Faster, fitter Ice Blacks aim high

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The Queenstown captain of the New Zealand ice hockey team is shooting for gold.

Bert Haines says the present Ice Blacks players, who left this week for the division two group B world championships in South Africa, are the best prepared and fittest he’s been involved with.

“We’re in a very strong position - our eyes are set on gold, no question.”

The 34-year-old self-styled “old man” of the team - “by light years” - has been an Ice Black since 2010 and captain since 2012.

Last year the team won bronze at the same world champs in Spain.

“A bronze was actually a good achievement for the team we went away with,” Haines says, “whereas this year it’s just a total different mindset with our preparation and what we’re aiming for.”

The team - also including Queenstowners Callum Burns, Mitchell Frear, newcomer Max Macharg and Connor Harrison - is usually selected in February but this time was chosen in November.

Haines says they’ve not only trained more but adopted a more aggressive strategy under new coach Janos Kaszala, a former Hungarian international who coaches the Dunedin Thunder.

“Our style is a lot faster now, and we are more dangerous as an attacking team than ever.

“Years previously, we’ve had to go away and be a very defensive team, and kind of weather the storm and then just try and attack when we can.

“We’ve changed that and we’re chasing guys down instead of trying to beat them off.”

As a result, Haines says these Ice Blacks are the most exciting team he’s been involved with.

His best result was a silver medal in Melbourne in 2011, but that was a very experienced side, Haines says.

“There’s maybe only five of us left in this squad of 22.”

Unfortunately, because it’s costing each player about $5000 to go to South Africa, Haines says several good players couldn’t afford to go.

He says ice hockey’s also a minority sport in the other countries at these champs – Israel, Mexico, Bulgaria, China and South Africa - but only the Ice Blacks have to fork out to play.

“Every other team laughs at us when we tell them that we’re paying to be there.

“What it does show, though, is our pride - our guys want to be there, so we build off that.”

Haines - a former Canadian who was granted NZ citizenship to play for the Ice Blacks because of his exceptional talent - says he’s keen to keep playing for several more years for both the national and local Southern Stampede teams.

“My fitness right now is better than when I was 20.”

A defenceman, he loves the sport for its speed and physicality, but has also endured his fair share of injuries.

“I’ve torn a couple of ligaments in the ankle, had a separated shoulder, broken fingers, broken nose, broken tooth, and as many stitches in my face as I can count.

“That’s why I wear a beard.”

The world champs run in Cape Town from April 13 till 19.

scoop@scene.co.nz