screen views are utilised heavily on replays — so one incident can be viewed from attackers’ and defenders’ point of view simultaneously, or you can watch a coach agonise over a missed chance as it happens.
Commentary is left off the comprehensive highlights packages of each game, allowing the miked-up umpires to be heard throughout while also picking up some gems of comments from players and coaches.
The result is an instructive one for followers of any sport; witness how advantages are called and decisions are explained by the umpires, even while play is unfolding.
And for when they get it wrong? Much like cricket and tennis, the EHL adopts a video referral system. Even more intriguingly, the video umpire is also on camera, so viewers can watch and listen as he comes to his decision.
There are plenty of sports which would dearly love to be able to demand such accountability and transparency from their officials.
For the first time in EHL history, the system was called into play during a penalty shootout during the all-Spanish quarter-final between Club de Campo and Atletic Terrassa on Sunday — and resulted in a goal correctly being chalked off.
That came amid the EHL’s take on how to decide stalemates, replacing the traditional stationary strikes at goal with a “penalty shuttles” system where players are instead given eight seconds to score in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
This format has heightened excitement, removed some of luck element and evened up the odds. It is one of many radical changes in recent years which has helped differentiate hockey from other sports which are similar superficially or tactically, football being a prime example.
These include using two umpires and rolling substitutions, scrapping the offside rule, removing the need to pass frees to another player (known as an autopass) and utilising a three-card and sin-bin system for disciplinary matters.
One size doesn’t always fit all, of course; a bit of opportunistic journalism last year suggested FIFA president Sepp Blatter was considering following hockey’s lead by doing away with offside, to widespread condemnation on fans’ message boards.
And no system is without flaws; during the Reading v KHC Dragons clash on Monday, twice the video umpire was unable to come to a definitive conclusion.
There are nonetheless plenty of ways that sports can learn from each other. Hockey, for example, could look at how rugby upped the value of a try to encourage more positive play, and perhaps reduce the amount of sanctions which result in penalty corners, to encourage more goals from play.
In the meantime, whether you’re a seasoned veteran or complete newbie, set aside an hour and make an appointment with the EHL website; it’ll give you food for thought at the very least.