New Zealand Under-18s set sights on Bulgaria

Today the New Zealand Under-18s will be living the hockey dream for the next two weeks as they fly out to Romania for training camp ahead of the 2019 IIHF Under-18 World Championship in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Competing in the ‘Division 3 – Group A’ tier, New Zealand will be up against Israel, Turkey, Mexico, Iceland and hosts Bulgaria with their first game taking place on March 26 at 3:30am (NZ time). Full team schedule is listed below.

Earlier this week I interviewed Head Coach Steve Reid via Messenger to find out how things are shaping up for the Under-18s.

Last year the Under-18s played in a 3-team tournament which New Zealand won to gain promotion to Div 3A, how much of an adjustment is it for the team to go from a small competition like that to a standard IIHF format? Does that change how the team prepares?

Yeah absolutely, the longer tournament is a first for some of these boys. They will need to look after themselves while we are away, eat well, drink lots of water and keep their vitamins up. They will need to recover and look after their bodies, which we will help them with along the way.

From a coaching point of view it means we rely on every player to play their part and for every line to fulfil their role. In a short two-game tournament you can ride your top two lines if you want, this year we can’t. 

During the tournament you’ll face Israel, Turkey, Mexico, Iceland and Bulgaria. At the under-20 and senior levels, these are the countries that NZ will often face. In your experience has their style of play changed much through the years?

Turkey have really evolved over the last 3-4 years as they have had a consistent federation head coach. The other teams have for the most part continued their same styles.

Aside from winning the gold medal and advancing NZ to the next IIHF division, what is the ultimate goal for an age-group team like the Under-18s?

Our core goal is to win gold you’re right, but bigger than that is we are preparing these guys for higher honours. Nothing beats seeing players climb the age groups and then ultimately playing for the Ice Blacks. 

Before heading overseas has the team been able to get together for training camps over the summer months? And what takeaways or learnings did you come away with afterwards?

We had a mini camp in Dunedin late February – this gave us a good chance to bring the guys together, start work on combinations and also our systems. The uptake was great and I know everyone is looking forward to flying out.

How would you describe the current talent pool available in this age group for New Zealand?

Second to none. I’ve been coaching NZ teams for eight years now and collectively this is the most talented age group I’ve ever worked with. Don’t get me wrong, we have had great youth players in the past, but this team is exciting and I’m really looking forward to taking them to the world stage. 

Traveling and playing in these tournaments isn’t cheap, did your final team selection have to change much due to those factors?

Every other year I say yes to this question, but this year we have been able to secure great flights and a great training venue in Romania.

Nick Flight (Team Manager) and Csaba Kercso-Magos Snr (Assistant Coach) have been great – Nick locked our flights in and we are actually travelling to a hometown of Csaba’s so he has been able to twist a few arms for great deals. 

Finley Forbes returns for another year in the crease, would you consider him your number one starter for the tournament and how would you rate his development over the past twelve months?

Finley is a great goalie and a kid who has heaps of potential. He has lots of hockey ahead of him, we are really lucky to have two quality goalies in Finley and Rhett Wilson.

Rhett has a lot to prove with a year out of the game, so I’m looking forward to these two friends battling for the top spot. It’s great to have confidence in both guys though. 

Outside of the goal crease, who are some standout players in the 2019 squad?

From our few days in Dunedin, Alex Regan, who is captaining the team this year, is looking solid on the back-end and also scary good on the rush. Josh Hurley is looking sharp along with the Auckland line of Christian Regan, Lachlan Butler and Max Vesper who definitely know how to find the net. 

Where will the U18s training camp be held prior to the tournament and what do you think are the key things that need to be worked on to achieve a podium result?

We are training in Gheorgheni, Romania for 7-8 days, it’s about a 3-4 hour bus trip from Bucharest.

To succeed it’s a case of coming together as a team, buying into our systems, repeating as many times as possible and talking about all the variables. Last but not least, FUN. If we keep it fun and enjoyable everyone will work harder.


New Zealand U18 Game Schedule

March 26: NZ v Israel at 3:30am
March 27: NZ v Turkey at 3:30am
March 29: NZ v Mexico at 12am
March 30: NZ v Iceland at 12am
April 1: NZ v Bulgaria at 2:30am

Depending on the availability of live streams, Puck Yeah will have game highlights available on our YouTube channel.

Photos: Matt Bennell