Ice hockey: From a golden past to a brand new ice age

Andrew Baker hears why the hero of Seoul, Ian Taylor, is coming into the cold
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The Independent Online
The appointment of a new chief executive for the ice hockey Superleague would not normally command a great deal of interest, with all due respect to fans of the sport. But when the individual concerned is an Olympic hockey gold medallist, people take notice, questions are asked. Such as: "Ian Taylor, goalkeeper in Great Britain's triumphant field hockey side at Seoul in 1988, aren't you getting involved with the wrong sport?"

"Would it matter if I came from football?" Taylor responds. "I will have staff who are experts. I am going to run a business, not to be an administrative guru. My job is to make the product attractive to the consumer."

No skills with a stick required for that, but a sound track record as a marketer will come in useful, and Taylor has the credentials. He is at present winding up a very successful stint as managing director of Giant Bikes, an appointment that he appears to have enjoyed immensely. "It has been a real challenge," he declared, sitting in the Giant showroom in Nottingham surrounded by gleaming bicycles. "To be quite factual, there is something a little bit sexy about this, compared to say, selling washing machines."

Taylor likes a challenge. He recalled returning from Los Angeles in 1984 with a bronze medal, due for retirement from hockey. His wife was expecting a baby and money was short, but Taylor considered that he had unfinished business. "I said to Julie, 'You know, I could go on and get a gold. It means four years of commitment, four years of hardship, but I could do it.' And that is what I did. I went to Seoul for gold, nothing less. And I got it."

That kind of single-minded commitment has clearly fuelled Taylor's business career, along with what seems to be a pathological fear of regret. "Throughout my sports career I met hundreds of sportspeople, some of them very famous," he said. "And it was amazing how many of them would say 'If only I had played in a Cup Final', or 'If only I had won a title'. Out of that has grown a kind of motto for myself: No If Onlys."

He has other mottoes, used to inspire himself and his staff. "If it is to be, it's up to me," is one, and you suspect his colleagues may have got quite used to hearing it. They may also have been told "I don't want to know why you didn't do it", for although Taylor is keen to discuss inspiration, empowerment, training and responsibility, the impression remains that he can be a pretty tough taskmaster.

"Many sports stars lecture or present on the theory of sports leadership and business," Taylor observed. "Will Carling is an obvious example. But I like to think that part of the reason for my success is that I have made the transition from sport into business and carried some of the sporting ethos across." Which sounds fine, except that ethos might as well be a kind of kit-bag. Could he be more specific?

"Competitiveness. Ego. The need to be at the centre, to be hands-on. Desire." Virtues in a goalkeeper, assets for a businessman. The ego is certainly there, along with a sense of fame denied, further fuelling Taylor's ambition. "If I flew to Pakistan," he mused at one stage, "a white Rolls- Royce would meet me at the airport. I am as well-known in Australia as Ian Botham."

The point he was making is that field hockey in Britain has never capitalised on the Olympic achievements of Taylor and team-mates such as Sean Kerly to capture the public imagination. "It is still a secondary sport behind a number of national sports," he reckoned. "Trying to find its way - without much direction, at the moment." No love lost there, then.

Nor much time to dwell on the topic: Taylor would rather talk pucks than balls. He has visited every Superleague venue apart from Ayr, he has seen the American NHL action to which the British version of the game must aspire. He has spoken with ice hockey's franchise owners, who include powerful and successful men like Newcastle's Sir John Hall. Men who Taylor studies and admires, and whose status one suspects he would very much like, one day, to share.

He dismisses such ambitions, insisting that he has other motivations beyond remuneration. "I get total gratification from my work and my family," he declared. But even at home the competitive urge clearly persists. "I've got two boys," he said proudly. "Simon is 12 and Oliver is 10. They both play divisional Under-14 hockey, they both play cricket for the county and half-a-dozen other sports at county level. And they both do well academically." Of course they do: there are no "If Onlys" in the Taylor household.