At the end of last year, the RAF Ice Hockey Association held its most comprehensive development camp to date.  Head Coach, Matt Cryer, and Programme Manager, Flt Lt Daz are clear about the direction they want the Saints to take.  They shared their vision for the future of ice hockey development within the Association in a recent interview.

Being invited to the Saints development squad is the aim of every aspiring hockey player in the RAF.  Receiving the ‘nod’ , is the acknowledgement of a sustained period of hard work and determination; an endorsement of ‘potential’.   Saints Head Coach, Matt Cryer, clarifies,  ‘The Saints aren’t so much a ‘team’ per se, it is more of an identity for our development programme, aimed at continually evolving players across the RAFIHA”

Aptly named, The Saints derives its name from 16 Squadron’s nickname,  referring to the squadron’s original formation at Saint Omer.  Since 2008, 16 Squadron have been part of the Elementary Flying Training School, providing advanced training to new pilots in order to gain their coveted ‘wings’.

The aim of the Saints is to draft players from across the Association who are on the cusp of or have potential to reach selection into the Aces squad.  Cryer explains how aspiring players are chosen to attend the Saints development camp,”we continually assess events such as Tri Services and RAF Champs whilst also liaising with RAF Regional Team managers who recommend players they believe are suited to the programme.”

Cryer’s origins lie in inline hockey, playing from the age of 13.  Joining the RAF and meeting RAF Ace Iain Pagano  gave Matt the opportunity to transition to ice hockey, he hasn’t looked back. He began playing for the RAF Bluewings and it was here that Cryer undertook a coaching course, eventually taking over coaching at a regional level.  A move to East of England team, the RAF Vulcans, saw Matt in the role of head coach.  “Upon creation of the Saints programme, I was approached to undertake the role of head coach and handed over the reins at the Vulcans to Joe Mann.”

It is a great honour and something Cryer is hugely enthusiastic about, “the latest development camp went really well, the enthusiasm and drive of the players was fantastic, their hunger to not only develop themselves, but each other is exactly the culture we wish to promote”

This was the most ambitious camp to-date, covering forecheck systems and fundamentals, varieties of breakouts in defensive and neutral zone positions, powerplay and penalty kill structures and effective use of a ‘pinch’.  Cryer explains, “a new style debriefing approach was trialled with positive feedback along with a hockey fitness assessment, providing players a baseline to measure physical improvements across forthcoming events.”

Cryer is clear on the objectives of the Saints programme, “we want to provide a platform for players to ultimately go on and achieve RAF 1st team status; like our Squadron namesake, we want to give RAFIHA players the training and instruction to progress from Saints to Aces like a new pilot gaining their wings.”

The culture is straightforward “to create a learning environment and place responsibility on the players, building hockey knowledge by reviewing and analysing sessions/games at peer-to-peer level.”  The goal is precise for Cryer “we aim to encourage people to feel more comfortable in discussing errors and draw on these experiences to improve their game.”  Teamwork is key to Cryer’s ethos, the success of the camp and the emerging talent is evidence that the players are keen to embrace his ideas, “throughout the programme we drive the importance of being a ‘team player’, how character will always triumph over ability.  Individuals may win you games, but a team can only continually succeed if it functions together”

The Saints’ coaching structure is integral to this plan, Cryer is excited by the addition of RAF Aces Captain Jamie McIlroy to the coaching team for this camp, “we jumped at the chance to bring Jamie on board, he has a great wealth of knowledge and experience to pass on.  Also, as Aces Captain he is very well respected and it helps us drive those core values when he is actively doing it at his level.  Hopefully we will have more opportunities to continue to work with Jamie and it would be great to have him full time”

Focusing on developing the Association’s  netminders is Saints programme manager, Flt Lt Daz, he brings an exceptional level of expertise to the role, “I’ve been playing in goal for 21 years, including 12 at RAF Aces level. ”  Flt Lt Daz has also represented UK Armed Forces and run the UKAF Programme for 2 years.  His coaching knowledge  is extensive, having coached in Canada and Scotland for U12s to U16s, including Bantam AA goalies in Canada.  Daz has been running the Saints development programme for 2 years, he is unequivocal in his objective, “‘we create a competitive team focused environment for competent players to develop.”  He goes on to add “the ethos of the Saints is an open, honest and constructive environment where everyone gets to learn from everyone’s mistakes and successes”  Daz is ambitious “we want to ‘graduate’ more players into winning representative teams”  Judging the positive feedback from the Saints upcoming netminders, Daz’s coaching programme is clearly paying dividends.   He is reflective about the success of the recent camp  “it was the most complex we have run, with the introduction of modern debriefing methods and tools.  As a result it was the longest of the events to-date, the players progressed and fully embraced the off ice elements as enthusiastically as the on ice events”  he adds, “this combination made it a successful learning environment, which is all I could hope for.”   The future it would seem is bright.

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