During a little break, in between the two matches of the day at the Final Tournament of the European Rookie Cup being held in Zagreb, Axel Bammer, coordinator of the project initiated by the members of EBEL (including Medvescak) and Austrian Ice Hockey Association, found some time to talk about the importance of this project, its messages, unanticipated obstacles and moving forward.
What is the importance of this project for you and why did it start?
A project for U16 was the next step in junior programs with the leagues for U20 (EBYSL) and U18 (EBJL) being established. The goal of the Austrian Hockey Board is to make kids better. Better hockey players so that in the future we have more players for the national team, have a better national team and to be a constant in the Elite Division, something we are not right now. So they gave us a mission to take care of U16 programs. With other leagues, experience has showed that, as the league grows, especially an international one, the quality grows. And that growth helps and pushes us all.
We turned to the EU for funding and found that if we incorporate their goals (solving the problems of match fixing, doping, discrimination and intolerance, physical activity) into our project, they were willing to co-finance it. We wanted to combine everything and give the U16 players the possibility to play and compete at an international level with teams of all sorts of skill.
What is the most important message you want the player to remember?
With all the experts we have, we want to make them better sportsmen on the ice. It's about the integrity of sports. It's not integrity if you cheat and, for example fix matches. Likewise, we are talking with the players a lot about prejudice. The are prejudice within a team, let alone when you involve new people and situations. But we have a lot of highly qualified people talking to them about what real sportsmanship is about - respect the opponent, respect the referees, respect your teammates and only then can you ask for respect back. That's the core message we want to send out.
Project is in its second year, what have the experiences with the teams and players been so far?
There are very big differences between the teams, but overall it's positive. There are teams where the coaches are very much involved and there are teams where the coaches just step back. There are teams that are very interested and communicative, they interact with the speakers, ask a lot of questions. There is an issue of language barriers. We have teams from a number of countries and not everyone speaks English or German, so we cannot organize workshops for different clubs at the same time. Having language barriers prolongs lectures because you need a translator and then the attention span is just not there. And after all, the kids are 16 year olds, full of hormones and the second they take the ice, they want to win and forget about everything else.
But that's where we come in again and show them what this is all about - what happens on the ice, stays on the ice and they should be able to look in to each other's eyes after the game. We know this project is just a small step in the right direction, but we hope it will help.
In the Final Tournament there are workshops for the coaches and the referees. What can you say about that?
In the Final we have the players who already had the education at the Playoff Tournaments, so we focus on others – coaches and referees.
We have 25 coaches from the participating countries at the Coaches' Clinic. We're bringing in experts in the same topics the players had lectures on, but to bring an added value for them, we brought in two coaches from Vierumäki Institute to give a workshop on long-term development of players and on and off ice coaching.
We also hold a Referee Clinic because referees are part of the game, we all refer to them as the third team on the ice. We bring in young referees to develop them and they go through the same lectures and some specific topics.
European Rookie Cup as a project is supposed to last for three years. Considering a positive feedback, are there any plans for the future?
For now, we don't know what the future of this exact project will be. But for sure, something similar will go on. We have ideas on how to develop the project and make some parts of it better, avoid some problems we have faced in the two years so far. For example, the interaction between the players of various teams is not at the level we hoped it would be. It's due to language barriers and a tight schedule where everyone sticks to their teammates. Something like a Rookie Camp with, let's say 5 players from each team, staying together for a week or two would force them to interact, get to know one another, other cultures, other ways of thinking. But, it's too early to talk about that.
What are your expectations of this tournament in Zagreb?
The winners of Playoff Tournaments are here, so they are all strong teams and I am sure the games will be interesting. We have a kind of a Hungarian Championship with one Austrian team here. But that just shows that they did something really good in the past few years. I hope the games are all fair, that the players show respect on the ice and that if there are parents in the arena, that they stick to these rules too.