By Casey Lucas
Dunedin, New Zealand
The 2012-13 NZIHL season was a big one for the Dunedin Thunder. The team has yet to win a Birgel Cup and last year’s heartbreaking loss to the Canterbury Red Devils was their first NZIHL Final appearance since the team’s inception in 2008. Aside from the obvious, the reason why this loss was so gutting was because their regular season went so well. Their 8-4 regulation record was tied for best in the NZIHL, and when it came to OT wins, they actually had the tiebreaker over Canterbury, as the Thunder didn’t lose a single overtime game in ‘13.
Fortunately for the Thunder, a new year brings with it new opportunity. The majority of the team’s roster is set to return this season, which is promising given their on-ice chemistry last year. New additions from Canada and Finland will augment the team’s roster on the front and back end. The team has lost talented young goaltender Aston Brookes as he returns home to Queenstown’s Southern Stampede, but other than that their core talent was retained. Thunder fans have a lot to look forward to.
I caught up with Thunder’s Captain Andre Robichaud to discuss the past, the future, the roster, and more. And while he was hesitant to make any Claude Giroux-style prognostications about the season, he is optimistic about his club.
He told me via email that expectations are high but the team are under no illusions that winning is a given. He’s instructing his young team to take games one at a time, one weekend at a time, and his personal strategy is to “control what you can control with preparation and commitment and put yourself in a good position come the tail end of the season.”
A physical forward who doesn’t shy away from battles along the boards, Robichaud has played for the Thunder since moving to Dunedin three years ago. Though he was born and raised in British Columbia, Robichaud is Kiwi-Canadian by descent and as such doesn’t count as an import for the New Zealand league. This makes him a special bonus by NZIHL standards, as the limit of four import players per team means that teams must choose carefully when dressing international players.
As far as his hockey pedigree goes, Robichaud’s resume definitely reads more Canadian than New Zealander: he played in BC with the Tri Port Minor Hockey Association, growing up in the North Island Eagles peewee, bantam, and midget hockey programs. He also has BCHL experience under his belt as a member of the Merritt Centennials and the Victoria Salsa.
When I asked about his NHL preferences, Robichaud admits he’s a Vancouver Canucks fan, although “that has been tested over the last few years.” His age shows a bit when he talks about the players he admired growing up, but in the best way: “I’ve always liked the complete players, guys who can play in any situation. Steve Yzerman, Rod Brind’Amour, Mike Peca. I guess these days its your Toews, Bergeron type players.”
After his final year as a player with Victoria, Robichaud tried his hand at assistant coaching for a season. Then life and a relocation to New Zealand got in the way of hockey for a while, but the 39-year-old says that after he moved to Dunedin, he “walked into the rink, got straight onto Craigslist to get some gear and started playing again.”
His twelve-year hockey absence must not have had too damaging an effect, as he was named NZIHL’s Rookie of the Year for 2011-12.
I asked him what he brings to the team aside from just his physical game, which is something Thunder manager Drew McMillan praised in our correspondence. “As I’m turning forty this year,” Robichaud writes, “I bring the average age up from seventeen years to twenty-six.” Obviously a joke. “No, seriously, I do bring it up.” Well that counts for something!
But in all seriousness: “I guess [I bring] some life experience to our dressing room, a bit of experience around the game and systems to complement coach’s systems, and a good honest effort each game.”
When asked about the biggest leadership challenges he’s faced so far as Captain, he had this to say: “The NZIHL is an amateur league with thoughts and dreams of becoming a professional league. So trying to balance work, family, and sometimes five nights a week at the rink can be quite challenging for all players. You always want 100% commitment from yourself and other team members but the realities of life come into play and expectations/goal posts need to sometimes be moved.”
Further along this line, we discussed the unique challenges of playing in New Zealand, especially as someone who has experience with the Canadian system: “My own views are that the greatest challenges will be with participation numbers and affordability. In Canada the smallest town will have an ice rink so you don’t have to live in the city i.e. Aucks [Auckland], CHCH [Christchurch], Dunnas [Dunedin] or Qtown [Queenstown] to be able to play. Hearing that Hamilton (New team name the Hamiltoes!) is getting a rink is a good thing, but the game will always be a minor sport for funding and participation until this changes.”
Of course, it isn’t all bad. New Zealand’s unique location and league make-up gives players a chance to play hockey during a time of year when most import players would otherwise be simply training or making plans for next North American season. Robichaud says one of his favourite parts of playing away games in Auckland is taking import players to see palm trees, singlets, and jandals in the winter. What’s a jandal, Canadian readers might ask? That’s the New Zealand term for flip-flops. Don’t ask.
Robichaud is grounded when he describes what fans can expect to see from the Thunder in 2014: “The 2014 Dunedin Thunder are definitely a deeper team than last season. I hate to make guarantees as such because you have zero control on other teams additions, subtractions, etc. We are well coached, have great goaltending, we’ve got a couple game breakers on D and up front.”
One of those game breakers is teammate Paris Heyd. “Gino [Paris] in my opinion is the most complete player in the league, import or Kiwi, and at times can take a team on his back,” Robichaud writes. The stats back him up: last season Heyd tallied 8G and 20A for a total of 28 points in only 16 games. He and Robichaud both scored goals in the Thunder’s NZIHL Final loss to the Red Devils last year.
The Captain is also impressed with the progression of Thunder’s younger players: “… the development of some of the young fellas, Jacob Hurring, Joe Orr, Tristan Darling in particular. Watching the local talent maturing is great for Dunedin and NZ hockey.”
That is important as the NZIHL has existed for ten years now. Many of the League’s longest-serving veterans are into their thirties, and Queenstown’s Southern Stampede recently lost their veteran Captain Simon Glass to retirement. The U18 and U20 development programs in New Zealand are an important source of new players for the NZIHL just as the NZIHL itself is an important place for development and training for the country’s national team, the Ice Blacks.
In addition to the homegrown young players from New Zealand, Robichaud had great things to say about Dunedin’s newest imports, Kolten Fyfe and Jesse Kantanen.
He describes Fyfe, a forward who hails from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan as a quality fella with great hands, good at finding open ice to fire off shots. Fyfe is a product of the Prairie Junior Hockey League and spent three years with the Saskatoon Westleys. He also spent some time in the FCHL with the Dalmeny Fury and was a greater than point-per-game player in every single one of his PJHL and FCHL regular seasons. This year marks his first in the NZIHL, and the Thunder are thrilled to have him.
Jesse Kantanen is a Finnish defenseman and Robichaud is impressed with his professional mentality and approach. And also his “great wheels.” Kantanen will be a great addition to the already-rocksteady Thunder blueline, which was key to the team’s success last season. Though Kantanen was born in 1989, he’s got nine years of experience in Finnish leagues and tournaments, including a 2011-12 Suomi-sarja Championship. The Suomi-sarja is Finland’s third-highest level of hockey, and a player with that level of competition can bring a lot to the Thunder locker room.
Overall, the impression I got from my correspondence with Andre Robichaud is that the team are optimistic, but it is a cautious optimism that is well-grounded in an understanding of how predictable the NZIHL can be. While the NZIHL Final has been extended to a best-of-three series this year, the regular season remains only sixteen games long. That means the Thunder–and their Captain–must ensure every game counts.
My thanks to Andre Robichaud for his time, as well as to Dunedin Thunder manager Drew McMillan for making this interview possible. The NZIHL season kicks off this weekend, but the Thunder have a bye. Their first games are on the 14th and 15th of June against Auckland’s Botany Swarm.