He once played field hockey for Royal Navy. Now, a dad is growing the game in Central Pa.

Shelly Stallsmith
York Daily Record

Sisters Emily and Grace Bramble don’t have to go far with field hockey questions.

All they have to do is turn to their dad, Kevin.

That’s right, their dad.

It’s not often you see a man on the sidelines of a high school field hockey game or helping to run drills during practice. But the 57-year-old helps with York Suburban practices and games whenever he’s not flying a Southwest airplane. Emily is a senior midfielder, and Grace is the goalie for the Trojans.

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Coaching is the only way he can stay active in the sport he grew up playing.

Kevin is from Southend-on-Sea in Essex, an English resort city of nearly 200,000 at the end of the River Thames.

“The school I went to, they were a pretty good hockey school, so I played from the age of 11,” he said. “We had soccer and hockey, in the fall and spring, and a little rugby. I tried soccer, wasn’t any good at it, so I played hockey.”

Kevin Bramble works on a corner play with a York Suburban player before a game against Spring Grove. Bramble volunteers as a coach for the Trojans, with his two daughters, Grace and Emily, both on the roster.

It’s just called hockey in England, because while there is ice hockey, there isn’t much. As for field hockey, once you get outside of the United States, it’s huge.

How big is field hockey outside overseas?

In the latest rankings of participatory sports, field hockey is third behind soccer (futbol) and cricket in the rest of the world. When you count the United States, it drops to fifth with the addition of tennis and volleyball. And that’s as hockey, combining ice and field.

“It’s a huge men’s sport everywhere, except this country,” Kevin said. “If you look at the Europeans, Germany and Holland, it’s huge. They just had the Commonwealth Games, which is played in England. Australian men won, India won silver medal and England won bronze.”

A quick look at the Men’s England Hockey League is a good example of how the sport has grown outside the U.S.

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When Kevin left England, there were two divisions of 12 teams each.

The league, which runs from September to April with a winter break, has grown to a Premiere Division of 11 teams, Division 1 South and Division 1 North with 10 teams each and a regional conference of three divisions with 10 teams each. The winners of the Premiere Division advance to a 20-team tournament featuring the best squads from around Europe.

The differences between American and international field hockey are similar to those between the NHL and international ice hockey, Kevin said.

“It’s a fast-paced, fluid game, there are more goals scored,” he said. “At the higher levels, the USA Field Hockey way (physical-fitness based) is not the European way. The European way is to pass the ball around, frustrate the defense, wait for a gap, and then exploit that gap.”

Field hockey could be big in the states, but lack of space makes it hard to grow.

Kevin, who played for Royal Navy and combined forces teams during his 12-year stint as a helicopter navigator, believes the United States could have better success.

“With the right exposure, the United States could be a force, and should be a force, on the international scene,” he said. The problem is there isn’t anything for them after college. It’s very hard for adults to find places to play.”

Emily Bramble, center, concentrates on what her coach says during a timeout at a recent game. Emily and her sister, Grace, both play field hockey for York Suburban and their dad, Kevin, a former field hockey play in his native England, helps with the team.

He said the computer boom in the western part of the country is helping to grow the game in that area. That boom is bringing coders from countries such as India and Pakistan, where field hockey is a huge part of their lives. They have created leagues and increased awareness of the sport.

But it's difficult to grow the sport in the United States because there are huge chunks of the country where the sport isn't played at all. In many of the areas that have it, field hockey isn't available until students reach middle school.

Kevin's daughters Emily and Grace Bramble are pretty good too.

His daughters don’t have to worry about finding places to play. Both play club in addition to their school team, and both have their sights set on continuing in college.

Emily is going on an official visit to Division III Western Connecticut State later this month. Grace is looking at Division I schools such as American, James Madison and Rutgers to further her education and field hockey career.

Remarkably, Kevin had nothing to do with the sport his daughters play. That’s because they didn’t know he played.

“I remember one time when I was young, we were at a track in Connecticut, where we are from, and I was playing with this old yellow stick,” Emily said. “It must have been his, and he was playing in a men’s league or something. I was young, like 5.”

It wasn’t until Emily went to a play day in middle school that the girls discovered their father’s athletic history. The high school ran a program for the middle school that allowed the students to try each of the sports they offered. The sisters each tried different activities, but both felt most comfortable with field hockey.

“One of them tried cheerleading, didn’t like that,” Kevin said. “One tried lacrosse and didn’t like that. Both tried field hockey and liked that. I’m glad they made that choice, it’s something I can help with on the coaching side of things.

“It gives me something to do that I actually understand. If they played lacrosse, I wouldn’t be on the sideline, unfortunately.”

While Kevin helps his daughters, he also helps grow the game

Kevin makes as many practices and games as he can. But with his flight schedule, he knows he can’t make them all. That’s why serving as a volunteer coach works for York Suburban and one of the Central Penn club teams.

At the first practice of the season, Kevin sent shots to the goalies, designed and monitored drills and pulled players out to help with stick work. During a recent overtime tie against Spring Grove, he helped players warm up, gave direction during play and helped in team huddles.

York Suburban coach Denise Kreider said she is glad to have his expertise available to help her team. And she is also credits his daughters with helping to grow the program.

“Paula (Sigley) and the sisters started out together,” Kreider said. “And each year they have added more players to the team. They have been great recruiters.”

Kevin said helping the teams, and his daughters, keeps him connected to the game. After two hip replacements and a back surgery, combined with his flying schedule, he doesn’t play much anymore. He has played in masters events every once in a while, but most of his playing is limited to practices.

And even though their mother is still “learning the rules,” it’s a popular topic of conversation in the family.

“We all bring it up,” Emily said. “It just happens. And we come to the field a lot and practice.”

If either girl needs help with her game, or something else, all they have to do is ask.

“When I have a question, I’ll say, ‘I’m asking this as my dad,’ or ‘I’m asking this as my coach,”’ Grace said. “I make sure to differentiate.”

Shelly Stallsmith covers York-Adams high school sports for GameTimePA and York Daily Record. She can be reached at mstallsmith@ydr.com or followed on Twitter @ShelStallsmith.