Free Man Hockey: What's Going On With the Black Sticks Women?



As I stated a few facts about the Black Sticks Women's success under coach Mark Hager, I did so not knowing about the tsunami that was approaching. A rather diabolical World Cup campaign encapsulated the veil that has been covering over issues with the Black Sticks Women's team and how they go about their business under Hager, now it seems as though that veil is being lifted. 

This has been a super interesting situation to follow from my perspective as my World Cup debrief got a lot of views, far more views than any ol' Black Sticks hockey thing usually gets. We are always positive here at the Niche Cache, so I didn't want to rip into the World Cup debacle (it was a debacle, they under-performed to that extent) and I instead relied on a bunch of facts. Facts that I believe did not reflect well on coach Hager.

That's where the interesting funk sits. I have outlined a bunch of weird coaching moves from Hager and now, that has flowed into an investigation about the environment of the women's team. When you blend those facts from the World Cup, with a questionable team culture, you could suggest that shit is hitting the fan. 

The Niche Cache exists because of how mediocre mainstream media is at doing the sports journalism thing. Having said that, credit where it's due as TVNZ has come out swinging with this Black Sticks Women's story; they broke the email story, then grabbed former goalie Amelia Gibson to offer more insight and all week the Hockey Player's Association has been given a platform through Glen Sulzberger, to do their job in supporting the players. 

Such has been TVNZ's coverage of this situation, it feels like a crusade against Hager. The way this story has grown in the TVNZ bubble, is in itself a bloody interesting yarn. I doubt TVNZ would have initially dropped the email story without a fair amount of background information and I'd suggest that in reporting the email story, they would have known that there would be more to the story.

Allow me do go down this tangent for a jiffy; TVNZ have got a week's worth of content out of this story, it's been drip-fed each night on the news and it's been funny to watch them regurgitate the same footage of trainings etc, every night. I say that to reinforce my belief that TVNZ would have had a wide pool of information around the team's culture, before dropping the email story. The emails were the smoke, when we were told about this, we were told that Hager and the players had sorted things out and no dramas. TVNZ knew that there was a fire though, knew that the smoke would lead to a greater mess.

On Friday night, TVNZ had Ian Francis on their news show as the boss-dawg of Hockey New Zealand. All I want to say about that interviews is that Francis did not pass the body language test, like he failed miserably. Francis looked nervous, looked as though his world was caving in and nothing he said felt like it was coming from a hearty leader.

As Aotearoa's chief hockey journalist, I think it's extremely important to highlight the performances of the team under Hager. This is exactly what I did in my World Cup debrief, but now with information about Hager's team culture and players coming forward to voice their concerns, I want to ensure that this illusion of the Black Sticks Women being hugely successful under Hager is exposed. 

If we separate the team performances and coaching of Hager, from the team culture stuff, there are a heap of questions about Hager's work and whether he's the guy to lead a hugely talented pool of players to international success, sustained success. Would you view a coach who has won just 8 of the last 27 games as a success?

Hager's team has lost 14 of their last 27 games, including being given a hiding in a series in Argentina, losing four of five games. 

So, in a five game series against Argentina earlier this year, they lost four games and conceded 16 goals in five games. Then prior to the World Cup, the Black Sticks played six games in a tri-series against Argentina and Japan. Six games and they lost four, drew one then won the shoot-out and lost one. Six games and they conceded 17 goals.

That's rather crap. 

There is no reason in there to have huge confidence in Hager's ability as a coach as he clearly can't get the best out of the players - but they won Commonwealth Games gold! This is where the illusion is, because many people including TVNZ don't have any context around Com Games hockey, nor is context to the Black Sticks Women's bigger picture.

Com Games hockey doesn't include many of the world's best teams and on top of that, the Black Sticks made the final via three draws, one of which was a shoot-out win. It was a great effort from the kiwis to win Com Games gold, however it doesn't wipe aside the blatant issues in the performance of the team and their success. Under Hager, the team has made the final of two major tournaments (Hockey World League Final last November) and Com Games. In those two major tournaments, they played a total of 12 games and made the finals by winning just five games, plus a shoot-out win.

With this new information, my questions around Hager's coaching gets a new twist. In debriefing the World Cup, I found that Hager had very little faith or trust in his squad and this differs greatly, or was the complete opposite of every opposition coach during the World Cup. I stated these facts at the time, so now view them with the new twist...

Sally Rutherford started all three pool games, then Grace O'Hanlon was brought in as goal-keeper for the quarter-final. Rutherford is a fantastic goalie and got dropped for no apparent reason, for the first knock out game. Hager literally dropped the best goalie, for the second-best goalie for the most important game.

Hager was the only coach in the Black Sticks' four games, who didn't use his full squad, or used his squad sparingly by not bringing on players until late in the game. For non-hockey people, that might not sound like a big deal but the best way to explain this is that every other opposition coach, all of them, used all their field players in each game against the Black Sticks and every opposition coach did so by the 10 minute mark. 

While opposition coaches were rolling through all of their subs before 10mins had passed, Hager did the opposite. Hager obviously had very little faith in the very players that he had himself selected for this tournament and now, knowing about Hager's antics behind the scenes, there is clarity and a connection. Every other coach had immense faith and trust in their squads, while Hager just thought his players didn't work hard enough.

It's also important to highlight how hockey in Aotearoa is not professional. You need to be in or around kiwi hockey to know that most of the Black Sticks Women also work, or are studying and have to find other ways to fund their hockey journey. Most notably though, the Black Sticks train and are based in Auckland, which is a nightmare for the majority of the squad who are not from Auckland.

These players have to move to Auckland, the most expensive city to live in in Aotearoa. If these players want to pursue the sport they love, they have no choice but to put themselves into some level of hardship just to be in Auckland, just to be in the selection mix. Don't feel sorry for the players, that's not the point; imagine moving to Auckland, having to bust your gut every day just to survive and train your best with the Black Sticks and then the coach doesn't think you work hard enough?

Forget everything else, that alone is bonkers. Other than players and parents, the coach knows the most about what these players go through to represent their country and to do so at an elite level. Then that coach, knowing first-hand about the sacrifices, the effort put in by the players, is vocal about their work ethic?


Again, wtf. Why would you want to deal with a coach who knows all that, but doesn't care.

Not only is this an injustice to the players, most of whom are pursuing a global, growing sport at an elite level, it's an injustice to kiwi hockey. Aotearoa has fantastic hockey talent, just not a whole lot of resource and for kiwi hockey to perform to its potential, every detail - minor and major - needs to be sussed. A coach who doesn't have faith in his own players and has little empathy for the circumstance of his players, is less than ideal for any hockey nation, let alone Aotearoa where that stuff needs to be mandatory, to make up for the lack of resources.

I don't know how this plays out and there will be the standard procedures that will take time to sort through. Cut through the bullshit to look solely at results, style of play and use of players and you can make a strong case that the Black Sticks Women need a new coach. Add the bullshit of the past week and there's only one option.

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Peace and love 27.