THE accusation often labelled at senior figures within any organisation is that they have no real connection with the rank and file. It’s not something, however, that could be said of David Sweetman.

The priority for Scottish Hockey’s chief executive remains, in his own words, “to provide vision, leadership and direction for the strategic and operational direction” of the sport, something needed more than ever as we muddle our way through a pandemic with ever-changing guidelines and regulations.

But as a player, umpire and father of two young hockey enthusiasts as well, Sweetman doesn’t need any memos telling him what is happening in his sport. The 39 year-old sees it every week for himself.

“I’m a parent helper for my local club as my two older kids both play on a Sunday morning which is great to be a part of,” he says. “I’m not sure how much I’m helping them but it’s just brilliant seeing the younger ones having fun. That’s the future for us.

“I’ve played a couple of times too this year and pulled my hamstring which wasn’t so good. But I just loved being out there again.”

He is not the only one. A desire to get playing again has seen the resumption of action in the Midland and North conferences, although, with nothing meaningful at stake, the onus has been on teams adopting more of a “developmental focus”.

If it may seem anathema to ask any athlete not to place too much emphasis on winning, it is perhaps merely another symptom of these topsy-turvy times.

“It’s been really good to get the conferences up and running,” adds Sweetman. “It was clear in some of the discussions that we had with the clubs that they had some concerns over travel guidance. So switching to a local format has allowed those sides in North and Midland to get some competitive opportunities.

“Our clubs have also understood the need to have a developmental focus within that. It’s a chance to give fringe players more pitch time and to try players in different positions. Winning is always important in any sport but, in these circumstances, the potential to develop your players for when promotion, relegation and all the type of activity returns is a positive thing for our clubs.”

The introduction of the new tiered coronavirus restrictions for Scotland have so far allowed youth hockey to continue.

“With no local authorities going to Tier 4, all our under-18 activity can continue as before beyond travel restrictions for some players,” explains Sweetman. “Hopefully as time progresses we will see more regions go down from Tier 3 to Tier 2 which would be fantastic for our sport.

“Anecdotal evidence so far tells us we’re seeing an increase in interest at youth level which is really positive. There’s nothing to stop the growth that clubs are seeing within their youth sections. The challenges long term will be around what do formats and structures look like to keep younger players engaged while also offering the right opportunities for our adult members who are the lifeblood of the sport.

“When we speak about hockey being a sport for life we mean from the first time we pick up a stick all the way to playing Masters hockey at age 70 or beyond.”

The backing of sportscotland has helped mitigate any immediate financial concerns for the governing body but Sweetman acknowledged the bigger picture is harder to predict.

“We’ve had really good support from sportscotland who have relaxed some of the criteria around their investment which has made a significant difference in allowing us to continue to do the work we had been hoping to do.

“The challenges for us, though, are in the medium to longer term. If we go long-term without competitive opportunities then some of our adult members may decide that they no longer wish to play hockey.

“If we see a reduction in membership off the back of that there is a potential impact on the income we receive from membership fees. That’s something we will have to manage.”

All being well, the senior national teams will also return to training this month, a crucial development for the women’s side in particular.

“We’re currently in the final stages of the Return to Play protocol so our senior teams will be back training this month which is important as the senior women have a European Championships to prepare for in June,” added Sweetman.

“How they train in those six months will be important to give them the best chance of competing and doing well at that tournament.”