The New Zealand Ice Blacks have been riding a wave of optimism these past few weeks following an impressive 2-1 series win over their Trans-Tasman rivals, the Australia Mighty Roos – but now it’s time for the team to shift their focus towards 2019.
With the announcement of the wider training squad, the national men’s ice hockey team have firmly set their sights on the next goal: winning gold and earning a long-awaited promotion back to the next tier of international competition.
The 35-man squad is as follows:
Goalies: Rick Parry, Csaba Kercso-Magos, Daniel Lee.
Defence: Stefan Amston, Callum Burns, Nick Craig, Blake Jackson, Oliver Hay, Kahu Joyce, Gareth McLeish, Andrew Hay, Logan Fraser, Jaxson Lane, Mason Kennedy.
Forwards: Paris Heyd, Matthew Schneider, Jordan Challis, Alex Polozov, Dale Harrop, Chris Eaden, Jake Ratcliffe, Benjamin Gavoille, Joshua Hay, Frazer Ellis, Ryan Strayer, Connor Harrison, Tristan Darling, Joseph Orr, Nick Henderson, Shaun Harrison, Andrew Cox, Jason McMahon, Bradley Apps, Martin Lee, Taylor Rooney.
Eventually those names will be whittled down to the 22-strong squad that travels to Mexico City for the 2019 IIHF Division 2B World Championship this coming April, providing a few selection headaches for second-year head coach Anatoly Khorozov and assistant coach Adam Blanchette.
“We’re hoping most of these guys will be available,” said Khorozov. “We’ll be looking at their personal qualities, their fitness and experience.”
The hard work starts now with Khorozov looking to put players through their paces with strength and fitness tests to come, along with certain goals that must be met to be considered for the traveling side. Those that do make the 22-man squad will find themselves on a plane to Vail, Colorado for training camp – a small town that at a glance has a charming Queenstown-esque vibe, but the reason behind the location has more to do with altitude.
Mexico City is 2.25 kilometres above sea level, making the quality of oxygen lower and therefore harder for players during game situations as each breath delivers less oxygen to their bodies. Vail’s altitude is a further 220 metres higher still, making it an ideal location for the New Zealanders to acclimatise to the conditions.
This time around their competition includes Iceland, Israel, North Korea, Georgia and hosts Mexico. Having been relegated from Division 2A, Iceland are the number one ranked opponent and likely pose the greatest threat towards New Zealand’s chances of achieving their ultimate goal.
The dominant 6-1 victory over the Mighty Roos on September 7 was arguably the best hockey ever seen from the black jersey, but with the Ice Blacks’ confidence appearing to be at an all-time high, the head coach is not taking any opposition for granted.
“If we select the players who are the best at the time then we have a pretty good chance against Iceland, but Mexico will be strong too because they’ll be playing at home with all their best players, so they’re a team to watch as well,” stated Khorozov, before mentioning that while Georgia are the unknown (they were promoted from the third division this year), they could also provide a challenge if not taken seriously.
From this wider training squad, four have recently played over in the Australian Ice Hockey League, with the bulk coming from the NZIHL, plus Martin Lee – who lives and works in Montreal running his own hockey academy called ML Hockey Development.
The current depth of New Zealand’s goaltending is a highlight of this squad: Csaba Kercso-Magos, Daniel Lee and Rick Parry were the top-three netminders respectively in the recent NZIHL season. Kercso-Magos shone with a .935 save percentage for the West Auckland Admirals, while Lee’s consistent performances for the Skycity Stampede are also notable, playing all sixteen games for the Queenstown club on the way to racking up 3 shutouts along with a .926 SV% and 2.65 goals against average.
Making his Ice Blacks debut back in 2008, Parry provides a veteran presence in the crease and coach Khorozov believes his absence was definitely felt during the last IIHF campaign in Spain. “He’s got a lot of experience and that’s what we lacked, although Csaba and Daniel are great goalies, neither had played at that level before. If Rick was there he would’ve been a real asset to the team, especially as a mentor for the goalies.”
One player who wasn’t available for the recent test series against Australia was captain Nick Craig, who has been recovering steadily from an ankle injury that saw him miss the majority of the Admirals’ NZIHL championship-winning season. He recently began skating again and the sheer joy of being back on the ice is evident.
“I missed it the whole time but I didn’t realise how much I missed it until getting back (on the ice), it’s been a long time coming. It was so hard to watch the NZIHL Finals and the Ice Blacks,” Craig explained.
The Ice Blacks captain has also signed up for the Backyard Hockey League, Auckland’s premier rec league, partially for conditioning purposes but also because of the quality of ice time and competition the league provides during New Zealand’s summer months, something that can be hard to come by for some of the country’s best players.
Craig believes that 2019 will be the year for this New Zealand side. While he couldn’t play in the Australia series due to his injury, as a mentor watching from the bench, he had a clear view of what this team is capable of when all the best players are present and putting everything on the line for the black jersey.
“That Winter Games series was incredible – the style of hockey and the speed it was played at, it was actually pretty intimidating watching it on the sidelines, these guys were playing out of their skin,” Craig said before adding, “It’s really exciting to see the way the Ice Blacks are moving onwards and upwards, we’ve got to get out of this division.”
The hunger for success is there. Backed up with the increasing quality of players and the belief that they’re now good enough to come home with the gold medal, the 2019 edition of the New Zealand Ice Blacks is going to be fun to watch.
Main photo: James Allan