Indian hockey's first corporate rendezvous came to a programmed halt on Sunday as the inaugural edition of the Hockey India League (HIL) ended at the buzzing Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium in Ranchi - with the home team Ranchi Rhinos leaving a sweet taste in the local buds by lifting the trophy in front of a packed house.
The 28-day journey saw 120 players from India and abroad competing in 34 matches - most riveting, some dull but overall engrossing. It provided moments where while one fan jumped out of his seat, the other clenched his fists. It brought about euphoria and despair alike. It saw a team (Delhi Waveriders) lose just two of its 14 matches and score over 40 goals but still not wear the crown. It saw a player (Sandeep Singh) topping the goals-scoring charts but his team (Mumbai Magicians) finishing the league stage rock bottom.
But where HIL helped Indian hockey in particular is this: it has provided players like Mandeep Singh a stage where they can showcase their skills. It has made stars such as VR Raghunath central to India's plans for the next Olympics. And where it will benefit Indian hockey the most leading up the 2016 Rio Games is that it has taken care of players' bank balances and family well-being, allowing them to concentrate on taking Indian hockey back forward. It can spoke back to its glorious past through the cog that HIL has promised to be.
Expert support, voluminous figures
This is no PR exercise for the HIL. Former players, like Olympian Jagbir Singh who is also the assistant coach of Punjab Warriors, throw their weight behind the benefits Indian and world hockey will reap from the HIL. "HIL has provided a golden path, not only for the current but also the future Indian and world hockey players. It has provided not only popularity and visibility [in terms of viewership] but also most importantly connectivity, be it through fan base, Facebook, Twitter and other interactive technology available today," Jagbir told IBNLive Sports.
"The youngsters in India can now look forward to their career not only through being part of the national team but making a creative base in this league for themselves to gain a better future, which automatically provides them an access to the national team as well as their financial future. The world hockey has realised that India is a huge market, not only to strengthen hockey worldwide in terms of viewership but also to bring the corporate world together into hockey through HIL."
Plus, there are official figures as well to back the record-breaking reach HIL has helped hockey achieve.
Tournament broadcasters ESPN STAR Sports revealed viewership figures that have defeated sports events as big as the UEFA Euro 2012 - with 2.27 crore people getting hooked to HIL in the first two weeks compared to 2.07 crore during Euro 2012. The league also left third biggest hockey tournament the Champions Trophy's reach way behind by almost four times.
Talking about any immediate benefits HIL will bring for Indian hockey, Jagbir was quick to point at the Junior World Cup later this year. "Mandeep, Manpreet [Singh], Kothajit [Singh], Malak [Singh], Satbir [Singh], Amit Rohidas are all part of Junior World Cup and in this league they have got big experience playing alongside players like [Jamie] Dwyer and Teun de Nooijer," he said. "This will increase their confidence multiple times. They have understood the style of hockey of more than six countries and their style of coaching. This is HIL's one of the biggest gains."
How HIL can better connect Indian fans to hockey
An eight-team tournament will surely raise the level of league's competitiveness. But taking the game to smaller venues will hold the key to HIL's popularity. Of the five venues, Ranchi saw the most attendance with a packed house during most games. That was not the case in Delhi, Jalandhar or Mumbai, but Lucknow comparatively saw better attendance. Hockey India will do well if the new franchise(s) for the next season are from smaller centres, where people long for watching sports events at the venue.
That said, organisation-wise the first edition left a few holes to be filled. But if the HIL helps Indian hockey climb up the ladder before its second season, it will tick the most important box in our hockey's road to recovery after the London fiasco.