Sheffield teenagers have to quit UK for ice hockey 'pathway'
When schoolboy Ben Cutts walked out the front door with his hockey back over his shoulder last month, there was a lump in the throats of parents Shaun and Linda.
For the 15-year-old wasn't off for his routine session at iceSheffield...he was travelling a thousand miles away to Austria on a one-way ticket.
St. Pölten in the northeast of that country might end up being the lad's home for the next four years, too.
That's because Ben has joined the dozens of other young Brits who have had to leave home to advance their dream of being a top-flight hockey player.
It left Mr and Mrs Cutts with profoundly mixed emotions.
They miss the Wales High schoolboy but recognise he must fly their Todwick nest early if he is to make the grade.
"There is not a clear pathway for hockey-mad youngsters to achieve their dream in this country," says Shaun, a devoted Steelers' fan.
"The links between academies and league clubs are not good - I'd love to see EIHL coaches interacting with players aged 12 and upwards.
"Liam Kirk was a freak - one on his own," said the businessman, referring to the Maltby wonder who went through the local ranks until he was 18 before being drafted by NHL club Arizona Coyotes.
"For the other kids, well, the development of talent is disjointed and piecemeal. There is a lack of ice time and opportunity to play consistently and towards the highest level possible.
"Maybe my son could get an apprenticeship with an Elite club here, but how much ice time would he realistically get? Far better he is learning the game, getting ice every day, sometimes twice a day, playing lots of games in Austria, Hungary, and Germany, up to three times a week, experiencing video analysis of games, learning yoga with access to a strength and conditioning coach."
In case you are wondering about his education, Ben is committed to studying maths, science, and German on the sports campus at the world-renowned - and expensive - Okanagan Hockey Europe sports campus and village.
"Three years ago, Ben was in the 'B' team with Sheffield Sabres. Now he is up against the best kids Red Bull Salzburg's development team has to offer."
Not every parent can afford to send their youngsters on such an illustrious play-and-learn package.
Yet there is no shortage of fledgling Brits trying their luck abroad, says Shaun, who runs the Northern Groundcare company near Dinnington.
Ex Sheffield Stormer Ben Norton, 17, is in the States, as Charlie Henry, 16, (Notts) while former Stormers player Henry Newell, 15, is in Canada,
The slightly older Jack Brammer, 18, and Lewis Otley, 22, are on Malungs IF's roster in Sweden.
"David Clarke (former Nottingham Panthers and GB winger) runs pro hockey camps and 25 out of 40 of his kids have gone abroad," said Ben's dad.
Shaun accepts hockey is a minority sport in the UK and that as the EIHL is essentially a business, there is a lack of any real body to fund and implement a "clear pathway" that can take young players into the highest echelons.
The fact that there are fewer homegrown players in the post-lockdown EIHL rosters hasn't escaped his attention, either.
Shaun said that was "disappointing" - and the drain of talent overseas could jeopardise that situation changing.
"The truth is that there is no real direction for young players over here and families have had to make sacrifices to help their children on their way.
"When Ben set off with his hockey back and a one-way ticket, the rest of the family had to take it on the chin. We miss him like mad, although I'm trying to get over to Austria once a month.
"But we are also pleased he has made his own pathway and that his education is good - they have a strict rule over there: No studying means no ice time!"
Former boxing world champion Clinton Woods has little doubt Ben will succeed in life.
"He came to me to quicken his feet - something that is important in boxing. He was a determined lad - once you tell him to do something he just does it. I think he'll do well" said Woods.