NZIHL weekend two preview: First games for Botany, Dunedin, West Auckland

(Photo: Gerard O'Brien)
(Photo: Gerard O’Brien)

After an exciting first week for the NZIHL, week number two is looking to keep up the pace. The Dunedin Thunder will make their way down to the Hive in Botany to start their 2014 campaign taking on the Swarm.

24 year old, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native, Kolten Fyfe will be suiting up for the Thunder for his first NZIHL season. Fyfe has spent the five years in Canada’s Junior A system and the jump to playing hockey in another country should be one experience he’ll never forget. France’s Guillaume Leclancher will be entering his third season; second as a member of the Thunder. A solid part of Dunedin’s blue line, Leclancher finished the 2013 season with six points in 15 games. Another returning forward, Martin Pokorny of the Czech Republic will be monumental in flanking both Andre Robichaud and sharpshooter Paris Heyd.

Expect a lot of the same lineup for the Swarm that was iced last year. Solid goaltending and fire from the forwards will keep this battle in close.

Both weekend games will take place down at the Paradise Ice Arena in Botany. Puck drop will be around 4:30 local time.

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(Photo: Tarei Mackey)
(Photo: Tarei Mackey)

Coming off of a dramatic two game win over the Southern Stampede, the Canterbury Red Devils will be heading into this weekend series with a bounty over their heads. Revenge might be on the table from the rest of the league for Hayden Argyle’s knockout punch to the face of Stampede’s Matthew Schneider.(A bounty which I think is ridiculous as it was nothing more than a hockey play gone wrong). It makes for an interesting story line.

The West Auckland Admirals have picked up left winger Glen Patterson off of the Bobcaygeon Bucks in central Ontario. Goaltender Rick Parry, who will be returning after playing pro in France, had his scouting cap on and managed to bring back 27 year old Yoann Chauviere. The feisty defender racked up 49 penalty minutes in 26 games.

Another home and home stand in Canterbury at the Alpine Ice Arena. Puck drop for both games is 4:45 local time.

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One on One with Dunedin Thunder captain Andre Robichaud

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.

Dunedin_Thunder_logoFortunately 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.

(Photo: Gerard O'Brien)
(Photo: Gerard O’Brien)

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.

Paris Heyd (Photo: Stephen Jaquiery.)
Paris Heyd (Photo: Stephen Jaquiery.)

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.

jfHPFdSMJesse 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.

NZIHL games can be streamed online at Livestream (http://new.livestream.com/nzihl) and the website Stuff.co.nz will now be embedding a ‘game of the week’ every Sunday.

Southern Stampede vs Dunedin Thunder Weekend Preview

After splitting last weekend’s series and being upset in a shocking thriller by the West Auckland Admirals, the Southern Stampede will be looking for redemption in the form of the Dunedin Thunder.

(Photo credit: www.dunedinthunder.co.nz)
(Photo credit: http://www.dunedinthunder.co.nz)

Goaltender Kane Eastbrook backstopped the Stampede to a 6-0 shutout on the final game of the set last weekend after being trampled by the Admirals in the first game. Combined with that confidence, the Stampede are eager to cut down a notch on the Thunder. The Stamps currently sit in 4th position in the standings but only 3 points behind the tied for first Dunedin Thunder. British Columbia native, Matt Schneider picked up 4 goals in the win and will look to add to his stats in this weekend’s foray as he currently sits second in league points leaders.

On the Dunedin Thunder side, they also split their last weekend series two weeks ago against the Botany Swarm. Connor Harrison will be looking to add to his goal total as he sits second in league leaders for goals. The Dunedin Thunder will be pumped and looking to retaliate from their 8-1 loss to Botany. They will be flying right out of the gate. The key for the Thunder this weekend will be to take less penalties and stay out of the box. This is critical as it cost them much of their last game.

Both the Southern Stampede and Dunedin Thunder are tight in the standings which will make for great hockey. You know what that means. Find your way to Queenstown Ice Arena and get ready for some hard hitting and fast paced hockey. Puck drops for the first game at 7pm local time.

