In camp with the Ice Blacks: The First Days

Traveling with the New Zealand Ice Blacks will be a completely new experience for yours truly.

Most of the coverage that Puck Yeah produces is done from being at rinks around the country, or via our online sources. So, being on the road for three weeks with the national men’s team will hopefully open both my eyes, and yours, to just how much preparation goes into a IIHF campaign.

Departing Sydney on Monday morning to link up with the team in San Fransisco provided a tight transfer window. Landing at SFO at 6:55am local time, I had just over 90 minutes to complete my transfer, however lengthy delays at passport control made this more of a mission.

With just under half an hour to go before boarding, I had to quickly recheck in my luggage before proceeding to security. By the time I made it through all the usual checks, the flight had begun boarding, commencing an awkward running sequence that was probably much less glamorous than any Hollywood rom-com.

Five minutes later I’m sweating bullets and I’ve boarded my flight in the nick of time, with a few friendly jeers from the Ice Blacks in the back of the plane to welcome me.

The drama didn’t end there however.

Upon landing at Denver International Airport, both Ice Blacks captain Nick Craig and I were told that United had to place our bags on the next flight which would arrive two hours later. Luckily for us, we had to wait for team general manager Graham Tappin and physiotherapist Sunny Murugan to arrive from their recent tour of duty with the New Zealand Ice Fernz in Romania, plus assistant coach Andreas Kaisser.

The bags arrived as advertised, mine a little worse for wear but everything still in tact.

After a three-hour bus trip, we finally arrived into Vail to begin what will prove to be an intensive 10-day training camp. The sole focus: prepare the team for a potential gold medal run at the IIHF Division 2B World Championship later this month.

Once settled into the hotel, the team ran around the complex at 7:30pm for a warmup before splitting into three groups for a circuit of press-ups and leaps, while the second group did squats and the third enjoyed a brief rest period.

Ten minutes later, the squad was stretching before enjoying a dinner being put on by the local Garfinkel’s sports bar. Garfinkel’s also sponsor the Vail Yeti hockey team that play out of the Dobson Ice Arena where the Ice Blacks are conducting their camp.

With a strict daily schedule in place, set by head coach Anatoly Khorozov, the Ice Blacks have been hard at work on perfecting their systems. As Vail sits 8,000 feet above sea level, each player’s lung capacity is also being tested during the intense on-ice training sessions, allowing their bodies to acclimatise for a similar elevation that awaits them in Mexico City (7,382′).

Here’s an example of what the training schedule has been like over the first couple of days:

9:15 to 9:35am: Warmup and stretches
10 to 11:15am: On-ice training
11:30am: Stretching and cool down, followed by team lunch
12:30 to 2:30pm: Rest period
2:45pm: Team meeting to discuss tactics
4:15 to 4:35pm: Warmup and stretches
5 to 6:30pm: On-ice training
6:45 to 7:15pm: Stretching, cool down and ice baths
7:30pm: Team dinner with lights out by 11

Day three saw one training in the morning, with the afternoon free for the team to relax at the hotel, catch up on what’s been happening in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, or explore Vail.

The perk of staying in a picturesque ski village like Vail means the team doesn’t have to travel far to see the sights when they need a break away from the rink. Just a few minutes walk from the team hotel is a gondola ride to the top of Vail Mountain, providing stunning views of the surrounding Colorado Rockies.

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Stefan Amston, Sunny Murugan, myself, Nick Craig & Paris Heyd atop Vail Mountain.

As I observe through the lens of my camera, so far I have noticed that between the coaching staff and the senior leadership group, they have everything running like a well-oiled machine and the 2019 Ice Blacks appear to be clicking well both off and on the ice with a solid team culture in place.

Tomorrow they will play their first of three warmup games against the Vail Yeti. With the New Zealand team’s presence being the talk of the town, it’s expected that the Dobson Ice Arena will be packed out to witness the men in black take on the local lads.

The Yeti also features two players who have played in the NZIHL for the Skycity Stampede. Will Compton played during the 2014 season, scoring 10 points in 14 games, while Kirk Golden suited up for the Queenstown-based club in 2013 and led the league in scoring for defensemen with 30 points in 16 games.

Vail are coming off a successful season in the Mountain West Hockey League, winning the Rocky Mountain Division Championship with a 5-4 OT loss and 4-2 regulation win over the Texas Titans. The Yeti will provide a good test for the Ice Blacks after a successful first few days of training camp.