Black Sticks in Rio: Olympic Debrief

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Weaving it's way from Rio's Olympic Hockey stadium was the stench of disappointment with regards to our kiwi hockey teams. The men slipped up in their quarter-final and the women were tipped in their semi-final, which means no medals for our kiwi hockey program and as I said in my preview of both Black Sticks teams' Rio campaigns, to come away without a medal would be a bummer for Hockey New Zealand.

After enjoying copious amounts of Olympic hockey, my stance has eased somewhat but it's also taken a bit of a twist ... a positive twist.

We need to apply some context to the performances of our kiwi hockey teams because it became clear in Rio that international hockey is as strong as it has ever been. It wasn't the Dutch or Argentina who won the women's gold medal, nah it was the glorious Great Britain while the men's side of the draw had Argentina winning gold with Belgium taking silver. Australia were notable absentees at the semi-final stage of both the men's and women's competitions while the overall standard of hockey from most of the teams involved was a pleasure to watch, even the fact that Brazil was there playing hockey can't be celebrated enough.

Not only was it great to see hockey at the highest level being played, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the quality from teams from all over the world. We often find ourselves getting in a huff and a puff about sports that are only celebrated in a few countries, while hockey is being played very well at the international level by a wide variety of nations. Europe, Asia, America (north and south) and Oceania were represented at a competitive level and it wasn't as though we saw an Asian or European dominance either. Hockey is worldwide and for all my fellow hockey-lovers out there, have a drink or light one up to that. 

This is also why we should be immensely proud of our kiwi hockey teams. After the women fizzled in the semi-final and the bronze medal game, there was a flood of depression with much of the focus from the mainstream media zoning in on the women going back-to-back in stink losses to GB when it mattered most. Yet, when you compare the resources available to GB with those available to the Black Sticks women, there's no comparison.

Mark Hager said after the loss in their last game in Rio, that he had talked to the German coach who told him about regular European tournaments at Under-16, 18 and 21 level. This means that the best European hockey players are representing their nation against quality opposition in major tournaments on a regular basis ... while our best young hockey players have to fork out their own money for a trip to Australia.

Perhaps it's a sign of how strong kiwi hockey is, that we seem to forget that our Black Sticks are punching well above their weight on the international stage. This is because they are always there or there-abouts, always good enough to be in the mix but never quite able to cut through the clutter and be a world force. 

Look at how both teams loss; the men gave up a few late goals against Germany and the women played their worst games at the wrong end of the tournament. The ability to maintain focus and execute at the highest level when it matters most doesn't magically appear, nor can it be trained. It comes from experience. Experience as a youngster and experience gained at the international level - after letting the results simmer for a day or two, I've come to view the difference between the men going further than the quarter-final and the women getting over their semi-final hump, simply being the resources/competition available to both Black Sticks teams. 

As Kayla Sharland announced her international retirement, she noted that many international teams had been together in Olympic preparations for a number of years while the Black Sticks were together, centralized for six months. That's what we're working with here as players from both teams work or study and to spend a substantial period training together as a team, they must all sacrifice whatever and shift to Auckland. 

Training together as professionals, with all the resources you need at your disposal is the difference. It's the difference that takes both men's and women's teams from plucky kiwi teams punching above their weight to legit hockey powerhouses. What was clear in Rio from a kiwi perspective was that both teams have the talent and our little nation breeds some of the best hockey players on the planet, notably Simon Child and Kayla Whitelock. They just lack that little bit extra.

Optimism should stem from the young nature of both teams. Ponder that the core of the men's team (Child, Hugo Inglis, Blair Tarrant, Stephen Jenness, Kane Russell, Arun Panchia, James Coughlin, Nick Wilson, Nic Woods, Shay Neal) and women's team (Olivia Merry, Sam Charlton, Rose Keddell, Liz Thompson, Brooke Neal, Sophie Cocks, Pippa Hayward, Kelsey Smith, Kirsten Pearce, Stacey Michelsen) are all mid-20's. Both teams are young and have plenty of hockey ahead of them, which should make us immensely proud of their achievements and hopeful of the future. 

Make no mistake about it; Aotearoa has the talent to be a dominant hockey nation.

Over the next few weeks, the National Hockey League will take place and the lads and lasses from the deep south won't be there. Southern won't take part in the NHL, apparently because they weren't overly keen to pay what it costs to compete in the national tournament. This is very understandable as it's rough to expect provincial hockey organisation to stump up with the cash to send two teams here or there for a weekend, then up to Whangarei. 

This coupled with a lack of international players thanks to the Olympics means that the NHL will likely take a dip this year. There doesn't appear to be much imagination or foresight at play here from Hockey NZ and instead of pushing the NHL to be one of premier provincial sporting competitions in Aotearoa (which it could genuinely be), it is not a whole lot more than a blip on the radar. 

One positive is the inclusion of a men's and women's NZ Futures team to play in the Australian Hockey League - which has expanded to include teams from Aotearoa, Malaysia and India. This is great for the young players as they'll get to compete at a high level in Australia, however it's telling that while the Australian tournament is growing, the kiwi tournament will be missing a team. 

In their press-release, NZ High Performance Director Terry Evans gave a statement that included this encouraging gem...

“This also signals the start of a strategic relationship involving all four countries with a view towards growing exposure of the sport, and improving the opportunities for each country’s national teams. 

Hockey New Zealand and Hockey Australia are working together to develop a number of mutually beneficial programmes and to develop a strategic relationship that supports hockey in both countries and the broader region.”

These are very interesting times for kiwi hockey. In Rio we have seen our national teams do their nation proud, we've seen a combination of talent and kiwi spirit ensure that both teams impressed on the international stage but we also saw what held them back. While other nations have the luxury of resource, it feels as though Hockey NZ lack the ability to provide the Black Sticks with everything they need to go to greater heights. That also means that the levels below the Black Sticks, like the NHL are unable to push hockey along.

As a hockey fan, I am mainly excited but I'm also a wee bit weary of what happens next. We have talent and a few initiatives that could push kiwi hockey to a place that it's never been before, yet like many kiwi sports that aren't rugby, it may simply be unrealistic to expect that sort of growth in hockey (we can hope and want, but don't expect). This is where the folk who make key decisions must be creative, think outside the box and show the same passion that our Black Sticks showed in making Aotearoa a strong hockey nation.

Reflecting on the Olympics, I can't feel anything but pride with regards to our Black Sticks. Coming up against professionals and teams who have been building towards the Olympics for much longer, both Black Sticks teams not only held their own, they showed kiwi hockey fans that the foundation is there. The foundation for future success is strong, it's whether success can be built on top of that foundation which is now the key.