Swarm Upset Dunedin; Split Series

The Botany Swarm pulled off a shocker Sunday afternoon as they toppled off first place leaders Dunedin Thunder in a thriller at ParadIce arena.

9273268597_87bd2ec06a_bComing off of an overtime loss to the Thunder the previous day, the Swarm were bound and determined to knock them off their feet. Jumping off of the momentum of the extra overtime point, from the first period on the Swarm kept the “Hive” on their feet and their heads in the game. Two goals coming from  Mickey Rhodes brought them into the second period.

It was a game of doubles after that. Doubling the first period’s score were KC Ball and Evan MackIntosh. By the time the third period rolled around the game had ended at 8-1.

Got to hand it to Dunedin though as they stuck through it to the very end as a hard fought battle played out. Dunedin still sits a top of the standings as they are now tied with the Canterbury Red Devils.

Botany’s next home game is July 27th and 28th when the Red Devils come to town. Dunedin will square off with the Southern Stampede July 26th and 27th in Queenstown.

Dunedin Thunder vs Botany Swarm Weekend Preview

Dunedin_Thunder_logoThe Dunedin Thunder will be looking to keep the ball rolling and remain in top spot as they visit the Botany Paradice and take on the Swarm.

In their last weekend set before the bye week, the Thunder earned two wins against the Canterbury Red Devils and reclaimed their top spot. Both games were tight until the end while the Sunday match was a close one as the game headed to overtime. It only took 18 seconds before Mathew Enright scored on an assist from Matt Canaday. (Check out more of Dunedin’s import talent.)

Botany_Swarm_logoThe Botany Swarm are currently in a three way tie for second place. That will all change this weekend however depending on the outcome of the games. The Swarm split their last weekend set to the Southern Stampede. League points leader Brandon Contratto will be in the lineup looking to add to more to his impressive stats.

The Swarm are eager to knock off the first place Dunedin Thunder. Will Contratto and the gang be enough to do it? Find out this weekend at the Botany ParadIce.

The Teams Of The New Zealand Ice Hockey League

I’ve been very intrigued lately by the game of hockey being played in non traditional hockey markets. I’m sure you’ve noticed that by now. I love giving these teams and leagues more exposure on this side of the pond because lord knows their hard work deserves it. With that, let’s take a look at the 5 teams in the NZIHL.

Botany_Swarm_logo1. Botany Swarm – Auckland, New Zealand

The Botany Swarm were one of the first inaugaral teams in the NZIHL. First named the South Auckland Swarm, they made the switch to Botany to better reflect their origins. The Swarm are 4 time NZIHL champions and currently sit tied for second in this year’s standings.

ADMIRALS2. West Auckland Admirals – Auckland, New Zealand

Another team that was apart of the inguaral beginnings of the NZIHL, the West Auckland Admirals are also, you guessed it, based out of Auckland. The team has improved leaps and bounds over the years despite winning zero championships. They currently sit last place.

RED_DEVILS3. Canterbury Red Devils – Christchurch, New Zealand

The Red Devils are currently your NZIHL reigning champions hoping to make a repeat this year. Based out of Christchurch, they have 2 championships under their belt and are one of the stronger teams in the league. I’ve personally taking a liking to the Red Devils so be on the look out for game recaps. They currently sit tied for second.

Dunedin_Thunder_logo4. Dunedin Thunder – Dunedin, New Zealand

Found in 2008 the Dunedin Thunder are currently the first place holders in this year’s season. After struggling like most expansion teams do, the Thunder have bolted their way through the ranks and are stronger as ever. I have a feeling they will give the championship a good run this season. They currently are in the midst of a 4 game win streak.

STAMPEDE5. Southern Stampede – Queenstown, New Zealand

The Stampede are 2 time NZIHL champs and are a force to be reckoned with. A physical team, they bring a new style to the New Zealand game. Every year they also hold an exhibition game with the New Zeland Ice Blacks, the country’s national team. They currently sit tied for second.

The games in NZ get as tight as you can get making for great hockey. This league thoroughly excites me and I am glad to be vocal about the league in North America and my side of the globe.