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Long time between drinks: Queenstown's SkyCity Stampede last lifted the Birgel Cup in 2019

By LUCY WORMALD

Queenstown’s SkyCity Stampede are hoping for a packed rink and loud fans when they hit the ice for their first set of games this weekend.

Top of the table and unbeaten in all regular season games, Stampede were denied the opportunity to take home the Birgel Cup last season after the New Zealand Ice Hockey
League (NZIHL) cancelled playoffs due to Covid disruptions.

Coach Cam Frear says making a play for the cup has been a long time coming — Stampede won in 2019 but haven’t played a full season since due to the pandemic.

‘‘It’ll have almost been three years by the time we get to actually defend our title, so we’re really excited to get the season started and be successful as well.’’

He says training is well under way and the team is looking competitive for their first clash against Dunedin Thunder on Friday.

‘‘I think we’re always going to be strong in net, our goal tenders — we’ve got Aston Brooks and Joel Hasselman, that’ll kind of be a tandem for the year.’’

Defensively, Stampede are looking menacing as well with a backline of Ice Blacks in Stefan Amston, Callum Burns and Mitchell Frear.

While the team said farewell to their force-of-nature captain and leading goal-scorer Matt Schneider earlier this year, Frear is excited to see how his absence will shake up the team’s play.

‘‘I think it gives other guys an opportunity to step up … a lot of the younger players have that opportunity to put their name out there as well.’’

And while NZIHL this year ruled teams cannot contract import players for the upcoming season due to Covid restrictions, Stampede are still suiting up a slew of fresh meat.

Canadians Dan Van Sickle and Ryan Martin, and American Tom Coyle, who have been living in Queenstown for several years, join the line-up, while junior player Axel Ruski-Jones, who’s been playing ice hockey in Canada at the Ontario Hockey Academy since last September, will don the yellow and blue.

Frear’s expecting the first game to be huge.

‘‘Being on Matariki, the first time it’s a public holiday, and we get to play at home to start the season — it’ll be great to have fans in there.’’

Puck drop on Friday and Saturday is 6.45pm.

lucy.wormald@scene.co.nz