Three-time Olympian Ashley Jackson is about to begin another gruelling pre-season, but for the first time in many years he is excited about a fresh, different challenge. Jackson is Great Britain’s all-time top goalscorer in field hockey, but he has not joined the Olympic squad as they prepare for Tokyo 2020. He has left field hockey behind, for now, to focus on his first love: ice hockey.
Jackson is considered one of the finest hockey players in the world. He made his international debut aged 17 and two years later became the first Englishman to win the FIH young player of the year award. A relative rarity in his chosen sport, the 29-year-old was able to compete as a professional in leagues across the world while building a storied international career. So his decision to play semi-pro ice hockey for Basingstoke Bison has surprised many.
“I feel a bit sorry for the people who have been around me during the four years before the Olympics,” Jackson explains. “I know I wasn’t a good person to be around. After Rio, I had to look at myself and make a big decision. Was I going to enjoy putting myself through all this training again? If you are even questioning what you’re doing in any elite sport, you’re not going to last or even get selected. I wanted to play with a smile on my face and ice hockey has given me that.”
Jackson has always been a multi-talented athlete but ice hockey was his first and abiding love. “I started ice skating at a very young age. My granddad had played ice hockey and I used to watch my uncle play regularly. I loved playing the game but had to stop at 13 due to school commitments. But it always remained in my mind, despite hockey taking over.”
In his late teens, Jackson was able to make a living from hockey and he progressed to his first Olympics in Beijing at the age of 20. He has watched the sport transform in physicality and speed every year he has played. “When I started in the sport, as a young boy at 14, starting to play in men’s teams it was a different world – seeing adults smoking out the window in the changing room – to the world we are in now, where the level of intensity of training is mind-blowing.”
The elite level of international hockey is based on a tournament format, meaning players have to be ready to play eight games over two weeks. The training must match the intensity of the matches and the players spend much of the year locked in monastic conditioning camps.
Did he start to resent the relative financial paucity of his chosen sport? “I was never in a position to complain. I feel so lucky that I was able to make any kind of living out of hockey. But I do sometimes wonder: how good would it be to be a footballer? To have the luxury of building up to one match throughout the week without being physically broken, that would be heaven.”
Three Olympics had exhausted Jackson physically and mentally. A young man who had grown up with a love of sport could not contemplate going through the motions any more. He knew his decision to switch to ice hockey would come at a cost but it has given him something much more valuable: the joy of playing the game again.
“I knew this decision was going to cost me financially. Sponsors and my funding as an international hockey player would all go, but I have never made any sporting decision based on money. I have always done it thinking about the sport. I wanted to give ice hockey a shot and put myself totally out of my comfort zone. I certainly have succeeded.”
He dipped his toes into ice hockey last season, playing with his local team, the Invicta Dynamos, and scoring 26 times. This season, he has upgraded and signed with Basingstoke Bison, a semi-professional outfit who play in the English Premiership. Despite being one of the world’s finest hockey players on turf, the transition on to the ice hasn’t been completely smooth.
“I never want to mention about my past career in hockey. That was the past and to be honest it’s not really that relevant in this sport. I have so many things to work on, most of all my skating, which can always improve. My role here is to work as hard I can and ultimately be the best player I can possibly be in ice hockey. If I don’t get selected and I have to fill up the water bottles, that’s what I’ll do. But I’m just loving playing this sport.”
The adjustments in Jackson’s life are not only on the rink. He also has to negotiate the life of a part-time athlete. He currently coaches hockey at local schools, before strapping on his skates in the evening to join his new team-mates for training. He has not fully closed the door on a return to hockey but at the moment he is happy to commit to time on the ice.
“At times we forget what playing sport was like when we were children, just playing for the sheer love of it. My only ambition with ice hockey is to be the best player I can be, whatever that may be. The most important thing is I cannot wait for every training session and feel very grateful to be here.”