KUALA LUMPUR: There's a new two-tier format and a slight increase in prize money. But that's about all that's likely to change when the ninth edition of the MHF-Milo-NSC-Admiral Junior Hockey League gets underway today.
With 22 teams in the fray again, the Malaysian Hockey Federation (MHF) has decided on a two-division format. Ten teams will make up Division One while the rest will battle it out for the Division Two title.
And the overall prize money has increased by RM5,000, the first such increase in eight years. The MHF have also maintained the grant of RM5,000 for each team.
But everything still points to another two-horse race for the title.
Overall champions Telekom Pahang and League champions Tenaga Nasional are the teams that have the best of the local talent and it seems a foregone conclusion that they will meet in the final on May 11.
Players from both teams recently played in the national Under-21 meet for Pahang and Kuala Lumpur respectively. Not surprisingly, KL and Pahang finished as the best local teams, in second and third place. Australian side New South Wales Institute of Sports were the champions.
One team that could provide some challenge is the Malaysia Sports School, who qualified for the final last year. Other than these teams, the rest of the cast in Division One do not measure up.
Some coaches, however, choose to differ.
Srii-Aroma-PISC coach V. Thaitchnamurthi said the matches would be much closer as the preparations by most teams have been extensive.
“In fact, a lot of the teams have been in training for sometime and their players had been playing in a number of age group tournaments. They should be better prepared,'' he said.
Most players have been active since August last year, having played in Sukma and the Champions Schools tournament last year and more recently, the Under-21 tournament.
But players from Tenaga and Telekom have an added edge as most of them also played in the MHF Under-19 international tournament as well.
Earlier last month, controversy erupted when Telekom Pahang decided to field four players who were listed in the national training squad.
Players in the national training squad are barred from the league but Telekom Pahang went ahead and named Ismail Abu, Mohamed Sallehin, Mohamed Suffian and Mohamed Saharun Nabil in their team.
The four names have since been deleted and Telekom have only 16 players while the rest of the teams will have the full complement of 20. Even without the four, they remain strong favourites for one of the titles at stake.
Tenaga, on the other hand, have never won the overall title although they have been league champions twice and, last year, won Group A when the teams were in two pools.
And coach K. Rajan is hoping they will win the elusive title this time.
“Our record in the knockout stage has not been good but we hope to improve this year. We will not take any team for granted and take it one match at a time. We certainly would like to win the Division One title as well,'' he added.
In Division Two, former overall champions Malacca MC should walk away with the title. They have the talent and material to go all the way. Their big challenge will come in the knockout stage.
The top six teams from Division One and the top two from Division two will meet in the quarter-finals.
The refreshing thing about this year's league is that Perlis are making their debut. Only Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak are not represented in the league this year.
Prior to this, the league only saw teams from KL, Selangor, Penang and Perak. Now, it is beginning to have the look of a truly national league.
If only the competition were a little more close....