Considering his 15-year career in the sport, it’s surprising to hear that David Harte wasn’t an immediate fan of hockey.
Having played Gaelic Football and hurling for much of his youth, when he first came across hockey in Bandon Grammar School, he found it too laborious and it didn’t help that he wasn’t allowed to use his feet.
“To be honest, I won’t tell you my exact thoughts, there would be a few expletives”, Harte laughs.
“I didn’t really enjoy it at all because you couldn’t kick it, you couldn’t use your feet, there were so many rules that you had to get your head around.
“I was going to be taken out of my boarding school by my parents because I wasn’t going to training after school becuse I didn’t like it.”
He gave the sport one final go and after seeing the difficulty level involved in goalkeeping, he decided to try out for that position.
One save later, his whole viewpoint changed.
“I remember playing my first game. I don’t even think I had a training session, I had one game against a rival team in Cork, Ashton Comprehensive. And I think I touched the ball once in the 70 minutes, which doesn’t sound great, but that one touch gave me such a rush of adrenaline. I was literally, excuse the pun, hooked. I was really mad into it.
“I would like to have a beautiful story about how I fell in love with the sport, you know, building it up through beautiful training sessions but no, it was just making one save in a game that made me fall in love with it.”
Hockey soon became his life and it was one he shared with his twin brother Conor. They made the step from school boys hockey to men’s hockey with Cork Harlequins and made history by winning the Irish Senior Cup for the first time in the club’s history in 2006.
Eventually, though, Harte had to make a decision about his future career in hockey and decided to accept a position to play in the Netherlands.
It was an unforgiving and fast-paced world compared to the one he had left behind.
“I was like a fish out of water, it’s the only way to describe it. You are going from a really amatuer set-up, a set-up that didn’t have professional players to where you’re able to earn a living playing for the club. You weren’t just training twice a week, with a match at the weekend, you were actually doing six training sessions in a week and then a match on a Sunday.
“Those matches were watched by thousands of people as opposed to a small enough crowd and the old cliche of ‘a man and his dog’ kind of thing that you got back in Ireland. Yeah, it was definitely a huge step up.
“You had to sink or swim, you know, you have to bridge that gap. Especially coming also from a country that wasn’t really seen in the eyes of the Dutch as almost worthy to play in the Dutch league.
“So it was certainly something that was tricky enough, but at the same time, there’s nothing more rewarding than thinking that I’m going to be starting my 11th season in September over here. So it’s been good.”
During those seasons, Harte also had quite the whirlwind journey on the international stage. The senior men’s hockey team came agonisingly close to qualfying for the Olympic Games in London in 2012 but eventually lost out to South Korea. However, in 2016, he achieved something that he never thought would be a realistic goal when he started out, he became an Olympian.
“Honestly, for Irish hockey, for men’s hockey, it was groundbreaking. It was breaking the mould of what had happened before us and then actually to reach the promised land of the Olympic Games for the first time…
“Our opening game was against India. To hear that first whistle from the referees to start the game, knowing that we became Olympians, it was a moment I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
It wasn’t an easy journey to get to that point. Ireland lost a number of significant players from the north who opted to switch allegiances to Great Britian following the disappointment of the 2012 qualification. Still, that moment drove the side forwad and helped them realise that competing on the biggest international stage was an attainable goal.
“The biggest change I think was just the professionalism and the setup. And we had a coach coming in called Craig Fulton, a South African who had been involved in club hockey in Ireland before. He knew what it was to reach the highest level. He instilled an incredible level of resilience and belief in the group that we could do it.
“And there was a particular moment in 2015 in Belgium, it was the Olympic qualifying event and we ended up exceeding all expectations really. We beat the two teams much higher ranked than us for the first time ever in our history. We beat Pakistan, Malaysia, two really proud hockey nations.
“It was truly just down to the players, the group, the mindset that was given to us and instilled by the coach and him also living and breathing the same dream that we all had, which was to qualify for the Olympic Games.”
2018 was a special year for Irish hockey. Many will remember it for the exploits of the women’s team, the entire country glued to the television screens to watch Ayeisha McFerran make three crucial saves to deny Spain in the penalty shootout before Gillian Pender scored the winning goal.
However, it was also a crucial year for the men’s team who progressed to their first World Cup tournament in 28 years.
For Harte, it was the momentum of the 2016 Olympics that propelled them to that feat.
“Having had experience of big pressure moments to qualify for the Olympic Games, we were able to also do it in a similar feat. I mentioned the game against Pakistan to qualify for Rio, we won that game 1-0. I think at one stage Pakistan had 90% of all possession, I know stats don’t tell you everthing but that’ll give you an idea of how hard we had to work to get the results.
“And in a similar fashion, we played New Zealand, who were a much higher ranked team to qualify for the World Cup. We needed to beat New Zealand, which we had never before. So we managed to do the same thing and win 1-0.
“I think it was a combination of everything. We’d been there before, the players had played more caps at international level than ever before, you know, racking up 150, 200, 250 caps. And it was really boosted by the enthusiasm and the energy and the skill of the younger players as well. It made it a really speicial two years.”
This certainly has been a team to break the mould. Now playing at Olympic Games and World Cups is the standard Irish hockey is expected to reach. Unfortunately, that will not happen in Tokyo in 2021 due to a very controversial decision to award Canada an equalising penalty, after using video referral which lacked the proper angles and quality, during the qualifying event in October of last year.
No doubt, it was setback for men’s hockey but the incident and the outrage that was shown in response proves that hockey is becoming more and more accepted and popular in Ireland.
Harte believes that the success of the women’s and men’s teams have helped massively in this regard. And he hopes that can be used as inspiration for the generations to come.
“It has given it a bit of more of a mainstream feel. It’s not just at the end of the Six One news kind of like, ‘Oh, and in other news, hockey’. At times, with our European medals and qualification for the World Cup, it was almost front page news which was really quite special.
“It’s becoming a bit more accepted as a serious sport as well. Outisde of the big three, as it’s always known, Gaelic games, rugby and soccer, there are not too many other team sports in Ireland that can say that their men’s and women’s teams were sitting inside the top 10 in the world, which is quite something, especially for an amateur game in Ireland.
“So since those results, and that success, I have seen a big improvement. But what I find so encouraging, especially down in Munster where it’s often seen struggling a little bit with numbers, is you can see new clubs popping up and you see increases in membership throughout the country. It’s a lovely feeling to see that and think that you, as a team, were a part of making that happen.”