The 2018 Ford National Hockey League starts on Sunday with all teams playing a game one week out from when they will converge on Wellington for the remainder of the tournament.
Capital’s men – the Ricoh Cobras, play traditional rivals Central Mavericks at the National Hockey Stadium starting at 2:00 pm. They will be looking to make a better start than they did two years ago when they went down 3-1 to the Canterbury Cavaliers in the corresponding game.
Capital finished third in last year’s NHL, also played at Wellington, when a different format meant there were no early games. With Northland not entering the men’s competition in 2018, each of the seven teams will play each other with semi-finals to follow and the final scheduled for 4:00 pm on Sunday 23 September.
Coached for the fourth year by Black Sticks assistant coach Hemant Lala, the Cobras are a well-balanced blend of experience and youth ranging from 19-year-old defender Lochie Paton to wily veteran Kyle Pontifex who will be buckling on the kickers again to solidify the defence. Kyle earned 176 caps for New Zealand in a career that began in 2001, attending three Olympic Games and winning a Commonwealth Games bronze medal at New Delhi in 2010.
Former Scot’s College captain Lochie, was the College Sport Wellington boys’ hockey player of the year in 2016, when he made the Junior Black Sticks, and is a skillful and resourceful player.
Although star striker Stephen Jenness is overseas, Capital have 167-cap Black Stick Blair Hilton in the mid-field and will be captained by current Black Sticks defender Dane Lett, who made his full representative debut in 2008. He has now played 31 times for New Zealand, including being a part of the silver-medal winning team at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast earlier this year.
Missing from last year’s team for various reasons are North Harbour goal-keeper Mick Lammers, Australian age-group rep Oscar Wookey, Englishmen Luke Ramli and Peter Millar, Conor Gilchrist, Trent Lett, Alex Shaw and Sam Miskimmin.
Into the side along with Lochie Paton come former Australian schoolboys’ captain Doug Buckley, Rotterdam HC’s Sijbrand Bolhuis and Hutt United goal-keeper Fletcher Phillips. Kyle Pontifex, fledgling Black Stick striker Daniel Harris, Hutt United’s Ollie MacIntyre and Harbour City’s Gabe Kepes all return after not playing in last year’s tournament.
The Capital women’s team, known as the Ricoh Cyclones, also begin their 2018 NHL campaign on Sunday afternoon with a game against a youthful Central Mystics team in Hawkes Bay. The eight teams in the women’s competition will play each other once, with the top two meeting in the final at 1:45 pm on Sunday 23 September.
Once again under coach Hugh Rosemergy the Cyclones will again be led by classy midfielder Ani Roberts, with Black Sticks striker Kelsey Smith, New Zealand development players Felicity Reidy and Wellington Premier 1’s leading goal-scorer Charlotte Eastman forming a potent trio up front.
The team is a young one with two players still at school - Sara Cooper from Wellington Girls’ College and St Matthews Collegiate goal-keeper Natalie Austin. As well, Esther Chan, Ruby Logan, Estelle Macadre and Kiri Wairau-Hunter were all named in the New Zealand Under-21 development squad earlier this year.
Resolute Victoria goal-keeper Rachel Lilley has recently returned from representing New Zealand at the Masters World Cup in Spain. New Zealand Development player Megan Hull returns following years with Midlands and will add experience and skill to the midfield, the midfield will also be bolstered by the addition of Maddi McLean who has NHL experience with Southern.
Along with Maddi and Megan, ten of the team played at last year’s NHL, where the Cyclones finished seventh and hopes are high for a better finish this time in the eight team competition.