On Thursday, the Australian Hockey League gets underway. Only hockey nerds would usually pay attention to what's going down across the ditch in the AHL each year, either to observe Australia's copious talent pool in action or because there's a splattering of kiwi hockey players representing a state team. This year is a bit different though as the AHL now includes a New Zealand Futures team in both the men's and women's competitions, along with two Malaysian teams and an Indian team on the men's side while there's also a Malaysian team on the women's side.
This effectively pushes the AHL into rare-air as the premier hockey tournament in this part of the world and it comes at a very interesting time as well. Australian hockey is perhaps the weakest it has ever been, with the women battling away roughly on-par with our Black Sticks women while the Kookaburras endured a horrible Rio Olympics campaign.
In the wash up of the Olympics, two Australian players voiced their concerns from two slightly different angles which poked at a few holes in the Australian hockey system. Kieran Govers didn't make the cut for Rio, however in this blog post he shares his tale in battling injury while also sharing an e-mail he sent to the team well before the Olympics and given the Kookaburras' failure in Rio, there's some heavy foreshadowing at work there.
Simon Orchard was in Rio representing Australia and he then wrote this thing, bemoaning the lack of balance afforded to Australian hockey players.
While I reckon Black Sticks have it slightly better off, the same issues are at work in kiwi hockey as both Black Sticks teams exist on the weird fringe of amateur and semi-pro sport. Many Black Sticks study or hold down full-time jobs, yet compete at the highest level against other nations where hockey is celebrated and can genuinely earn players a living.
Given that, having two teams made up of younger athletes compete in the AHL is an excellent step forward. This is exciting because it gives players who have been identified by Hockey NZ as possible Black Sticks, the opportunity to play a high level of hockey in Australia and then you've got the fact that we are going to be graced with a competition that should in theory help push hockey forward in Australiasia.
Both NZ Futures teams will showcase why we should all be pretty damn excited as kiwi hockey fans, as there's plenty of young talent coming through. Keep in mind that both Black Sticks teams are mainly made up of younger players, hovering around that 25/26-year-old bracket and then we've got Futures teams featuring the next wave competing in the AHL.
Semi-finals and finals will be streamed live, which is nice but makes trying to cover the AHL a bit of a mission as I'll be relying on match-reports, box-scores and general sporting mathematics to paint a picture of how our Futures teams are doing. The men face Malaysia Tigers first up, 4:30pm local time Thursday which should be 9:30pm NZT and then the kiwis face Northern Territory on Friday, 9pm NZT.
The women will start their campaign against Malaysia, 3:30pm NZT on Thursday before facing ACT (Canberra) at 1:30pm NZT on Friday. I'll do my bestest to post every few days, or provide a brief run down after each game, we'll see how it pans out.
Both kiwi teams will face a Malaysian team first up which should give us a handy gauge of what to expect from them, as we should expect our kiwi teams to struggle against the Australian sides who will feature more experienced and powerful players.
There a bunch of Australians who played in Rio who will line up for their respective states. Queensland will call on Daniel Beale, Matt Swann, Dylan Wotherspoon and Jake Whetton, Western Australia will have Fergus Kavanagh, Aarn Zalewski, Trent Mitton and Tyler Lovell while Tom Craig, Matt Dawson, Flynn Ogilvie and Simon Orchard will lace up for New South Wales.
Edwina Bone and Anna Flanagan will play for ACT, Queensland have Kirsten Dwyer and Jodie Kenny, Western Australia have Kathryn Slattery and Ashlee Wells, New South Wales will have George Morgan, Grace Stewart and Mariah Williams while Victoria have Laura Barden, Rachael Lynch and Georgie Nanscawen in their squad.
Queensland are the defending champions for both the men's and women's competitions, here's the NZ Futures squads...
NZ Futures Men
Brennan Alexander-Parker, Craig Armstrong, Joe Crooks, Nick Elder, Angus Hazlett, Jack Humphries, Jared Jones, Mick Lammers, Oliver McIntyre, Harry Miskimmin, Ben Radovonich, Matt Rees-Gibbs, Oscar Stewart, Matt Symonds, Ben Tanner, Benedict van Woerkom, Warren Wild, Zac Woods.
NZ Futures Women
Josie Ackroyd, Frances Davies, Stephanie Dickins, Maddison Dowe, Megan Hull, Alia Jacques, Tessa Jopp, Bridget Kiddle, Nicola McDonnell, Maddi McLean, Kirsten Nation, Deanna Ritchie, Brooke Roberts, Amy Robinson, Phoebe Steele, Catherine Tinning, Tayla White, Emily Wium.