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A behind-the-scenes look at university hockey: What about funding, studies and player motivation?

They play on a voluntary basis, they keep up with their studies and there is still a chance to wear the national team jersey. Young players are interested in the European University Hockey League (EUHL). It has been on the hockey map for ten years. We talked about its functioning with Peter Špankovič, general manager of the EUHA (European University Hockey Association), which is the governing body of the EUHL.

The EUHL project has been here for 10 years. How would you rate them, what were they like?

We founded the project, or the EUHL, in 2013. It was the first ever international university hockey league in Europe. During that time, university teams from nine European countries worked in it – Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Romania. When we focus on Slovakia and its teams, a total of ten of them and a total of around 1350 players went through the competition. The beginnings were cautious but bold, but today we see that our efforts have a meaning.

Participants and their number change quite often. Is it time to somehow stabilize it?

Certainly yes. Our vision is to build a strong pan-European league, while teams or the countries would be divided into divisions. As for the number of participants, of course we would prefer to have them stable and the competition would only grow. That is, so that the teams do not leave the league and do not disappear. Unfortunately, this is not only in our hands. The teams, their management and the schools that cover them are primarily responsible for this.

Why do teams disappear? What is the biggest problem?

I will not walk around the hot mess – both in professional hockey and in university hockey, finances are the biggest problem. In the case of the EUHL teams that disappeared, financial problems were compounded by difficulties such as poor conditions at ice rinks, the organization of the club was based on two or three people from the ranks of students, and it is logical that they left for work after completing their studies. They had no substitute for themselves in the team. Having learned from these facts, we are trying to appeal to teams and schools so that university representatives directly, or more, involve in the organization of the team.

You mention bad conditions in ice rinks as one of the possible problems. What does that really mean?

I think that every team deserves to get space for training units – that is, several hours a week on the ice. Several teams were stopped precisely because there was no space in the city for them to train sufficiently, or if there was free ice, it cost them an incredible amount of money. From a financial point of view, it could not be managed.

So, on the other hand, are there teams that have managed to win adequate conditions for their operation and the players thus have some kind of security and background?

Nowadays, nobody is certain about anything. (laughs) But yes, there are also teams in Slovakia that have very good conditions. I will mention, for example, Gladiators Trenčín, who have been part of the EUHL since its very beginning, or the UMB Hockey Team Banská Bystrica, which joined a year later. For example, support from the city, the possibility of having your own locker room, or support from the municipality plays a big role.

Straight up, how about the financing?

Slovak teams are supported by the Ministry of Education, which supports several university sports. The finances go through the Slovak University Sports Association (SAUŠ), while the SAUŠ directs the specific amount allocated for university hockey to the SUHA (Slovak University Hockey Association). It redistributes the money among individual Slovak teams. In general, SUHA is the biggest sponsor of the teams. Each Slovak team receives 23.000 from it. In the past, Slovak teams were also supported by the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation.

The rest is up to the skill of the managers of the individual teams. Whether they „hunt“ among local entrepreneurs, multinational companies, whether they focus on financial support or barter, that is entirely up to them. They have a very respectable financial base from SUHA and whether they can increase that budget is, as I said, only up to them.

And what about a tournament like The World Cup of University Hockey?

When organizing it, the Slovak Ice Hockey Association and the Slovak Ministry of Education also contributed financially. An excellent job was done by EUHA President Ľubomír Sekeráš, who fought on the aforementioned places and managed to achieve the goal of financial support mentioned above.

Let’s return for a moment to the league and its functioning as such. What are the conditions for a team to join the EUHL?

In fact, they are not at all dramatic or demanding. However, it is important to remember that only players who have the status of a university student can play in the team. It can also be a high school graduate, or recent university graduates; they can play a year after successfully graduating from college. And you also have to think about the fact that the team should have some of its own facilities and space for training units. As I mentioned at the beginning, many teams suffered from this because they had nowhere to train.

We communicate with potential newcomers and explain how the team officials should work, what their responsibilities are, and also what the procedure for establishing a club is, including legal steps and registration. Based on our previous experience, we also try to advise them about finding suitable spaces for training and games, how to approach potential players, coaches and other club staff. We also provide a detailed overview of possible financial resources for the club or instructions for creating marketing materials and communication on social networks.

On the one hand, it is an amateur competition, but at the same time, we can feel a great deal of professionalism from your words.

(laughs) Thank you. The fact that it is an amateur competition does not mean that it is done, as we say, „on the knees“. On the contrary. We are trying to get higher and higher throughout its functioning, so that we are perceived by potential sponsors and partners as a serious competition. The fact that the league has an amateur status means that the players who play in it do not receive a salary.

You say that players are not paid for their performance on the ice. So what is, let’s call it, the motivation for them, the reason why they play in the EUHL?

It would be best to ask them. (laughs) Generally speaking, these are players who did not succeed in making a name for themselves in senior, professional hockey, so they decided to study at a university. Thanks to the EUHL project, they didn’t even have to give up their favourite sport, and this way they can combine it with the mentioned study. The great thing about volunteering as such is that you can see who really wants it – that they don’t do it for the money, but because they love the sport.

Is the EUHL the final stop? So the last option for those who didn’t make it in professional hockey?

It doesn’t have to. We have had several cases where players worked in EUHL teams and subsequently reached, for example, the first Slovak league. Or even those who played in the EUHL during their junior period and now play in the Slovak extra league. It always depends on the skill of the player. Well, after all, a place in the university national team can also be a kind of next stop. Just this year we had another edition of the World Cup.

What kind of event is it?

Simply put – a confrontation of university selections from several, not only European, countries. The first edition of the World Cup was in 2018, now it was the second one. The Slovak team led by coach Branislav Jánoš finished in the third place, which was the best among the European participants. In the final, the USA and Canada faced each other.

The tournament is great not only because of the games and thus the confrontation on the ice with university students from all over the world, but also the conferences for the team officials. Managers and team representatives exchange experience, establish cooperation. We as the EUHL have been on the university hockey map for a relatively short time, but overseas university hockey has a very long history, it is at a great level there, so we can learn from them.

According to you, the World Cup took place after five years. Is there already an effort to organize the next edition?

Certainly yes. Negotiations are underway and we would like to „move“ it this time from Romania to Poland. But it’s a long-distance run, it can’t be done in a month or a year. We would like it to be in April 2025. I firmly believe that during that time, we will have more skillful players in the EUHL who will be able to represent us on the international stage.

Author: EUHA

Photo: UMB Hockey Team, Alfréd Pavlík