In Europe, club hockey is where it’s at, with players spending the majority of their year (30+ weeks) training and competing with their club teams. So for the 2007/08 season, after realizing the potential for cross-country, international club competition, the European Hockey League was introduced, replacing the men’s European Cup competition, which includes 8 teams (all champions of their own domestic leagues), and is still used for the European women! According to its website, The EHL “Sets out to and reinforce the status of club level hockey by creating new and more opportunities for the European clubs to play each other in the international arena and giving club hockey more exposure, more spectators, more high quality TV coverage and a broader media and marketing platform.” All of this calls for massive hockey excitement every single year, especially when it’s finally time for the long anticipated championship weekend!

And for the 2016/17 season, the finals kick off this weekend in Antwerp, Belgium! Of the starting 24 competing teams, there are four squads left still fighting for the 2017 EHL title. The Final Four games are going down today on Saturday, June 3rd. The results of these two games decide the matchups for the following day- the Grand Final or the Third Place Playoff. This may be unfamiliar for those not used to having a faceoff that decides third and fourth place!

In anticipation of this exciting final series, LEAP wanted to get the inside scoop on this tournament from one of the players gearing up to give it his all this weekend in the EHL Finals. We thankfully had the chance to have a fun catch up with GTeam athlete Henry Weir, a 2016 Olympic athlete and a member of Great Britain’s National Team, and player for the EHL Championship hopeful, Wimbledon HC. Henry says, “With it being the first time in a decade that an English side has been in the Final Four, this is obviously the biggest stage we’ve ever been on. We think we can win and know we can do a good job.  I really just want us to go and come away from the tournament with the respect of other teams in Europe and with more respect than English teams have been given in the past by European powerhouses!”

When comparing Wimbledon HC to the other teams left in the Final Four, Henry tells us,  “Besides the four of us GB guys everyone has full-time jobs and plays two times a week.  In the EHL we’re coming up against German, Dutch and Belgian sides who are basically professional. They train at least four times together. They tend to have more international players who earn more money.” Though Wimbledon HC have their own internationals, the team also has four foreigners on its’ roster: Chad Conlin from South Africa, Nathanial Stewart from Australia, and Steven Ubers from Holland, who Henry says, “have performed great in the EHL and have played huge roles in helping the team get so far.”  Henry realizes that Wimbledon is the perceived underdog if you line up the training schedules and rosters, saying, “It can be difficult to compete, but we’re a great close-knit team and will be leaving it all out there.” You heard it from Weir, this match will be one of high intensity, and there’s no way this English side will go down without a fight!

How did Wimbledon get to the Final Four? Having finished top of the English Premier League the previous year, they earned England’s automatic spot in the Sweet Sixteen.  For this match, Wimbledon was up against UHC Hamburg,  a “professional” German side which they had never before beaten. Despite being the underdogs, this English side made a big statement by proving that they must be taken seriously after walked away from the match victorious! Wimbledon then faced another very strong German team, Mannheimer HC, and again ended up on top after a nail-biting finish. Henry’s brief game summary: “We played a really good game and felt we probably should have won in normal time but it went to penalty shuffles. We have one of the best keepers in the world at penalty shuffles, James Bailey, a former GB goalie.  So there’s no doubt that we had an advantage going into that shuffle competition. He [James] did a really good job, and we also scored five for five.” 

Exciting hockey games like this are only better still when taking place in front of the EHL crowds. Henry reckons that the atmosphere of the EHL is simply incomparable to anything experienced in England. He told us, “There is no doubt that the EHL is the most exciting club hockey gets!  There’s money, there are TV cameras, there are big crowds. It’s a strange thing to say but you often get the most passionate crowds when you play in a big club tournament, even more so than international tournaments. I’m not entirely sure why… At the international games, I think you get more fans that don’t necessarily know as much about hockey, while at club tournaments the fans that come are real hockey fans and they’re really passionate about their club. The club fans are more knowledgeable and passionate, and therefore they are more noisy, especially the European crowds. You get flares and drums, it’s just a great atmosphere and I’m really excited playing in front of that.”  The EHL allows for the hockey communities of so many different countries to come together on one field, and the cross-cultural, competitive interaction is an amazingly passionate experience to take part in!

 One factor that adds to Henry holding the EHL to be special is his belief that sport breaks down borders and represents a great point for people to connect. Weir has a rich athletic history both at home in Great Britain and in the other countries where hockey has taken him. Moving through different club teams in GB, Henry played his first season of English Premiere League Hockey with Brooklyns in Manchester, which served as a stepping stone to his University hockey career! During his time at Loughborough University, Harry became the U-21 National Team captain for three years and traveled across the world to the Junior World Cup and Junior Olympics, where he met amazing new people and experienced interesting different cultures. Upon finishing up his university career, he got his first contract with the GB National Team and joined Wimbledon HC. And there he remains, now looking to score an EHL victory for his club! Henry also shared with us experiences and insights that helped him develop as a player, including taking the LEAP to play a club season in Tasmania! On top of this add his many global tours, and attending the 2016 Olympics in Rio, he knows what it means to be a part of the international hockey community.

In preparation for the finals weekend, Wimbledon had a practice match with the GB National Team. The four GB National Team members played for Wimbledon and gave the English Club a great prep match for this coming weekend!

We want to say a big thank you to Henry for taking the time to give us the inside scoop on the EHL and Wimbledon HC’s journey to the championship! Good luck to them, as well as the KHC Dragons, HC Oranje-Rood, and Rot Weiss Köln in this exciting EHL Finals weekend!

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