By the time this interview is published Ross Venus will be back in England enjoying a couple of weeks rest before his British elite league team, the Coventry Blaze, begin pre-season training in earnest. He will also be gunning for a spot in Team Great Britain which will play in the top IIHF division for the first time since the early 1990s.
Venus came to the Canterbury Red Devils as a late replacement for the injured Ukrainian star Viktor Zakharov and besides being the top goal scorer for the Devils, his leadership and experience were a valuable asset to a youthful team rebuilding through a tough year in the NZIHL.
I spoke with Ross before the final weekend of hockey in Christchurch and he was only too happy to share a few thoughts on his hockey experiences and the short season he has had here in New Zealand.
So Ross, you must be pretty excited about Team Great Britain’s promotion?
Yeah, I was watching it all on TV, the final game against Hungary was amazing. I know pretty much everyone in the team, I played with them previously, grew up with a lot of them. It was very exciting, such a huge accomplishment and great for British hockey. We’ll see how it goes from here!
Of course you were a member of the team in 2016…
Yes, I made the England team two years ago, we played in Croatia and we just fell short of gold gaining the silver medal. The following year they won the gold medal and got promoted to 1A and this year they got promoted again to the elite division playing against the likes of Canada and the USA. I certainly hope I make the British team this year! I just fell short the last couple of years – having a taste of it makes me want to get there again.
What brought you down to the other end of the world?
Well, the season back there finished at the end of April, then I was in the 28-man squad for the British team camp for a week, playing a couple of exhibition games. I got cut after that – 5 people got cut to make the team that goes away.
So then I had about a month and I went to my summer job, and then Dean Tonks contacted James Archer and Ciaran Long who played here two years ago, then James Archer contacted a guy on my team and he knew I had been looking at playing in Australia. So when the opportunity came up to play here I thought ‘why not?’
Dean Tonks seems to have connections everywhere!
Yeah, he knows a lot of people back home where he used to play and the hockey world there is small, so you can imagine, like in NZ, people in hockey kind of know everyone, or know someone who knows someone. Of course hockey in the UK is bigger than in New Zealand, but especially at the higher levels, the professional level, people know who everyone is so it’s easy to link up.
So when did you actually arrive?
Well I think I arrived on a Monday and we had our first game on the following Saturday – I was over the Jet lag by then!
Yeah, it was good. I met the boys on Tuesday, they welcomed me with open arms and I fitted in right away really. I knew Jaxson Lane previously – I played in an International Ice Hockey Federation camp with him when I was like 15. But I didn’t even know he was in the Devils before I came – he messaged me when I signed.
How do the New Zealand rinks compare with rinks back home?
Well, it’s a bit like here. All the rinks are different, some are Olympic size, but none of them are as small as this (Alpine Ice). My home rink in Coventry is quite small, Manchester is quite small, and the rest are Olympic, or near Olympic size.
The Coventry rink holds about 3,000 spectators but other rinks hold more, like the Sheffield rink holds about 9,000 and Nottingham about 2,000 – so there are some big stadiums.
So I guess you had to get used to pretty small crowds here too.
Yeah, that’s been a bit of a change! But you have to get used to pretty small dressing rooms too – they’re very small. I’ve never seen anything like the ones here in Christchurch and you have to go upstairs to change. There is one rink I remember as a kid in England where you had to do the same so I guess people will believe me when I get back home.
What were your impressions of the standard of play here?
Well I didn’t really know what to expect. Obviously you have some idea of what you think it will be like – and it was better than I thought it would be to be honest. I think all the players are quite good – individual skills wise, but I think – in terms of a team game – I think it could be a bit better.
The players have the ability, they’re good players, but it’s just like having hockey sense, a level of understanding – I think that’s the big difference. Maybe from a young age that team understanding is not taught as much as in the UK or bigger hockey nations.
How would you imagine that could change?
I think coaching, and from a young age. In England I guess I got lucky, I started playing professionally when I was 16 and that’s when I really learnt that side of the game. I had developed individually but it wasn’t until I played for a professional team that I developed that side of the game.
Like, it’s the same really in England, the coaches for younger players are usually parents, they’re not really experienced hockey people, whereas obviously in North America they have that professional coaching from a young age. But over here, and in England as well they don’t have that level of coaching.
From what you say, it’s easy to understand the importance of having Dean Tonks on board here.
Yeah he’s doing a really good job. I’ve got to know him pretty well, and I’ve actually been down for sessions with him a few times, for the high school ones and he does a really good job. I think he brings that level of understanding, that level of coaching – because of his experience – that maybe the younger players have never had before and you’ll start to see in the future the results of that and that’s pretty exciting.
A lot of the players have gone offshore for experience too.
Yeah I think that’s brilliant. It’s the same in the UK, they go and play in Canada or Sweden because it’s a better level of hockey, there is better coaching, so if more players do that it can only be good for them.
It comes down to getting the opportunity, getting the chance to do that, because the reputation of hockey in NZ, and England too, is not great so it’s more difficult to get into better leagues.
What sort of structure does the Coventry Blaze have?
Obviously we have the Elite team which I play for, there’s a team in the third division and then there are several junior teams like the under-20s. But one of the problems in the UK is the top league is great, but there is such a big gap to the level below it – so it’s hard for players to move up.
There was a league that was in between that was a semi-professional league and it wasn’t too different from the top league and players could move up and down. But that league went bust leaving a big gap.
Is there many import players in Britain?
You have to realise that I’m coming from a league where in my team there are 14 imports and that’s another reason it makes it harder for British players to make the jump to the Elite league.
Last year, in the Blaze, I was one of three British players plus a backup goalie, the rest were North American and it’s the same on every top team – there aren’t many spots for local players. So even viewing from the English league perspective, the imports are important because raising the level makes the local players better, and give the supporters something better to watch.
Opinion is divided in England because a lot of people want that level of hockey, but a lot of people want the number of imports lowered because British players aren’t getting a chance. I think the import rules are pretty good here in the NZIHL and four imports for a game is a good number.
How does that high number of imports affect selection for the British team?
Well, there are 12 teams in the Elite league, so the national team is drawn from the small number of British players in that league. Obviously some teams have more local players, six or seven which gives quite a pool of players to choose from, but I would say the level of imports is too high.
So getting back to your experience with the Devils, what would you say about the team?
As I said it’s just a great group of guys, but it’s never fun when you are losing and obviously we’ve lost a lot this year, but it’s fun to come to the rink regardless.
I played with a lot of different guys. We changed up a lot because the season hasn’t really gone as expected, so we had to try different things and injuries come into consideration as well. I’ve played most with Chris Eaden and Tonks and we’ve had pretty good chemistry.
I think they’ve got the building blocks to take the team forward. Obviously this year, from my point of view, I can see the team is maybe in this rebuilding phase but as a whole the club looks like it’s in a strong position – moving forward I think it’ll be good.
Do you feel there is enough competition for spots in the team?
Well from my experience I think that competition is really healthy for a team, and individually I know from my own experience I would not have become the player I am without strong competition – someone gunning for my spot – that’s what you need to make you work harder, push harder.
Obviously that might be an issue here but there isn’t much you can do about that unless more people are coming through the junior program.
What advice would you give those younger NZ players?
Well if I were to say one thing to the younger players on the team I would say ‘be coachable.’ Whatever the coach decides, go along with it, and work hard and make the most of every opportunity you are given – I think that’s the most important thing.
All NZIHL photos by Josh Fraser.