World League Final hockey is here folks and this is a beautiful moment for kiwi hockey as we not only get to once again showcase our hosting ability, Aotearoa's Black Sticks Women will also be gunning to shake things up. This is the climax of a super intriguing post-Olympic year in which both Black Sticks teams have undergone the standard re-shuffle that comes at the end of an Olympic cycle and while the mainstream kiwi media have been more concerned with retired women's players, the Free Man has been keeping close tabs on the Black Sticks women's team.
Before unleashing a variety of thoughts to preview the HWLF, I've got to set the scene and highlight how cool 2017 has been for kiwi hockey. First and foremost, both Black Sticks teams have been busy playing plenty of hockey and there's nothing more important than that. This has come with women's coach Mark Hager and new men's coach Darren Smith building large squads throughout the year, building an immense pool of players who are capable of playing international hockey.
There has also been numerous players doing their thing professionally over in Europe and on the men's side especially, this is has allowed for Black Sticks depth to be created. It's crucial to have kiwi players earning a living around the world because these opportunities simply aren't around in Aotearoa and instead of losing players to a 9-5 job, Aotearoa's best hockey players can be professional hockey players around the world.
I view 2017 as being an immense year for kiwi hockey and there's a positive vibe around kiwi hockey that I haven't really felt before, meaning that it's awesome to be a part of this shift. We're moving towards an exciting future for kiwi hockey and hosting the HWLF is the icing on the cake for 2017 as kiwi hockey not only gets headline status on a global scale, kiwi hockey fans and the community is rewarded for their toil with the world's best playing in Aotearoa.
Don't assume however, that because Aotearoa is hosting this event, that Aotearoa will stroll deep into the finals stage of the tournament. I'm optimistic about what the Black Sticks can do, but my optimism stems from a 'Dark Horse' position where if Aotearoa can catch fire during the tournament and sit on the right side of the hockey gods, then anything is possible. The world's best teams are in Aotearoa and that means that every game is going to be ruthless and in most games Aotearoa will be the underdogs, which is great because we all know how kiwis love being underdogs.
Working in Aotearoa's favour is this weird format that FIH have for their tournaments. There are two pools of four teams and all eight teams automatically qualify for the quarter-finals, which makes you wonder why the pool stage is even relevant. We can however bank on Aotearoa playing in the quarter-finals (yoza!) and most of the funk through the pool stage will come in observing how Aotearoa go about playing their hockey.
You could argue that the pool stage is important to get a favourable quarter-final match up, which is true in other tournaments but not so much the HWLF. Aotearoa are in Pool A along with USA, Korea and Netherlands, which means that the crossover will see Aotearoa play a team from Pool B; Germany, Argentina, England or China. All four teams are good and there's not exactly an 'easier' game there, so what's most important is that Aotearoa build towards the quarter-final, ensuring that they play their best hockey in the quarter-final.
Aotearoa will play Netherlands (Friday night) and Korea (Saturday night) in their first two games. Then they've got the Sunday off before playing USA on Monday night. Depending on their quarter-final, Aotearoa will play on either Wednesday or Thursday.
Regular Free Man homies will know all about the core group in this Black Sticks Women's team that their hopes effectively rest upon. Ella Gunson, Brooke Neal, Liz Thompson and Stacey Michelsen form a defensive unit that will be among the best in the tournament. They'll be helped by Sam Charlton and Rose Keddell who can very easily fill any defensive position, but I reckon we'll see Charlton and Keddell play key roles in the midfield.
Charlton and Keddell could primarily play in central roles, rotating through a deeper midfield position. They both work hard and are fantastic passers, which will see them spark counter-attacks and attacking movements from deep in their own territory. With Michelsen a key attacking weapon on the right flank, Charlton and Keddell will also offer cover defensively and their positioning will allow Michelsen to bomb forward on her trademark attacking raids.
Hager could offer some funk in where Charlton and Keddell play, although this won't diminish their status as the engine room. Another key figure in the midfield will be Pippa Hayward, who I suspect will play in a slightly more advanced midfield role and look to combine with strikers Sam Harrison and Olivia Merry who will lead the attacking group.
The x-factor is Kelsey Smith, who has spent much of her international career in the midfield and her energy will be a focal point on attack. Aotearoa do lack a bit of speed in their striking line, which could see Smith drift forward and play as a striker, although she's likely to be more useful in adding an extra number on attack from the midfield.
Another x-factor is Madison Doar, who is the only player in this squad with less than 20 international caps (4). Hager highlighted Doar as someone who could add some funk to the striking line and how Doar responds to the occasion could be low key influential to how Aotearoa perform. Doar's 18-years-old and is playing in a major tournament on home soil, so you can't expect anything crazy from her; we could see the emergence of a new young gun though.
Aotearoa have a slick penalty-corner unit led by Brooke Neal who take on much of the drag-flicking responsibilities.
Sally Rutherford's the top goalie and Grace O'Hanlon will be her back up.
And here's all the funk I could find from the other teams that will be competing in the HWLF: