The excitement ramping up for the Vantage Black Sticks teams ahead of the kickoff to the inaugural FIH Pro League this weekend at North Harbour.
Both men’s and women’s national teams will be in action against the formidable Netherlands at North Harbour Hockey on Sunday, dipping their toes into the most exciting event for hockey in many years.
Both the sixth-ranked women and eighth-ranked men have six months of top international hockey ahead of them, featuring 16 matches in a double round robin for the nine nations in each competition spanning the globe.
The top four will make the finals in the Netherlands at the end of June.
Both Black Sticks teams kick off with games against the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and Germany, the first two at North Harbour, the second two at the new hockey facility in Christchurch, all forming eye-catching double header events.
Experienced midfielder Sam Charlton is relishing the prospect of what the Pro League could mean for the sport.
”It is really exciting for New Zealand in particular, because we get the European teams here which we haven’t had in the past,” she said.
”We had England and the Netherlands here for the world league in 2017 but it’s not often you get every team who are 1-2-3 in the world.
”So it’s really cool for the supporters, fans and up and coming little kids to see those teams in action against us. It’s one thing to watch us play on TV against these top teams, but to see it live I think will be hugely inspiring for those younger players.”
Charlton, who has played 226 internationals and forms the women’s leadership group with captain Stacey Michelsen, believes the Pro League has the potential to be the most exciting innovation for hockey in her time.
”The biggest challenge for the players is going to be those away games and having the ability to recover off the plane and be ready to perform at your best three or four days after arriving.
”They are one-off games so you can’t wait until games two or three to get into it.”
Black Sticks men’s coach Darren Smith is adamant the Pro League will be a game changer for the sport – ”a massive shift for hockey”.
”I can’t think of a competition change that is as radical as this one. It will be interesting to see how it goes in the next few years (the annual event is locked in for four years) and whether it can sustain and grow and have the impact we’d love it to have.
”But the Dutch (world No 3 in the men, No 1 among the women) here every year for the next four years. Brilliant.”
Each squad can consist of 32 players, although the two Black Sticks groups are at 25. Sixteen players can be selected for a game.
For the coaches one notable change will be the rhythm of the tournament.
Usually at major international events teams may have a game every second day. With the Pro League there might be a week between games, even two at times, but balanced by periods of a game every second or third day.
”There are a number of challenges for the coaches. It’s all the logistics, trying to make sure we’ve got it right,” Smith said.
Plenty for the coaches to get their heads around; plenty of opportunities for players to show, and test, their talents against the game’s finest players.