BRADFORD Bulldogs are going from strength to strength – especially at youth level.

The club is by no means at the pinnacle of the sport, with the recently formed senior team playing several tiers below the Elite League.

However, at junior level, the Bulldogs have become a force, with all their teams regularly challenging across the age groups, and the under-12s and under-14s both winning at the national championships last June.

Head coach Andy Brown has witnessed and played a part in the growth of ice hockey in the city – having coached at Bradford Ice Arena for 20 years – and played there for even longer. The arena itself celebrated its 50th anniversary in December.

“We call ourselves a family rather than a hockey club,” said Brown. “That is the feeling you get around the place. We concentrate on kids developing but also on enjoying the sport.”

The 37-year-old is referring to an ethos at the club that focuses on players having a good time, but also improving their game in the right way.

“The people who come say that it’s a friendlier environment. The work ethic that you need in hockey is there, but it’s done in a more friendly way.

“I’m not looking to win the league, I simply want my seniors here to aid the junior development. Now my senior team is heavily reliant on under-18s playing up, which is how I wanted it to be – I picked a small senior squad for that reason.”

The senior team in Bradford is different from many others, in that almost all the players are from the city and wider West Yorkshire area, and they pay to play while other teams in the Northern Ice Hockey League North 2 Laidler division pay their players.

“I’m more focused on junior development, sometimes that means making sacrifices and when the seniors and under-18s are playing on the same day, the senior team will be the one to play with minimal numbers.

“Many clubs use the junior teams to fund the seniors, whereas I would rather do it the other way round with the seniors paying their own way and keeping the junior level affordable because it’s not a cheap sport.”

Financial competition from rival teams has made life difficult for the Bulldog’s senior team, but Brown is unfazed by other teams, instead focusing on the bigger picture.

“I guess it’s just a learning curve," he added. "Unless you’ve got good backing with sponsorship to bring players in, then you’re basically having to build from the bottom upwards.

“I would rather focus on the youth. We’re not playing in the Elite League so it doesn’t really matter – it’s not the Stanley Cup.

"I think some clubs need to remember that it’s an amateur league. Paying players and giving them incentives to play is just stupid in what is meant to be a development league.

“Our rink is 50 years old and the facilities aren’t as good as many rinks around and yet we’ve got people wanting to join from Sheffield, Manchester and Blackburn.

"Their facilities are much better than ours but they would rather play for us because they can see that the standard of coaching here is better and they can enjoy their hockey more.”

The club’s emphasis on bringing up younger players from as young as 10 through to adult hockey has clearly paid off. Aside from the junior titles that have been won, several youth products have gone on to play at a higher level.

Luke Boothroyd learnt the sport at Bradford Ice Arena. The 28-year-old defenceman has since played for the Hull Stringrays in the Elite League and now captains Manchester Phoenix in the Premier League. He has also represented Great Britain.

More recently, Brown’s son, Kieran, has gone to the USA to play under-14s hockey for the Iowa Wild – a potential, if extremely competitive route, into the National Hockey League through either the affiliated Minnesota Wild organisation or by being scouted by other NHL teams.

Another former Bulldog, Adam Barnes plays at an ice hockey ‘prep school’ in Canada called the Ontario Hockey Academy.

Brown said: “I believe he’s their second highest scorer, and Kieran is the top scorer in his team so they’re both doing well.”

"Adam and Kieran were England under-16s and under-14s last year respectively, and berths in the Great Britain jersey may be on the horizon for both boys.

"Kieran’s just had his letter saying he has made the GB under-16s team, which is a year early. I would expect Adam to make it into the team as well.”

The young starlets’ achievements and interest from new youngsters to join the Bulldogs represent a level of recognition that Brown is rightfully proud of.

“We don’t have the multi-million pound facilities that other cities and hockey hotbeds do, with Elite and Premier League clubs, so players wonder why clubs like Bradford are winning nationals," he added.

"Those places get hundreds of kids in. We don’t get many through the door, but the kids that we do take, we turn into really good hockey players and I think people are starting to cotton on to that.

"Hopefully Kieran and Adam can be part of the dawn of a new era in British ice hockey, with Team GB last qualifying for the Winter Olympics in 1948.

“I don’t know whether Great Britain can make it, but it would be nice to think so.

“I think that’s why they’ve introduced under-16s team this year, with a view to forming a team that can challenge.

“It’s tough though, with the amount of ice time in this country and the infrastructure. Most of our kids here get an hour a week of training, whereas in Canada they get three hours a day as well as playing on ponds.”

Ice hockey in Bradford appears to be on the up, and Brown is hopeful that the teams’ successes on the ice can continue to garner interest in the area from fans and players alike.

With all youth teams on course to qualify for their respective play-offs, there is plenty to be optimistic about.

“We don’t get many through the door, but the kids that we do take, we turn into really good hockey players and I think people are starting to cotton on to that,” he remarked.

“If you come to watch a live game of ice hockey, you’ll probably fall in love with the sport. I don’t think I know anyone who has been to see a game and not gone away saying they love it and want to come back next week.”