2 Apr 2024

Watch: Inside the Black Sticks men's Paris Olympics training camp

8:11 am on 2 April 2024

When you think of elite athletes, you might imagine flash cars, million-dollar endorsement contracts and sponsorships - but that's not always the case.

In fact, the Black Sticks national men's hockey team know a thing or two about work-life balance, with the sport being amateur here in New Zealand.

The side qualified for the Paris Olympics at a tournament in Oman in January. First Up went along to its first Olympic training camp.

Looking around, there are a lot of fresh faces, with all but four of the Black Sticks main squad over in Europe playing club hockey.

Head coach Greg Nicol says while it makes continuity difficult, it does have some positives.

"They get to play a high level of hockey every week and make some money. Then they come back into our environment and bring some of the stuff they've learned [over here].

"Sometimes we want them to be available for a bit more, but it's how the system runs now. So I'm really pleased that these guys get a chance to make a living playing hockey."

Nicol says in any given year, between 10 and 15 Black Sticks players head overseas to play professionally.

It means this training camp is full of fringe and development players.

"It provides us with an opportunity to have a look at the next tier of athletes.

"There's some guys here coming to their first Black Sticks camp, and then there's a few who've maybe had a few chances before.

"It's a chance for us to see where they're at and where they're going to challenge for positions moving forward."

Black Sticks striker Jacob Smith debuted back in 2012, and was a senior member of the team that got through Olympic qualifying.

He says the celebrations in Oman were short-lived.

"I went straight back to work - I'm full-time lawyer by trade.

"So yeah, we sort of go back to reality. We gym in the morning and we train at night or vice versa.

"Saturdays and Sundays are normally training as well, and we squeeze in one day off a week.

"It's a tough gig juggling both, and one of the cool things is when we travel, you get to focus on one thing and it makes it a bit easier."

In the past, Smith has lived abroad playing in Belgium for Royal Herakles and for Pinoké in the Netherlands.

He says time spent over in Europe is more about the hockey than the pay.

"We're not saving for our retirement with that career choice, but it is an epic lifestyle.

"You go into a professional environment where you are paid to train and play. So that's your sole focus, and you're living in a foreign country and you're often with some of your mates, so it's a pretty cool experience overseas."

The core Black Sticks squad receive a small retainer, and costs are covered and day rates apply when players are in camp or on tour.

Smith says balancing full-time work with international hockey isn't straight forward.

"We don't have a lot of downtime. You do have to be very particular with that and you make other sacrifices in your social life and other aspects like that.

"But we do find balance. You often have lots of close friends who do the same thing, so we're all going through those experiences and sharing them together.

"But yeah, the the answer is, when you're on, you're on and when you're off, you've really gotta switch off and and make the most of it."

Goalkeeper Leon Hayward is not shy in saying he would love to make more money playing hockey.

"I don't get paid like Beauden Barrett, which is unfortunate! If anyone does want to pay me, I'm here. I can [take] cash and cheques, if you like.

"It is really difficult being in a sport like hockey where there's so much time given to it and there's not that much money."

Up until a couple of years ago when there was more funding, the Black Sticks ran a centralised training programme, with New Zealand-based players training in Auckland.

Now, the squad members train in their respective regions, and come together for camps like these.

Hayward, originally from Darwin, is now based in Perth with his girlfriend's family.

"It is a bit of a strange concept ... to be decentralised like this, but I think it's actually a pretty good move from Hockey New Zealand to allow people to go do that.

"There's guys over in Europe making some pretty good money and playing some very good hockey, so that's a hard thing to say no to.

"Honestly, [training] for me looks like a lot of lonely runs at the moment and getting back into things in Perth with the hockey scene."

Hayward played for Australia at the beginning of his career, but got a second chance at international hockey when the selectors realised he also had a New Zealand passport.

His younger brother Jeremy plays for Australia, which makes for an interesting family dynamic when they go head to head.

"It's cool to play against him - a really weird and happy sort of time. But my parents wear black shirts when we play against Aussie, that's for sure."

The veteran goalkeeper isn't getting ahead of himself though, and knows selection for Paris is still very much up in the air.

"There's a lot of really good goalkeepers, so it's not as if I'm in the team just now.

"I'm hoping it will go that way, and I'm sure my mum and dad will be there and they'll be super stoked to see me and Jeremy playing against each other."

The Black Sticks head to the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia next month.

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