Aotearoa's National Hockey League is done and dusted, so we got a homie and NHL player to offer a few thoughts...
What a tournament! NHL always brings out the best of what NZ hockey is all about – and this year has been no different. As mentioned by others, a new format was used this year with all teams making it through to the quarterfinals. There were no upsets of the top team in pool play being beaten by the lowest team in the opposite pool, however both Auckland teams (who topped their pools) needed a penalty shootout to get over their opponents in what could have turned the tournament upside down. North Harbour men took out the Challenge Shield and the Midlands Women did the mahi and picked up the K Cup.
I found this year that a number of teams sat back at a half-field press and let teams come to them. Most people would say it is a conservative press, as it means the opposition strikers have less space to get behind your defence, but I believe teams were rather using this as an attacking platform, rather than defensive strategy. Many teams looked to sit at half-way and wait until they turned the ball over to attack quickly into the vacant space that is available due to such a deep press.
As your opposing team has sent players higher up the field, to try stretch the game as much as possible against a half court press, it means that if you turn the ball over, you could be faced with a 4 on 4 over 50 meters; which strikers will lick their lips at. Teams would change up and sometimes use a full press, but from watching the games it was interesting to see such a change in pressing than what has occurred in previous years. This is more of a European tactic which now may be becoming popular in our game.
Players Who Caught The Eye
As always, NHL is an opportunity for players to put their hands up for higher honours, and especially for younger players to try stamp their mark on the senior game. This isn’t always easy, but we have seen the likes George Muir and Jared Panchia do this recently and kicked on to bigger and better things.
I loved the way Capital striker Seb Buddle got around the field for the Cobras over the week. Originally from Auckland, Seb found his way as a relative unknown into the Capital side but produced the goods when needed. He created numerous opportunities with his intricate 3d skills - learnt from the fabled Auckland Grammar turf I’m sure - and when in isolation, his confidence shone through as he bet defenders with ease. His goal against Auckland in the semi final, where he flicked the ball from an acute angle over Black Sticks keeper Devon Manchester’s shoulder, will be one that sits in the memory.
On the women’s side I’ve gone for a couple of seasoned campaigners - Julia King from the Auckland side and Ella Gunson from the wahine’s up north. Both of these ladies stood out for their respective teams and formed part of the core of the team that led to them being so successful.
Both players base their game on ensuring consistency of their play doesn’t waiver and being the player that others look to when an extra gear is needed. Ella’s goal in the last minute to put them through to the final would have made waves all the way up in Whangerei and was testament to her attitude, never say die attitude, she brings to every game. Julia still has the flattest reverse in the game and would not look out of place in any midfield in the country. The cracker of a reverse in the semi final was already being celebrated by those watching before it had been hit, knowing full well that there was only one outcome. Sometimes there is no substitute for experience.
One big issue that I did encounter was the pricing of tickets and scheduling of games.
Although this sport isn’t free, hockey doesn’t have the greatest exposure and therefore we should be trying to get people through the gates to watch our great game. So to schedule only women’s games on the first Sunday and only men’s games on the second Saturday seemed ridiculous. People are much more likely to watch games on the weekend, than during the week, so to half the daily games on the most popular days is just silly. Something Hockey NZ should be looking to amend for next year.
The other bug bear was the pricing. $10 for a day, even during the week seems a bit pricey. Gold coin donations or $5 maximum should be the way to go. You’ll find people will pay more if they want to donate or at least you will get more people in watching. Overall though NHL was a great week, enjoyed by most of the players and those that attended.