2019 is potentially a breakout year (in terms of performance) for ice hockey in this country.
The New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation (NZIHF) sees their national teams competing at a higher level than they currently do internationally.
Recent results would suggest that they’re not far removed from the truth either – the Ice Blacks took a convincing 2-1 test series win over Australia this past September .
However, this year’s IIHF tournaments will be their proving grounds.
New Zealand Under-20s
As is tradition, the Under-20s will be the first national side to show the world what New Zealand ice hockey is all about in 2019. But this year they also get to do so in style, debuting a refreshed look for the national jersey as revealed by Puck Yeah yesterday.
Competing at the Division III U20 World Championship in Iceland, the junior side is set to face China, Bulgaria and South Africa in pool play. Their opening game of the tournament takes place January 15 at 2:30am (NZST) versus China.
If they advance passed that stage and through to the semifinals, they could be up against Australia, Turkey, Chinese Taipei or hosts Iceland for a shot at a medal placing.
Coached by Justin Daigle, they will be looking to prove that 2018 was an off-year for the Junior Ice Blacks after a disappointing last placed finish in Bulgaria.
Helmed by newly appointed captain Luke Hill and his alternates Ethan du Plooy and Ryan Fraser, they will be leading the way for New Zealand’s charge towards a higher level of competition.
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The national women’s team finished in fourth place at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in Spain last year with the hosts claiming the gold medal honours.
In recent months there has been a change in coaching staff with Andrea Kaisser stepping down and replaced by Rachel Park. It is too early to tell what that change could bring, but when speaking with the new coach about her recent appointment, she was excited about what the future holds for the Fernz.
“I think these girls are talented athletes and have strong leadership within their squad. I’m really hoping for a favourable outcome at Worlds and can’t wait to get started,” Park said.
2019 sees our top female players heading to Brasov, Romania to face-off against Chinese Taipei, Iceland, Turkey, Romania and Croatia for the 2019 IIHF Division II – Group B World Championship.
Currently ranked 32nd in the world by the IIHF, New Zealand’s highest-ranked opponent will be Turkey (27th). The last time the two nations met, the Ice Fernz put on a goal-scoring clinic to win 11-4. Alternate captain Anjali Mulari led the way with 2 goals and 4 assists, while Caitlin Heale contributed a further 2 goals and 3 assists.
Their opening game of the tournament takes place April 1 at 11pm (NZST) against last year’s silver medallists, Chinese Taipei.
This is a ‘do or die’ year under the guidance of head coach Anatoly Khorozov. In previous interviews with Puck Yeah, Khorozov mentioned that his plan was to achieve promotion to the next tier of IIHF competition within two years.
After going home from last year’s IIHF Worlds in Spain with the silver medal, losing out to the hosts in a thrilling 6-4 closing game, we’re well into year two of that plan.
The recent test series win over the Australia Mighty Roos during last September’s Winter Games could serve as a catalyst, with several new players coming in and having an immediate effect on the roster, including the Skycity Stampede’s Ryan Strayer and the Dunedin Thunder’s Benjamin Gavoille.
Both were named in a 35-strong wider training squad for 2019 shortly after their debut, with the 22-man traveling side expected to be announced early-mid February.
The trouble with these international tournaments is that it can be difficult for New Zealand national teams to field a full-strength squad considering it’s a self-funded trip. Some unfortunately have to pull out due to the travel costs associated with representing your country in a minority sport, further testing the depths of the talent pool.
However, the NZIHF has been going to great lengths under the guidance of Treasurer Paul de Vere to be fiscally responsible – decreasing the high-cost barrier that has previously posed a threat, making it more affordable for players across senior and age-group levels.
Glancing at the wider training squad suggests that the 2019 Ice Blacks will be able to handle any such setbacks with equally skilled players waiting in the wings – any of the current 35 will be considered unlucky to miss out.
After a brief training camp in the Colorado Rockies, the Ice Blacks will travel to Mexico City looking to earn their way out of the IIHF’s Division II – Group B. Standing in their way of accomplishing that mission will be hosts Mexico, Israel, Georgia, DPR Korea and Iceland.
Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia
New Zealand’s Under-18 women’s team is back for another shot at the IIHF’s Challenge Cup of Asia. The annual tournament that highlights the governing body’s upcoming Asian nations will be held in Abu Dhabi, April 14th-19th.
Chinese Taipei’s U18 side were dominant in 2018, coming away with the gold medal while New Zealand settled for silver. The two nations will meet again this year, with Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore also looking to take down the defending champions.
New Zealand Under-18s
The men’s equivalent had a great 2018 winning the only IIHF tournament hosted in New Zealand last year, finishing undefeated against Hong Kong and South Africa to gain promotion to Division 3 – Group A.
But it’s a new year and now their sights are set on taking their game to Sofia where they will play Israel, Turkey, Mexico, Iceland and hosts Bulgaria starting March 26 (NZ time).
Their biggest challenge will likely be Mexico whom missed out on taking gold last year by one point to Belgium.
Back in November, the NZIHF announced a squad that sees Canterbury’s exciting goalie prospect Finley Forbes returning to the crease, along with a few other NZIHL stars of the future including Noah Gregory and Jackson Flight, plus Alexander and Christian Regan.
Along with representing NZ at the U20 level, Ryan Martinoli was also selected for the Under-18s.
They don’t play on ice but considering a good portion of this side have also suited up for the Ice Fernz or the Under-18 women’s team in the past, the Inline Ferns are well worth keeping an eye on.
This year the Ferns will travel to Barcelona, Spain for the 2019 World Roller Games where they will look to improve upon a promising, yet ultimately disappointing 2018 campaign in Asiago, Italy.
Had their puck luck gone a different way in their shootout lose to inline powerhouse USA during the quarterfinal stage, New Zealand had the potential to finish much higher in the competition than their seventh-placed finish would suggest.
Initial trials for the senior and junior national sides were held in Hamilton last month, with further trials continuing this weekend. Expect those squads to be announced shortly after.
Main photo: James Allan