“There is no better place to play hockey than Barbados,” says national team player Justin Catlin. “The culture, the atmosphere, how hockey is viewed. It is a perfect place to watch and play hockey.”

It might not be a power house of hockey, such as PAHF hockey giants Argentina, Canada or even near neighbours Trinidad and Tobago, but Barbados has a small but very passionate community of hockey players and supporters. It is a country where hockey matters.

In August, as the world retreated in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, Barbados managed to hold its annual hockey festival. Operating under very different conditions, the determination to hold the festival highlighted the deep level of resolve among the committed band of hockey enthusiasts in the Caribbean island.

It is not purely about growth and development of the sport. There is a bigger picture to look at here. Hockey plays a vital role in the national economy.

Speaking to national media outlet, The Nation Barbados, President of the Barbados Hockey Federation Mark St Hill said: “I don’t think people understand what hockey has done for sports tourism. Outside of cricket, there is no other sport that has brought more touring teams here.”

He explained, in a normal year, up to 10 school teams visit the island for a dose of competitive hockey in a glorious sunny environment. That brings the tourist dollar into the country. The national association want to move this to the next level and encourage North American and European elite level teams to see Barbados as a great base for warm weather training.

The one barrier to this ambition is the lack of an elite level infrastructure. St Hill explained how the Barbados Olympic Association and PAHF have stepped up to support the national association’s drive to improve the facilities on offer.

To “break ground by the end of the year”, is the hockey association’s ambition and St Hill has a rallying call for the hockey community. Via the interview, which can be viewed on the Barbados Hockey Association Facebook page, he explained that the Board will be concentrating on delivering the facilities, it was up to the coaches and captains to ensure the players were ready to commence training and playing.

It is a call that Justin Catlin as a player, coach and aspiring sports marketer is answering.

“I started hockey at school,” he says as he explains how his love for the sport has developed. “I was a football player but I was persuaded by my school coach to give hockey a go. To start with, I grumbled and grumbled but then I started to enjoy it. I loved the speed and skill and I started to try some different tricks. I already had the understanding of attacking and defending principles because of the football, so transferring my skills and knowledge from one sport to another was not a problem.”

Hockey in Barbados is played through club, school and university teams, with tournaments and leagues. Alongside regular 11-a-side hockey, both 7-a-side and indoor hockey is popular, as it encourages variety and diversity in the sport.

Recently a new sand based field hockey turf has been reestablished at the national field hockey centre located at the Garfield Sobers Sports Complex at Wildey.

Catlin himself was a beneficiary of the first hockey scholarship to be awarded by the University of the West Indies. He studied at the University’s Cave Hill campus, combining studies with his hockey commitments, representing both the university team and the national U21 side.

His first major international experience was the 2012 Junior Pan American Championship in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Barbados finished mid-table. He was selected for the senior team the following year and has continued to play for Barbados ever since.

The national team trains four or five times a week and, while this year’s international calendar has been suspended, Catlin and his colleagues have continued to do what they can in readiness for the resumption of competition next year, including the Pan American Cup.

In a world where hockey has to fight for support, it is heartening to hear Catlin being fulsome in his praise of both the Barbados Olympic Association and the Barbados Hockey Association. Both organisations, he says, are hugely supportive of the Junior Men’s and Women’s national teams.

“Even through periods of recession, and even when, for a couple of seasons we didn’t have a turf to play on, they still helped us with necessary funding to keep training and playing.”

Catlin himself has played league hockey in England after a chance meeting with some players from Wakefield. Some of the squad were touring Barbados and Catlin was recruited to play alongside them. Catlin impressed, particularly with his ability to create goal scoring opportunities at will, and soon the Barbadian was on his way to Wakefield in the north of England.

The move coincided brilliantly with Catlin’s career plans. As part of his scholarship – a Bsc Management Special with Marketing – Catlin was able to study an aspect of business anywhere he wanted. The move to England brought three benefits: he was able to develop his knowledge of sports marketing; he had the honour of meeting and playing for Olympian and coach Norman Hughes who coached at Wakefield Hockey Club; and he had the opportunity to coach and play hockey in a totally different environment, thereby increasing his own knowledge base of the game.

At Wakefield, Catlin developed both his playing skills and awareness of just how a sport can be grown with a plentitude of resources. On returning to Barbados, he has set himself the challenge of being a leader in the field of hockey growth and development. He sees coaches, such as himself, being responsible for teaching children the skills, knowledge and love of the game. Providing the competitive opportunities, in the form of tournaments and competitions is the remit of the national association.

The pandemic has put a pause to many hockey activities, but Catlin, like so many other coaches, has used the opportunity to brush up on off-field coaching knowledge, attending webinars and online courses in a range of coaching and organisational skills.

For St Hills’ vision of placing Barbados as a major sports tourism destination to come true, the national association needs people such as Catlin to throw their energy and innovation at the challenge. Luckily, Catlin’s ambitions mirror those of his sport. “My ultimate dream is to be a sports marketer, inviting teams to come to Barbados to play sport. Sports tourism could be huge. It is something that will generate money and interest in Barbados.”

Currently, Catlin works for a major shipping company and is also a sponsored player and Regional Brand Ambassador for Kuka Hockey in Barbados and the Caribbean.

He says: “In the future, I can use the logistical skills and networks I have picked up both as a shipping agent and hockey player/coach, and transfer them to moving people instead of ‘things’ as the sports tourism industry grows.

“But my heart is also in junior coaching. I love teaching kids and developing them. I have really found myself in that environment. They are the future of hockey and it is crucial that they learn skills early and, importantly, they have fun.”