New Zealand’s national men’s hockey team, the Ice Blacks, have recently seen assistant coach Anatoly Khorozov take over the reins as head coach from Maru Rout. His first assignment is the IIHF Division 2 – Group B World Championship in Spain this April, where NZ face old rivals Mexico, along with Spain, Israel, DPR Korea, plus the recently promoted Luxembourg.
A strong extended training squad was announced back in October and the traveling team will be named next month. After finishing with silver last year and remaining in the same division, anything less than winning gold and earning a promotion to Division 2 – Group A will be seen as a disappointment.
New Zealand Under-20s
New Zealand’s under-20 men’s national team (more affectionately known as the ‘Junior Ice Blacks’) has also seen a coaching change with Justin Daigle now running the bench.
While playing for the West Auckland Admirals as a crucial part of their blueline, Daigle has been transitioning further into coaching roles. In 2017 he served as assistant coach for the Junior Ice Blacks at the IIHF Division 3 World Championship held in Dunedin, working with fellow coaches Matt Sanford, Perry Wilson and Anatoly Khorozov, who has now moved into the head coaching position with the Ice Blacks.
Next month’s Division 3 tournament in Bulgaria is his first big test – coaching an under-20s squad full of promising junior players (including Moses Bygate-Smith, Ryan Martinoli, and Ben Harford) to reach their goal: winning the gold medal game.
The last time the Junior Ice Blacks made it to Division 2 was back in 2009. Unfortunately the team were unable to compete that year due to the financial constraints that can come with traveling around the world for these tournaments, subsequently New Zealand has remained in the third division ever since. They will need to come out on top over Australia, Bulgaria, China, Iceland and Israel if they were to be promoted – considering recent strong showings by some of those nations, it’s a hard task but it’s certainly not a challenge that Daigle and his team will shy away from.
Side note: The only IIHF tournament New Zealand will host this year is the Men’s Under-18 Division 3 – Group B World Championship at the Queenstown Ice Arena in April.
In March New Zealand’s national women’s team, the Ice Fernz, will be travelling to Spain for the IIHF Division 2 – Group B tournament where they will be up against Iceland, Turkey, Romania, Chinese Taipei, plus the host country. Led by captain/scientist Helen Murray with former Botany Swarm head coach Andreas Kaisser calling the shots from the bench, the Ice Fernz will be looking to improve upon their bronze medal placing at last year’s tournament in Iceland.
Also in March, the Women’s Under-18 development side will be in Kuala Lumpur for the 2018 IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia. Having won the tournament in their first attempt last year, they will be back to defend their gold medal status in the top division against Thailand, Singapore, and Chinese Taipei U18.
The 2018 NZIHL Season
The Skycity Stampede were on a roll this past NZIHL season as they secured their third championship in a row – joining the Canterbury Red Devils as the only other club to accomplish such a feat. However, the 2017 title may need to come with an asterisk after news broke last month that Mitchell and Lachlan Frear were suspended for two years by the Sports Tribunal of New Zealand after they were found guilty of naively buying the banned substance Clenbuterol online.
So, that brings us to the 2018 season. Ultimately I don’t see the Stampede finishing as champions again, but it could be a year where counting out any team is a risky move.
The West Auckland Admirals have gone from strength to strength over the past couple of years and will be looking to avenge their Birgel Cup finals defeat. The Botany Swarm have shaken up their front office and coaching staff in a move that could reinstall a winning culture that saw the East Auckland side previously dominate the league. The Dunedin Thunder were the dark horse of the 2017 season and continue to improve as they aim to go one step further and secure a finals berth, meanwhile the Canterbury Red Devils need to recover from a lacklustre campaign that saw them at the bottom of the table for the first time since 2005, the NZIHL’s inaugural season.
Mix in the league’s involvement with the 2018 Ice Hockey League, next season is hopefully one that will pack out the local arenas as New Zealand’s top hockey clubs battle it out for the Birgel Cup and the Toa Kauhanga Riri Tio challenge trophy.
Ice Hockey Classic
Last month the 2018 Ice Hockey Classic was announced, generating a positive buzz on social media for the USA vs Canada exhibition series that sees a three-game tour played in Auckland, Queenstown and Wellington. The latter is set to be an outdoor spectacle at Westpac Stadium similar to what is seen with the NHL’s Winter Classic.
As the curtain raiser for the main event in Auckland there will be a regular season NZIHL game played between the West Auckland Admirals and Botany Swarm. The prospect of playing at Spark Arena to a crowd of prospective new fans is thrilling for those involved – including Botany Swarm head coach Ian Wannamaker who sees this as a great stage to demonstrate the fierce cross-town rivalry his team has with the Admirals, “I would expect there to be some sort of fireworks, if not actual fireworks, definitely a lot of fierce competition on the ice. No one will want to lose and both teams will play very hard and want to not only win but to show the NZ fans who is the top Auckland based club.”
The Ice Blacks will play at the Westpac Stadium outdoor game against a NZIHL All-Stars squad made up of import players from all five teams across the league. It’s a smart initiative by TEG Live and the NZIHF to team up and help give the country’s top-tier clubs, plus the national side, a welcome increase in exposure. Who knows, this may inspire more youth across the country to lace up a pair of skates and grab a stick? Either way, it’s a must-see event for any sporting fan.
The Continuing Rise of Grace Harrison
This is one of my favourite ongoing stories in New Zealand hockey, perhaps NZ sport in general.
Typically goalie Grace Harrison flies under the radar but the coaching staff at St. Lawrence University aren’t afraid to sing her praises. Saints head coach Chris Wells told reporter Carlos Verde that despite coming in as the team’s third-string netminder, it didn’t take her long to earn the starting role, saying “She chipped away, worked hard, and by mid-January (in her first year) she was our starting goalie and really carried the bulk of playing time.”
By the end of her rookie season Harrison finished with a 7-7-6 record, posting a 2.14 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. Harrison pushed that performance to the next level as a sophomore – for the 2016-17 season she was named as part of the Second-Team All-ECAC Hockey team while also being nominated as a ECAC Hockey Goaltender of the Year finalist. As her play advanced, so did her numbers with an incredible 23-6-4 record, 1.62 GAA and a .923 save percentage to go along with her record-breaking nine shutouts – the most by any goalie in the Saints program.
Now well into her third season, Grace Harrison remains a key part of the St. Lawrence roster and this weekend came back from the holiday break with a two-game series against Lindenwood at the Honda Center – home of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.
Starting in the second game, Harrison backstopped the Saints to a 3-2 overtime win that improves the 10th-ranked Saints to 10-7-3. Standing in the same crease that is typically home to John Gibson or Ryan Miller will be an experience to savour for this young athlete, but there’s still plenty of hockey to be played before the season wraps up in March.
2018 is going to be an action-packed year for New Zealand ice hockey. What are you most looking forward to?
(Main photo: Mike Froger)