25 Jan 2019

Hockey: Hager missed but Black Sticks moving on

8:31 am on 25 January 2019

Another experienced Black Sticks player has expressed her disappointment at the departure of the longtime coach of the New Zealand women's hockey team.

Black Sticks defender Ella Gunson in possession against Australia.

Black Sticks defender Ella Gunson in possession against Australia. Photo: Photosport

After a decade with the Black Sticks, Mark Hager resigned earlier this month to take charge of the Great Britain women's side.

The former Australian international's decision came as the public release of the findings into a review of the team environment he fostered continued to drag on.

The review came after feedback from past and present players about Hager and allegations of a negative culture within the Black Sticks.

However several senior players, including captain Stacey Michelsen, have expressed their sadness at losing a coach who took the team from 10th in the world rankings to third and led them to gold at last year's Commonwealth Games.

Reflecting the sentiment expressed by Michelsen and others, defender Ella Gunson said while assistant coach Sean Dancer was doing a great job standing in, it was sad not having Hager at the helm.

"He's the only coach I've ever had for the Black Sticks, so of course I'm going to miss him," the 196-test defender said on Wednesday.

"It will be weird for the first little while not having him around.

"But Sean has done a fantastic job so far. He's really stepped up, everyone feels really comfortable and we are all really excited."

The timing of the situation with Hager has not been ideal for Hockey New Zealand, who received the final report of the review two weeks ago but are yet to publically release any information as the board "works through the review's recommendations" and develops "key actions".

Both national teams host powerhouse nation The Netherlands in Auckland on Sunday in their first matches of the Pro League, the much-anticipated new annual competition for the international game.

Rather than being on the team's prospects, much of the focus surrounding the women's team remains on Hager's exit.

Despite the situation, Gunson said the players were feeling in a good space ahead for their first game in the post-Hager era.

Black Sticks coach Mark Hager.

Former Black Sticks coach Mark Hager. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The squad spoke as a group about the situation the day the decision was confirmed, while they also met with Hager a couple of days later to say farewell and pass on their well wishes.

The apparently split nature of the group, with some players clearly raising concerns but others speaking out in support of their now former mentor, was not impacting the New Zealand squad, Gunson said.

"We don't know who's contributed to the review, we know nothing even about the review.

"We've just let that be and we've just left the review and all of the factors to do with it with the Hockey New Zealand board.

"They're dealing with it now ... as a squad no-one knows, it's an independent thing so no-one knows who has spoken to who, so there's not a lot of point getting caught up in it."

But avoiding the situation will be difficult in a couple of weeks time when the Black Sticks come up against Hager and Great Britain in a Pro League clash.

Gunson admitted it would be strange facing their now former mentor in the match being played in Christchurch on February 8.

"We'll still be quite in tune with his voice and hearing him out on the turf, but he won't be yelling [at] or supporting us, it will be for someone else.

"It might take a little bit of getting our heads around that, but we're also really up for the challenge.

"It's going to be interesting because he knows us so well and we know how he coaches, too."

This Sunday, though, remains the immediate focus for the New Zealand side.

Gunson said they knew facing a formidable Dutch outfit, who are eight-time world champions and three-time Olympic gold medallists, in their Pro League opener would be a stiff test.

"It's a pretty tough ask for the first game back after a bit of a summer break, and even a couple months off before [that break].

"But we're 100 per cent up for the challenge and those are the games you really love to play.

"You love to play against the No 1 in the world."