By GUY WILLIAMS
After some time away, three SkyCity Stampede fan favourites are preparing for their Queenstown comebacks this weekend.
As we count down to Stampede’s first pair of regular season ice hockey games, at the Queenstown Ice Arena this Friday and Saturday, league MVP, Liam Stewart, former Ice Black captain Bert Haines, and resort born-and-bred goaltender Aston Brookes are returning to a potent line-up.
Brookes will once again be setting up shop in front of goal, bolstering already strong resources in that position in the form of Matt Swirtz and Joel Hasselman.
The 27-year-old Ice Black returned to the resort with his partner in December after three years on Australia’s Central Coast, between Sydney and Newcastle, where he played for the Sydney Bears for two seasons before having a handful of games for the Newcastle Northstars in last year’s severely Covid-disrupted season.
Asked about the return of Stewart — the 26-year-old Team GB athlete and son of singer Rod Stewart — Brookes says the team’s rapt to have him back.
He’s also excited to see Haines strap on his boots again after three years away from the game, saying the evergreen 40-year-old will help keep the team honest and ‘‘bring a lot of energy’’.
Haines says he’s never used the ‘r’ word, and always had a comeback ‘‘up his sleeve’’ while taking time away to start a family.
After three years of little more than the odd social game, he’s hitting the gym hard, working on his cardio and spending as much time as possible on the ice to ‘‘get the hands back and the skating back’’.
He points out long-time teammate Swirtz is 10 years his senior, so reckons he’s got a ‘‘long way to go’’ in the age stakes.
Stewart’s return is a ‘‘massive injection of skill and energy’’, Haines says.
Although they’ve yet to play together, he watched as a fan in 2019 and says his teammates ‘‘speak so highly’’ of him.
The Englishman’s a ‘‘fierce competitor’’ whose presence on the ice means defences won’t be able to focus on Matt Schneider and the team’s other key scorers.
‘‘He brings a whole other offensive threat to the team that balances out our line, and makes us quite a formidable attack.’’
Keeping it real
Keeping each other honest will be key to a strong SkyCity Stampede squad translating its ample talent into results, returnees Bert Haines and Aston Brookes say.
Brookes says the league’s other teams will be looking at the six-time champs as the ones to beat.
While conceding they should be hard to beat, that’ll only be the case if the team puts it together on the ice.
That’s one reason why he’s pleased to see Haines back, with the veteran’s renowned work ethic and ability to ‘‘help drive the team’’.
Haines agrees the team looks scary, but warns ‘‘nothing’s sorted out on paper’’.
‘‘I’ve been involved with teams with talent, but if you don’t work hard, the talent just doesn’t carry.
‘‘It’s going to be really important for us to stay humble, stay hungry, show up to every training ready to work, and then go to the game knowing the other team are coming to compete.’’
The support from Stampede’s fans is ‘‘unreal and fires us up’’, he says.
‘‘But it equally fires up our competition because they’re so excited to play in front of people who are that excited about ice hockey.’’