After what can only be described as an almighty kerfuffle, Black Sticks Women's coach Mark Hager has made the move to coach Great Britain/England. This is an incredibly complex situation and the 'Hager quits as Black Sticks Women's coach' doesn't do any of what's gone down justice, it's the ripples on the surface while the deep currents move underneath. The end result though, is the best case scenario and in digesting how this has all gone down, it feels kinda good that all parties can move forward in positive motion.
The key factor in all of this is my belief that there was a reasonably clear vendetta against Hager from a pocket of the kiwi hockey community and a certain mainstream media outlet. Vendetta is a strong word, yet it feels genuinely suitable for this situation. This may not have been visible to the casual kiwi sports fan, but in exploring the storm around Hager, the dots were easily connected. Being in the hockey community and being the underground sports media outlet in Aotearoa combine to offer a clear vision.
First of all, there was one mainstream media outlet that broke all the news and had all the interviews (from scorned players to unfairly pegging Hockey NZ bossman Ian Francis into a corner). Of course, other mainstream media outlets shared news and reported stuff that happened, however there was one outlet that put in the grunt work. This was to the extent where it felt like a clear agenda was at play.
That's just my opinion and I stress the words 'feel/felt'. To further complicate matters, I've had to assess my own ride in following and writing about this topic as with greater information and a greater effort to follow my intuition, my thoughts have changed. In the heat of the World Cup failure, I was critical of Hager; weird coaching moves, use of substitutions and a general under-performing campaign.
Caught in those emotions and then (prior to really sussing things out) hearing news of Hager being critical of players, players who sacrifice an incredible amount to play a barely semi-pro sport from Aotearoa, got the best of me. Looking back, this was a beautiful thing though because the bait was laid.
During this process, The Niche Cache got a message on Facebook from someone with a recognisable last name in the kiwi hockey community. All that you need to know is that the recognisable last name was one that hasn't really featured much in the Black Sticks recently, or more to the point; in Hager's teams.
If I'm reflecting on how the heat of the moment got the best of me early in this process, then this message we received was kinda crazy. All emotion, slandering Hager and taking my hockey-focused criticisms, amplifying them and getting a wee bit hostile.
Then came the process of getting ears to the streets and learning what other folk in the kiwi hockey community thought of the matter. It was put to me by various people, at various levels of the kiwi hockey community that this was a 'beat up'. It was also suggested that this media outlet at the forefront of this matter, may share close relationships with players or pockets of the kiwi hockey community that ... hmm ... 'disliked' Hager.
Throughout this process, a wide range of players came out in support of Hager. I'm not fussed about the former players and their opinions, of greater importance is what current players reckon. Whether publicly to the mainstream media, second-hand information coming to me or directly put me; a lot of current players support and appreciate Hager.
This was capped off, when Stacey Michelsen and Samantha Chartlon fronted TVNZ's One News to share their views on Hager leaving his post. I'll let you connect your own dots here as One News rolled out the full coverage of Hager moving on, which weirdly included Michelesen and Charlton emphatically supporting Hager. Michelsen and Charlton aren't just key players for Aotearoa, they are leaders, legit world-class players and I viewed this as them being the voices of the team.
Another important note is that we are in this period where kiwi sports organisations have been under fire and it's trendy to buck against the authority. Much of this has been delightful and in the case of the Football Ferns for example, there was a clear majority of players who built a hefty case against that regime. In no way do I want to lessen the validity of these cases (cycling, rowing etc), yet they are either rooted in a majority of players coming together or more widespread shenanigans.
With this in mind, the move of Hager to leave his Black Sticks post and take up a job with GB/England prior to the review of Hockey NZ being released is notable. Based on my information and own vibes, I don't think the review will come with any dramatic conclusions.
This is why Hager hasn't been fired. This is why Hager now has the chance to coach a fantastic hockey team, with far more resources than little old Aotearoa. Obviously GB/England hockey would have done their due-diligence on Hager and would have been well aware of the accusations against Hager. I'd suggest that given Hager's now their coach, their investigations found no reason not to hire Hager.
But why couldn't Hager continue as the coach of Aotearoa? That's a weird one and as Hager has laid all sorts of foundations, kinda pouring his soul into kiwi women's hockey, the assumption can be made that Hager would have wanted to continue that process; ushering in this exciting new era of international hockey with the FIH Pro League and then the 2020 Olympics.
I don't know any answers here, nor how to explain my hunches. All I can put to you, is that HNZ and Hager worked together to ensure that Hager was able to leave on his terms and with a fabulous opportunity ahead of him. Given that I've settled on a belief that this may have all been a bit unfair on HNZ and Hager, that result is as good as it can get.
Also noteworthy is that Hager's assistant Sean Dancer will now be acting head coach for this crucial 2019 Pro League opportunity;
vs Netherlands (Jan 27th in Auckland)
vs Belgium (Feb 1st in Auckland)
vs Great Britain (Feb 8th in Christchurch)
vs Germany (Feb 15th in Christchurch)
vs China (Feb 17th in Christchurch)
vs USA (March 8th in Auckland)
vs Argentina (March 10th in Auckland)
vs Australia (April 25th in Auckland)
See how amazing this Pro League thing looks? That's an epic list of international hockey fixtures in Aotearoa (before heading overseas) and an ANZAC Day fixture vs Australia has me fizzing.
Ah, but Mr Dancer. To the best of my knowledge, Dancer became assistant coach to Hager back in 2014 and has worked closely with Hager throughout this time. Working closely is an obvious description of a head/assistant coach relationship, but this also features Dancer taking on head coaching duties while Hager either took a break, or took a back seat in a more chilled role. That sounds like Hager ensuring that Dancer received plenty of development opportunities, to better himself as a hockey coach and perhaps preparing him to take over at some stage.
Hager and Dancer are both Australians, funny that.
Given what you have read above; appointing someone who has been part of Hager's tenure and success, someone who we can safely assume supports Hager immensely and shares many hockey coaching ideas/philosophies with Hager, doesn't sound like a logical move if there has been a big old drama in the Black Sticks Women's group.
Dancer is merely 'acting' head coach and HNZ may look elsewhere for the legit head coach once the dust settles. Appointing Dancer to take this group into a new era of international hockey is a great move in the sense that it keeps everything within and around the Black Sticks Women's squad fairly similar. No drastic changes, more of the same and little disruption to the already established system.
In some cases, that would smell fishy. In this case, it smells like roses.
It hasn't been a cruisey ride for Hager in my coverage of kiwi hockey and as is the case with any coach or player, when I think things aren't ideal or could be better, I voice my thoughts. Hager has however, changed women's hockey in Aotearoa and his impact can only be described as emphatic. Now Hager can level-up as a coach and gets an exciting opportunity, while for short-term future at least, not much changes for the Black Sticks Women.
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Peace and love 27.