The British Are Coming ...Again!!!

by Tim McManus

  Over the past few years, State Wars has revolutionized into not only the top tournament in North America but the one recognized all over the WORLD as best in the sport of roller hockey. Over the coming months, we will feature different people from countries near and far who have had a major influence in the sport and get their thoughts on the 'FORCE in roller hockey'.

  In 2016, Team United Kingdom led by Rob Shelton took the leap of faith and attended State Wars in Fort Wayne. We had been courting Shelton for some time but of course it is asking a lot to get players and families to travel to the United States to play in a hockey tournament. Finally that year, Shelton was confident that this would be a memorable experience for his players (and families), but I don't think either of us had any clue how much so. For Shelton, he was able to see his program continue to grow each year since, as players were looking forward to State Wars each year. And for us, having our first full international group outside of North America supporting us would not only add so much to our event, but open the door for us all across the World. I had a chance to talk with Rob about all he does in the sport...enjoy.

SWH : Hi Rob! So how did you get started in the sport?

Rob Shelton : I started back in the late 90’s. The 'Mighty Ducks' movie created a boom of inline skating and street hockey within the U.K. and I developed my love for the sport off the back of that trend. My dad used to run a street hockey league at one of the local schools in our area for my older brother and his friends. I used to go with them and skate around on the outside of the tennis courts with my stick and ball. When I was old enough I started playing for Norton Cyclones in the local ball hockey league and never looked back. Probably close to 20 years and I still play for the Norton Cyclones, only the ball has changed to a puck.

SWH : Rob this is your 10 minutes of fame, tell the inline hockey world a bit about your amazing program

Rob Shelton : Ha ok. My program is called 'Young Guns Hockey', it is the longest running inline hockey development program in the United Kingdom. I have been hosting inline hockey development camps all around the U.K. for the last 10 years. A few years ago I had an idea to create the Team UK program. This was to be a program that would give the opportunity to every player in the country to play in the biggest roller hockey tournament in the world. And to know the excitement of traveling overseas to represent their country, to meet new players from both the UK and all over the World, and to receive the highest level of coaching possible, from the most experienced current players within the sport. From the first time we travelled in 2016 to the 2020 tryouts, we have provided this amazing experience to over 130 players from every corner of the UK. We open our doors to every kind of player. Whether they have played for Team GB for 5 years, or simply have only played for their local team. We find a role and a place for everyone. This really helps us create a solid family environment within our program.

SWH : Wow that is incredible. Since your first year of State Wars in 2016, your participation has increased each year. What do the players and families love most about it?

Rob Shelton : State Wars is like nothing we have ever seen in the UK. The tournament checks a lot of boxes for international teams. The players get plenty of high quality games and the families get to experience the friendly atmosphere at the tournament, which makes them feel safe and included. That is such a huge thing for all of our families. I am always getting told how polite and friendly our families are by the American families and our families love mingling and chatting with families from other states. It also helps the pure scale of the event is just so addictive for the kids. We try to keep it fresh each year. Our training is usually once a month from January and we like to add new things, new methods, new sponsors, new perks. Just anything we can to keep our players coming back.

SWH : What does being the person leading the charge who gets to bring such an amazing experience to so many from your country mean to you?

Rob Shelton : Throughout my career playing inline hockey I have had some amazing experiences. I have been a part of some of the most important moments in British inline hockey history and I am incredibly proud of what I have achieved. With that being said, knowing that all of your planning and hard work has allowed these kids to do something they may never have had the chance to do is amazing. To gain the trust and belief of these families as a coach, to see the pure elation on their faces after winning a playoff game, or to see these kids making life long friends and memories long after the tournament has ended, is something I am so proud of. That is without a doubt, my greatest personal achievement and I am forever grateful for the friends it has given me along the way.

SWH : We hear all of the time what an amazing experience playing at State Wars is, but how does if feel to represent Team United Kingdom for the coaches?

Rob Shelton : Coaching hockey is much harder than playing, I am sure you will agree. But with youth hockey, things are magnified a ton. Having these kids rely on your instructions to help them win a game is a huge deal. The emotional roller coaster each game brings as a coach is the single most exhausting part of the tournament. The highs of winning can bring tears to your eyes. On the flip side, losing an important game and seeing the heartbreak in these kids can also bring a grown man to tears. The beauty of our program is that the coaching doesn’t end after 24 minutes. We are with these players every day and we do most of our coaching away from the rink. Joining in with the team activities and getting to know everyone properly is a big must for us. We also get the chance to share our own personal experiences with them all. I must say, being a coach in the Team UK program is a pretty rewarding experience.

SWH : Our international reach at State Wars has grown more and more, much credit to you for helping to kick that door open. Why do you think countries want to travel so far to come play with us?

Rob Shelton : The State Wars brand has grown so much over the last few years internationally. We came over as the first and opened the gates really to the players internationally who had never heard of it. Before that, it was an amazing brand in a closed market. I am very proud to say we were the first program to bring multiple age groups to the tournament and I honestly think that it is just great for roller hockey to have all of these different nations with their different playing styles at the event. People want to play at State Wars because they want to consider themselves he best. State Wars is the best competition and the best tournament in the sport.

