The 14th year of the New Zealand elite national hockey league has just kicked off but it is already shaping up as the best season yet. Make no mistake, coaching and management staff from the five regional teams, have done all that is possible to ensure their team is ready and capable of getting their hands on the Birgel Cup this year.
The Red Devils are up for the challenge. Their proud history of reaching the finals eight times and winning the cup four times was sorely dented by their failure to qualify for the finals last year. The return of Anatoly Khorozov (Head Coach), Jake Lane (General Manager) and Graham Tappin (Team Manager) makes it absolutely clear that the club intends to return to its dominant position in the league.
Since taking over the reins late last year, they have been actively building a coherent team structure as well as retaining and recruiting the best possible pool of players. A powerful contingent of top-line international players has been added to the local line-up comprised of long-serving stalwarts and some exciting new blood.
The first of two new top line international forwards is Sergey Piskunov who is currently playing for the HS Riga in the Latvian top division. The second is British international Ross Venus who has played for 10 years in the British elite league and represented Team Great Britain from 2016. In addition, American Robbie Banks will return after a successful 2017 season with the Devils.
The team’s defensive squad is bolstered by the addition of two top players as well. Seva Tolstushko represented the Ukraine national team in 6 world championships and has played in both Ukraine and French professional leagues. Vlad Balakuns represented the gold-winning under 18 Latvian team in 2006 and has played in elite leagues in Finland, Belarus and Ukraine.
Our local player line-up is very excited about prospects for the season. Captain Chris Eaden, who has represented the Red Devils and the NZ Ice Blacks for most of the past decade and is one of the country’s most prolific goal scorers, says there is now a solid core of very experienced local players who will be joined by some exciting junior players this year. A new kiwi goalie, Jonas Barakauskas of Canadian Lithuanian descent, who formerly played for the Dunedin Thunder, has also joined the roster.
The players are equally enthusiastic about the Devils set up this year with the strong professional management and coaching group creating an environment where there is a free flow of advice, understanding and expectation, as well as a shared sense of purpose.
Your team, The Canterbury Devils, are ready! And you can see them in action for their first two home games against the Dunedin Thunder on the 2nd and 3rd of June.
Expect a rejuvenated extreme southern rivalry in these games. The Dunedin Thunder will remember only too well that in 2013 and 2014 they were in the finals for the Birgel Cup but it was the Devils who prevailed on both occasions. They are coming to Christchurch with intent.
Expect edge-of-your-seat excitement. Two hair-raising pre-season games at the Dunedin stadium on May 19th and 20th were knife-edge wins for the Devils. The Saturday game was 5 to 4, with the winning goal coming in overtime. The second 6 to 5, with the Thunder pulling their goalie and putting two in the net in the dying minutes of the game.
Story by Geoff Bland