Ice Blacks look to improve defence after high-scoring games against Vail Yeti

The New Zealand Ice Blacks ten-day training camp in Vail, Colorado is coming to an end with their last full day of practices behind them. All that remains is two warmup games, one on the road against the Aspen Leafs today, followed by the third and final matchup with the Vail Yeti on Thursday (local time).

Last weekend’s games against the local Yeti side has left the Ice Blacks with plenty to think about heading into the IIHF World Championship starting on April 22 (NZ time) in Mexico.

Game one on Friday was a closely contested affair, with the Ice Blacks winning 6-5 in the dying seconds courtesy of Paris Heyd. While in game two, the New Zealand side allowed the physical Yeti side to get the better of them in the third period to run away with a 9-7 victory.

Goal scoring is not an issue for the Ice Blacks. Several forwards featured prominently on the score sheet, including Jordan Challis, Paris Heyd, the returning Martin Lee, and the rookie Benjamin Gavoille.

As head coach Anatoly Khorozov pointed out to the team following the loss, scoring six or seven goals a game will win you many hockey games – which is true, and this team probably could score its way out of trouble if they had to.

However, New Zealand did allow 15 goals in two games, so tightening up on the defensive end has been the focus for the second week of training camp.

“We definitely need to work on our forecheck more aggressively because we did allow them more space and time, our forwards didn’t do a good job of putting pressure on the puck carrier. Also our defence lost a bit of gap control in the neutral zone, so that’s what we’ve been working on over the past couple of days and it’s getting better now,” said Khorozov.

The coaching combination of Khorozov and Andreas Kaisser has been putting the team through their paces, with some days featuring on-ice sessions in both the morning and late afternoon as they look to perfect their playing systems. And while they haven’t been afraid to say if they weren’t satisfied with the team’s performance during a session, ultimately the head coach is pleased with the way the Ice Blacks have responded to the challenge.

“I talk to them after each practice and ask ‘How are you feeling? How’s the legs? How’s the breathing?’ Everybody I talked to said it’s much easier and much better now (compared to day one), so that’s the main thing. In terms of playing our systems, practice was much better Tuesday than it was Monday,” stated Khorozov.

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One of my biggest takeaways I have found from observing the Ice Blacks during their training camp is how strong their team culture appears to be.

While they make sure to eat lunch and dinner together as a group, they also hold each other accountable with a ‘fine’ system in place – any lapses in conduct or etiquette can potentially result in paying a dollar, doubling for repeat infractions. There is the option to dispute, if the offender feels wrongly accused, but for the most part hey take it as an opportunity to learn and happily pays the fine.

That emphasis on having a positive team environment is something veteran defenceman Andy Hay is proud to be a part of.

“You’ve got a wide range of guys from different backgrounds, different ages, different experiences, all coming together and having a laugh (while) working hard for each other and the team. I think the culture is one of our strongest assets for sure,” said Hay.

Hay is looking to hit the 70 cap mark this year, having played 67 IIHF games for New Zealand. With two rookie defencemen (Jaxson Lane and Stephen Mawson) joining the squad this year, the most-capped Ice Black of all-time is happy to pass on any piece of advice to help the newcomers.

“Keep it simple – don’t try to overcomplicate things, don’t be afraid to ask questions and just play how you play, that’s what got you to this level. You don’t need to do anything different or special, just stick to your guns. But the most important thing is to have fun – we’re here to win, we’re here to have fun and winning’s fun,” said Hay.

Vail has been an ideal setup for the team. With the Dobson Ice Arena just a stone’s throw away from their hotel, and healthy meals provided at the rink, it’s allowed the team to focus on the task at hand – New Zealand are serious about winning the gold medal this year.

Undertaking such a lengthy training camp, and ultimately being away from their families and their lives back home for three weeks, showcases each player’s determination.

“Its been bit of a bugbear for the last few years that we haven’t quite managed to string five wins in a row together. That’s the real challenge – playing consistently night after night, backing it up, having a day off and doing it all again.

I think we’ve got the right mix of youth and experience this year and talent to fight and provide some consistent performances during the week, which will hopefully give us a chance to play for the gold medal in the final game against Iceland,” Hay explained.

Into his second season as Ice Blacks captain, Nick Craig echoes Hay’s sentiments.

“I can’t even describe how much we want that gold, there’s no other option really. Everyone wants it, everyone’s training really hard to become a cohesive unit and I think we’re looking really good, so here come the Ice Blacks for 2019,” Craig exclaimed.

While the Ice Blacks have shown an ability to achieve at a higher level in recent times, claiming a test series win over Australia at the 2018 Winter Games, they continue to chase their Trans-Tasman neighbours.

Buoyed by the Mighty Roos’ bronze medal placing at the IIHF’s Division 2A tournament this past week, narrowly missing out on promotion to the first division, the Kiwis will use that as further motivation for their own progression.

The Ice Blacks have finished second in back-to-back tournaments and the overall consensus amongst the group suggests that enough is enough. They have been competing in Division 2B for seven years now and as the team has developed their skills, their playing style and their professionalism as a unit further, the frustration is starting to show.

“It’s time to take that step and New Zealand hockey needs to go there as well. We’re trying to develop a strong hockey culture in NZ and develop these teams, and we need to lead the charge as the Ice Blacks,” stated Craig.

Or as Hay eloquently puts it, “We’ve been bridesmaid for the past couple of years, it would be nice to be the bride and get a ticket up to (division) 2A.”

Main Photo: Mike Froger