SWH : What are some of the highlights of State Wars that your teams cherish most?

Rob Shelton : Honestly, the friendships they gain throughout the entire program. I see kids from opposite ends of the country making trips to spend a few days with their ‘State Wars friends’. Families meeting up for reunions, people from past years constantly reminding me of what an amazing time they had. That is really what this is all about. Kids and families coming together for one common goal but ending up with a whole lot more. Oh yea and the hockey is AMAZING!

SWH : We are proud to offer the top pro division in the sport, the 'PAMA Pro Invitational'. I know your players love watching these games. How does it compare to the international play that you have seen at World Championships?

Rob Shelton : I am always a big ambassador of the PAMA Pro division. It’s a privilege to be able to see these players on the rink. I remember when I was younger seeing the pro guys and wanting to be like them. To skate like Gerry Osterkamp or to have hands like Itan Chavira. It helped me in my development and I think subconsciously it will have a huge affect on our players. In comparison to the World Championships it is more free flowing, a more giving game. The refs allow the play to go on and teams are so fixated on having the puck that you see a different side to face offs. Being lucky enough to play in the division last year I can say it was probably the most mentally challenging competition I have ever played in.

SWH : We missed you and Team UK at State Wars last summer, so what is new with your program back home?

Rob Shelton : We took a year off last year as I had some personal commitments I had to sort. So this year we are back with a new hunger, a new philosophy and new goals. We are now working with the Team Great Britain program to try to standardize our style of play to improve our overall World Ranking at Senior level. This plan starts with the State Wars teams. Kids will be learning totally new skills and systems. It will be a big challenge to them and I cannot wait to see how they adapt. We also have some more new surprises along the way through training camps for the players but they may read this interview and I don’t want to give up all my secrets!

SWH : What do you hope to bring to Michigan this summer from the UK?

Rob Shelton : I am hoping to have a huge presence this year! We will start at the 2011 birth year and hopefully have teams all the way up to masters 35 & over! Our squads will begin to form at the start of December but we already have close to 100 players register for our tryouts this year which is amazing!

SWH : How often do your teams practice before State Wars?

Rob Shelton : Our teams get together one weekend a month, which isn't a lot so we try to get in as much activity as we can during that short time period.

SWH : What style of play would you say is played back home and what do you need to adjust for State Wars play?

Rob Shelton : Wow, where do I start? Anyone who has played in Europe will know that the North American brand of roller hockey is totally different. We play on smaller rinks with smaller nets. So the biggest adjustment is learning how to handle more space. This usually takes us a while to adjust. Then there are the variables, if you play a west coast state, you will get a totally different game to a mid-west state or an east coast state. The style of hockey evolves and adapts depending on who you play. This is a beautiful thing for me as a coach as it forces my players to mature and grow much quicker. This is one element which really sets State Wars apart from other tournaments as you are playing teams from ALL OVER.

SWH : What pro teams do your kids seem to get most excited for?

Rob Shelton : For me, I think State Wars is a terrific platform to emulate different skills from different States. Each State has its own ‘thing’. It would be great to be able to piece some of these skills together in order to develop my players. The kids usually create their own hero’s and fantasies throughout the tournament through watching the pros or the AAA division. A lot of them do their homework and know who to watch before they even arrive at the tournament, I love seeing that. With the pro players, some kids will have personal connections with a team because of the brand they represent, or players they like. Over the last few years I would say that the Mission Labeda Snipers and Tour Road Runners have been the two teams our guys like. Mostly because you guys schedule our Junior team to play Road runners at 11:40pm every year! With us having such busy schedules with the amount of games we play, we do sometimes miss the pro games. I know all the kids from the UK who are free always watch the final and come to tell me about it afterwards.

SWH : How important is the FREE live stream for families back home?

Rob Shelton : It is a huge part of what makes us feel welcome at State Wars. You guys really go above and beyond to make sure we belong. Not charging for the live stream is key to continuing these memories for the players and their families back homes; these trips are expensive and not everyone gets to experience it. So being able to watch your nephew, niece, or grandchild online is a wonderful thing.

SWH : We missed you last summer at State Wars Rob, it was amazing to have 11 different countries represented there and one not be from the UK! How much did you miss it?

Rob Shelton : I missed the event a hell of a lot last summer! I caught a ton of the Pro games online and the stream was unreal this time around. Our preparations for 2020 are underway and Team United Kingdom will be back in full force next summer in Taylor Michigan. We look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones.

I must close by saying that it has been an absolute pleasure working with Rob and the Team United Kingdom program. Rob has put together an amazing coaching staff as well, the Finney brothers, Hutch, Tom, Jamie and of course Rob's father Dave. One of my favorite moments realizing we were dealing with international teams and lingo was when Mr Shelton came into our office asking Denis Jelcic to exchange a pair of State Wars 'trousers' for a different size. We still laugh about that. I look forward to what the future holds for Team UK with Rob at the helm! Cheers :)

Tim McManus