This week New Zealand ice hockey fans will finally get to see some international competition as the country’s under-18 men’s team face South Africa and Hong Kong at the Queenstown Ice Arena in a three-game IIHF tournament.
Coached by Steve Reid, the New Zealand side began training camp last Thursday where they have managed to pack in a few sessions on the ice, establishing their playing systems before two warm up games against the South African side – NZ won the first 10-1 last night, with the second taking place tomorrow.
Reid is pleased with his team’s progression and preparation, “All the guys have come in and physically they’re ready, but also mentally, like picking up the systems we’re putting in place. They’ve done a really good job picking those up quickly.”
Unlike most IIHF tournaments where six nations play each other once in a round-robin system, with only three competing in Queenstown it will be over before you know it. South Africa flew in a mere 24 hours before playing over the weekend, while Hong Kong won’t arrive until the first day of competition.
With the shorter format comes shortened preparation time.
But with only two teams to focus on, Coach Reid considers the situation to be a double-edged sword. “To try get the guys psyched up for effectively a two-game tournament is a little bit harder. On the other side of it though, it means that guys who are going to be playing a lot of minutes, the top guys, they know they’re going to be able to have no problems getting through the tournament because they’ve only got to get through 120 minutes of hockey,” Reid explained.
However the Queenstown-based coach isn’t concerned about the shorter prep time, “You can focus on the areas you know are going to give you real bang for buck, you don’t have to worry about the real nitty-gritty details and just keep it a bit bigger picture.”
Matheson Graham will captain New Zealand with Mason Rees serving as the assistant. Reid believes the pair to be his greatest offensive weapons, “Matheson in particular is a very skilled player and Mason is one of those guys who just does everything on the ice, he’s definitely a two-way player, he’s one of those guys who just doesn’t have an off switch when he’s tired…he just keeps going.”
On the backend, Alex Regan and Harrison Mills are solid defencemen who will likely receive significant game time. The New Zealanders will be backstopped by Finley Forbes and Drew Kinney.
Forbes gained valuable experience earlier this year with the Under-20s side that went to Bulgaria, while Kinney spent the past couple years away from hockey, but Coach Reid knows the tandem are highly motivated to claim the starting position. “At the moment I think Finley might have his nose out in front but there’s a really healthy competition between the two of them, which is exactly what you want to see. Either of those goalies they’ve got my trust, they can get it done,” said Reid.
Both goalies will receive a start in net during the warm up games against South Africa, giving them an opportunity for a full evaluation – but when it comes down to making the hard decisions, Reid isn’t afraid to put the team first, “If it’s a tight competition, my number one guy is going to be playing both games.”
While the team will feel relatively certain of what they’re up against when they play South Africa on April 26, Hong Kong remains a mystery. “I’m picking they will have a Chinese Taipei-esque playing style, good skaters who are pretty quick, but not really big fans of physical hockey,” Reid stated.
Perhaps that can play into New Zealand’s style of play, which bodes to be a mix of skill and strong forechecking, while making the most of their intimate knowledge of the local rink.
“You’re playing in Queenstown, it’s a smaller rink, you cannot not be physical. We’re not a team that’s looking to go out and bang bodies, we’re just simply separating man from puck. But we’re going to be pretty aggressive and we’ve got three lines of guys who can score, so we’re looking to open it up and make it expansive,” the coach described.
The goal as always is to finish on top and claim promotion to the next tier of IIHF competition, and the New Zealand Under-18 team are hopeful that Queenstown’s hockey faithful will pack out the rink and show their support.
“I don’t want to sound cocky but I think these boys can really get it done.”
The 2018 IIHF U18 Division III – Group B World Championship will run from April 26th to the 28th, with all three games starting at 7pm. Tickets are available for purchase via the Queenstown Ice Hockey Club’s website.