Reigning champions SkyCity Stampede make a delayed start to the 2018 season this weekend with a tough away trip.
The Queenstown-based ice hockey heroes face West Auckland Admirals – the same team they beat in last season’s finals to lift the Birgel Cup for a third successive time.
The NZ Ice Hockey League got underway last weekend, with Admirals winning away against Dunedin Thunder, 6-8, but then somewhat unex-pectedly losing the second game 4-3.
Stampede had beaten Thunder 7-5 and 8-2 in a pre-season game two weeks ago on Queenstown ice.
Botany Swarm made an impressive start in the five-team league, smashing former contenders Cant-erbury Red Devils 7-3 and 9-2 last weekend.
Stampede head coach Adam Blanchette thinks the league will be stronger overall this year.
“Both Auckland teams look strong and the Admirals are probably the ones we’ll have to beat. They’ve been in the finals, they’ll be hungry and they’ve got a good crop of guys.
“So we’re diving into it – it’s a big weekend. It’ll be a good measuring stick.”
Stampede travel to Auckland for games on Saturday and Sunday.
There’ll be some unfamiliar faces on the plane and several familiar ones missing.
Aston Brookes has headed across the ditch for a taste of Aussie life, while brothers Mitchell and Lachlan Frear are suspended for the season. Defenceman Hayden Argyle has retired.
But Stampede have brought in some top class replacements.
Ice Blacks goalie Daniel Lee steps into nets while 6’3 Canadian import Patrick Volpe – brother of former Stampede import keeper Adrian Volpe – comes into defence.
He’s joined by hard-hitting Canadian import defenceman Kory Helowka, who’s played in professionally in America and Europe. He had a feisty start to his Stampede career, sent off in the second pre-season ‘friendly’.
And Canadian Stephen Johnston also joins the squad. The import forward was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 and has been playing with Sydney Ice Dogs.
Both Volpe and John-ston won the Canadian Hockey League Memorial Cup as juniors.
“That’s a pretty big accomplishment,” Blanchette says.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job with recruitment. Obviously losing all those players, it’s a big hit, but we’re able to keep probably three-quarters of the squad together and keep going.
“We’ve got a great nucleus of guys here and that makes it easier to slot the new guys in.”
That nucleus includes Ice Blacks Matt Schneider, who captains Stampede, Callum Burns, Connor Harrison, Stefan Amston and Cameron Trew, along with stalwarts Bert Haines, Colin McIntosh, Mike McRae, assistant coach Ryan Strayer, Cameron Frear and Braden Lee.