Hockey India League revival: why is FIH involved, is it good for Indian hockey?

Punjab Warriors (yellow) and Kalinga Lancers (white) in action during the Hockey India League in 2017. Anil Dayal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In a positive development for Indian Hockey, Hockey India has written to global governing body FIH to look for a window in the international calendar for domestic competition Hockey India League (HIL).

FIH CEO Thierry Weil has confirmed that Hockey India's new president and former India captain Dilip Tirkey has written to him asking for the availability of dates in future.

"They asked to look at the international calendar so that when they plan their league, it is not interfering with other important events," Weil said in a press conference on Friday, while promising a dialogue with HI to ensure the best dates are found.

The restart of the defunct HIL has been on Tirkey's agenda since he took charge of the federation. When he chaired Hockey India's Executive Board meeting a few weeks back, he reiterated the need for the league and the potential for a women's league as well.

What is HIL and why is it important to restart the tournament?

Hockey India League was a franchise-based tournament, which started in 2013 and ran for five editions till 2017. Indian players benefitted immensely with the league, including improvement in their fitness standards and tactical awareness thanks to high quality and intense matches. The presence of foreign players and coaches also played a big role in the success of the league.

It's pertinent to remember that the Indian men's hockey team didn't even qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and finished last in the 2012 London Olympic Games. But since then, India made significant progress, finishing eighth at Rio in 2016 and then clinching the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

As veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh told ESPN earlier, "When HIL was introduced, players started to understand how to play in front of a crowd. There was foreign exposure in there. When foreign players came in, we started observing how they practice, how they attend meetings, how they prepare for matches, how they analyse their game after the match. As we learned all that, players became a little more mature. It's reaching that maturity level that taught us to handle pressure, to dream of going and winning big tournaments"

It's not just Sreejesh. Australian legend Ric Charlesworth has said that HIL proved to be the catalyst in turning the fortunes of Indian hockey, while many Indian players (including talismanic captain Manpreet Singh) cited HIL for improving their technical skills.

While Hockey India has done well with the men's and women's national teams - in terms of hiring good coaches and making them play quality tournaments like Pro League - things have stagnated on the domestic front.

Unlike other countries, India's domestic structure is not in good shape; with just one senior nationals and a few scattered tournaments for all age groups. Finding depth is the need of the hour for both men's and women's teams, and this is where a revamped HIL will once again play a crucial role.

Why was HIL stopped in the first place?

Financial issues for the franchises and availability of dates. Once it was stopped, it became difficult to restart due to the packed international calendar. In 2019, FIH started Pro League, a premier international competition for men and women played in a home and away format. The tournament usually takes up a chunk of the calendar for all top nations as it runs for more than six months and there's a lot of travelling involved. Then there are domestic leagues in Europe, where top players from Netherlands, Belgium and Germany are involved.

Can HIL be revived?

It will be a challenge. Even if Hockey India were to find sponsors and franchise owners and manage to revive the league, finding the right window with the availability of foreign players will be tough.

Having said that, talks about starting up the HIL (or a similar league) are certainly a step in the right direction.