The international hockey stage traditionally has the World Cup, the Olympics, the Champion's Trophy and the Commonwealth Games, but if it is to attract a larger global audience, then hockey needs to appeal to a new group of fans, and this means turning top players into household names.
So the birth of the Hockey India League (HIL) in 2013 created the dose of fizz and personality that the sport was seeking. Based on the same concept as the IPL cricket tournament, the HIL occupies a 30-day window where the world's top players are signed up by six franchised teams to play in a home and away tournament, which culminates in a play-off for final rankings.
The players are drawn from around the globe: this year 96 Indian players and 57 players from other nations were part of the pre-tournament auction. India's Ramandeep Singh, was the most expensive player at USD $81,000, while New Zealand hockey legend, Ryan Archibald, was the most expensive overseas player: he was aucioned to the Kalinga Lancers for $71,000. The salary cap for each franchisee was $725,000.
As the bidding ended, the 33-year-old Black Sticks star said: "The Indians are known for playing pretty attractive, open and skilful hockey. It's all about getting out and putting on a good display and showing what you can do."
The tournament is set to expand further next year, with more players from other nations expected to make themselves available. German captain Max Muller said that the tournament had been a great experience for national goalkeeper, Nicolas Jacobi, who was widely credited with winning the title for Delhi Waveriders, thanks to his efforts during the penalty shoot-out in the final. "It is good for the 'keepers to face some of the best corner takers in the world at that stage of their preparations."
This year's HIL was seen as an improvement on the inaugural competition, largely because of the greater number of teams participating. This gave the players more time between matches to recover and, as a result, the matches were all very competitive.
Hockey India's high performance director Roel Oltmans was pleased with the performance of many of the young India players in the tournament. In 2013 Mandeep Singh had been the stand-out young player but Roel said that this year, despite the presence of international stars such as Jamie Dwyer (Punjab Warriors), Moritz Fuerste (Ranchi Rhinos) and Japp Stockmann (Punjab Warriors), several young India players had made a big impact on the matches. Akashdeep Singh (Delhi Waveriders), Nikkin Thimmaiah (Delhi Waveriders), Gurmail Singh (Punjab Warriors) and Lalit Upadhyay (Kalinga Lancers) were all singled out for praise.
However, the tournament also threw up a potential goalkeeping problem that the Indian coaching staff need to address before the Rabobank World Cup gets underway. "PR Sreejesh and Harjot Singh have done well but they aren't world class," Roel said.
One player who did become a fan's favourite during the HIL was Nicolas Jacobi. It is a well-known fact that Germany rarely lose shootouts in any sport and Nicolas said after the final that he had never lost a shoot out in his career. That's enough to send the other teams post haste to the practice ground.
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