The National Hockey League gets underway this weekend and we're talking hockey with Black Stick Arun Panchia.
Before we get into some NHL nitty-gritty, what do you enjoy most about playing in the NHL as an international hockey player?
Probably the thing I enjoy most is playing with guys that I've grown up with playing for Auckland. We've got a good culture which makes it a lot of fun. We've played a lot of hockey together through the age groups right through to NHL culminating in a lot of success and also a lot of tough losses. It's the highest level a number of people get the opportunity to play in so there is plenty of pride within the regions which makes it enjoyable and competitive.
There is also the elephant in the room on the men’s side of the draw as the Black Sticks face a big challenge in the Oceania Qualifying Series, where you will need to beat Australia. Does that put more pressure on players to perform in the NHL as spots will be up for grabs and a strong showing for your province could see you earn a call up to the national squad?
Absolutely. We've all been working hard to be at our best for NHL with the national squad as it's doubled as preparation for Oceania. With guys needing to be at their best to be selected it'll give the selection panel a fair indication of where everyone is at over the entire competition so it will be a good platform for guys to show they're ready for the next step.
You have played plenty of NHL hockey so from your experience does having the most Black Sticks translate to being the favourites or having success in the NHL?
It plays a part in our success but like any team sport having great individual players doesn't always translate to success. Favourites is a tough one as nobody has seen every team at full strength so it's hard to say who can put together but we're confident in our group and are looking forward to getting back out there and playing some good hockey.
On the women’s side of the draw, both Midlands and Canterbury have a wealth of national players in their squads while Auckland have a fair few as well. Putting your Jaffa-bias aside, do you have Midlands and Canterbury as the favourites or do you see another team surprising this year?
To be honest I don't know a lot about the women's competition other than the few games I've seen before or after our warm up games. The Midlands team looked sharp a few weeks ago as did the Auckland women. Canterbury are always strong. I think Northland with a home crowd behind them and Central will be the ones to watch.
Which women’s player would you be noting down as an MVP favourite leading into the tournament?
I think the usual suspects in Stacey Michelsen, Anita Punt and Kayla Whitelock are up there. The other one to watch for would be Charlotte Harrison from Auckland who I've seen scoring a lot goals at club level.
Which International Guest Player are you most excited about on the women’s side?
I actually don't recognize any of the names of the women's guest players but it will be good to see Kayla and Emily back for Central.
We’ll flip that over to the fellas and I see that Aussie Des Abott will line up for Midlands. He was once known as one of the best strikers in world hockey, what will he offer Midlands that not many other players can?
Des is a unique striker nowadays who has a lot of size and strength on the ball. He'll add a lot up front for Midlands, he plays a good post up game which will benefit their midfielders and also he is deadly in the circle. Great to see him back playing and in our competition as well.
The Southern Dogs are a team who stand out as not having quite the depth of other teams, but they have been a very good team over the past few years. You can’t put it solely down to their Black Sticks as other teams have more, so what is it about the Dogs that consistently has them in the mix?
They're a team who have also developed a strong culture and have turned themselves into a perennial contender. I think it's in their culture now that they are willing to leave it all out on the field and out-work the other team. They certainly did that too us last year in Dunedin and I expect they'll be stronger this year.
Who should fans keep an eye out for as a player who isn’t in the Black Sticks squad, but has plenty of potential?
I think a number of the current and former Junior Black Sticks will be up for the opportunity presented this year. For us Kim Kingstone, Jonty Keaney, Michael Ritchie and my little brother Daniel have all played a number of games for the JBS and will be out to show what they're capable of. From what I've seen from Midlands they have some young talented players as well but every province will have a few who will be playing in larger roles. Seems to me like the competition is getting a lot younger, I'm starting to notice I'm one of the older ones around.
What’s it like to play against your Black Sticks team mates? I imagine there’s a bit of niggle as you all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so well, but either way it’s gotta be fun right?
It is a lot of fun playing against each other at NHL. We're all quite good mates, we train nearly every day together and are playing against one another in training constantly. There is always a lot of banter and niggle that goes on and it certainly makes it a lot more challenging when you know each other's tendencies. It's definitely more fun when you win because we're all competitive and there is always a bit of friendly banter post NHL but at the end of the day we have another common goal of making Rio in the background so making sure we're preparing as best we can through performing well at NHL is important too.
Do most teams adopt a similar style and formation? Or is it somewhat similar to international hockey where each team has their own identity in a way?
Each team has their own identity I think but really most of the ways we all play is fairly similar. I think it's due to the nature of our skillset and understanding of the way the games played too as to why it is similar. There is definitely elements of international styles within each region but the majority of teams have a lot of elements of the way we play for the Black Sticks.
Who ya got in the finals on the women’s side and the men’s side of the draw?
That's a tough one. If I had to pick I'd say Auckland - Northland in the women's and Auckland - Canterbury in the men's.