On the weekend the CBR Brave played the Newcastle Northstars at the Brave Cave in late July, I sat down with one-half of our Game Day Stream Commentary team, 'Sledge', to talk about the 2022 AIHL Season..
Scott: Welcome Sledge! Thanks for sitting down with me.
At the start of the season, who was your tip for the Goodall Cup?
Sledge: Taking a guess, after lockdown and the impact everything has had on teams it would have been very hard to pick anyone to take the Goodall Cup. Going off Player bases, I think the Newcastle Northstars would have been my pick – because they have such a solid Hockey Academy and a huge player base to pull from.
The Brave are always hard to look past. They are always strong; they always do what is needed to be done– but I think I would have gone with the Northstars to take this one.
Scott: So – how about the Season so far? What do you think?
Sledge: I’m pretty impressed. Teams have worked to overcome their weaknesses – and COVID hasn’t seemed to have stopped them.
I’m also impressed with the Player bases every team has got, whether they’re strong or they’re not. They seem to be finding all of this local talent that is helping them in every aspect of the game – and the fact that it’s coming down to the wire for the top teams is the most impressive part of the season so far.
Scott: So, obviously, the restriction of two Imports per team appears to have had an unintentionally good impact in that Teams have had to unearth local talent to fill their Rosters?
Sledge: Yeah – getting eyes on those kids who might one day have a chance to play for the Australian Ice Hockey team is fantastic. It’s good to see that focus on youth in the Australian Ice Hockey League.
Scott: Anything, in particular, surprised you so far?
Sledge: Probably how well the teams are doing later in the Season.
As I said, I thought COVID would be rocking a lot of teams. I thought injuries would be a big factor. I thought the Travel would be hard – but it seems that every team is gunning it out of the gates and coming through strong.
And the fact that we’re seeing guys like Wehebe Darge and Casey Kubara fighting for the top (scoring) spot (in the League) and now we’re seeing Charlie Smart and James Downie fighting for the top Goalie spot. It’s interesting to see those inter-team battles, along with the team-on-team battles.
Scott: Ignoring the Brave for the moment – because we’ll deal with them in a second – how have you seen the progress of the other five teams in the League?
Obviously, we have a couple of teams that are battling for the top spot – the Northstars and the Bears – and then the Mustangs, and the Ice Dogs and the Ice.
Sledge: I know you asked me to ignore them, but the Brave have had to overcome some adversity. They have shown that they can dig deep and be strong.
The Newcastle Northstars just seem to go from strength to strength. I can’t really see a flaw in their game, they just seem to be doing so well at the moment.
I was excited for the Sydney Bears when they beat the Brave. They showed that they have the depth to do some big things and some heavy hitters. The acquisition of (Tomas) Landa was huge for them – and hopefully they can come back strong for Finals after a few weak showings in the past few weeks.
The Melbourne Mustangs looked very strong at the start of the season. They have got, I would say, the two best imports in the League in Wishart and Timmins – they are very, very good. I think they have 50 NHL games between them. That team is strong and has a chance to do something in the Finals – and hopefully they do.
As for the Sydney Ice Dogs, I did expect them to do a little bit more. They do seem to be teetering on the edge, but with the Player pool they have they should have the tools to do something big and just haven’t been able to pull it off quite yet. Maybe that’s some teething issues with the new Coach – I’m not sure.
And the Melbourne Ice, they’re doing what they can. They have lost a lot of Veteran presence in that Team. They were *THE* dominant team for many years and now they seem to be rebuilding with youth – trying to push those young Hockey stars as far as they can, and I think they’re doing well with that.
Scott: Certainly, they made the choice very early to go with youth and to maybe not go out and look for the stars. That bodes well for the future with them – having all of these players getting this experience so young.
Absolutely! A house starts with a foundation. If you get that foundation down early, they’ll be strong for many years.
Scott: Well – we’ve talked about the other teams now, how about the Brave? How have you seen their performances so far? Any Upsides? Any downsides?
Sledge: So far – I think it’s mostly Upsides for the Brave. I haven’t seen many weaknesses. There were a couple of games that were a struggle – with COVID and other things keeping players out of the Game Day Roster, but the strong are staying strong and they’re battling each other for points.
We have some youth bled into the team who are showing real promise. Jackson Gallagher has been strong the whole time he’s been in. You see guys like Charlie York come through. We did just lose Nick Doornbos – he’s gone overseas for a little bit (for the Under 20s World Championships) – but he’s another strong Hockey talent coming through.
And I think you’re seeing our Goalies Alex Tetreault and Aleksi Toivonen really stepping up to solidify their place within the team.
Scott: They’re definitely a great tandem. And you’ve got the example Smart and Downie, two Goalies that are tangling for best record in the League – a little bit of healthy competition has got to be good for a team.
Sledge: Yeah, for sure.
Scott: So – how do you think the Brave are placed? Is there anything they need to change for the last few games?
Sledge: I think it has already been addressed from what I’ve seen.
Defence was probably where we were struggling a bit, but you can’t really put that down to too much. We had a few players away over the Season – Matt Price and Alastair Punler have been overseas, we’ve had illnesses, Bayley Kubara has been injured (twice now). We’ve had a few key losses on the Blue Line and they seem to have been addressed now.
We’ve had some guys really step up. Mike Giorgi has really pushed himself this season – he’s having a career year this Season. Jordon Brunt has put up 4 goals from the blue line as well. And now, of course, we’ve helped them out by adding Garret Cockerill to the line-up, who has been nothing but solid.
Scott: He had a three-point game last Sunday.
Sledge: That’s right – carrying and moving the puck, and jumping into the forecheck. He was doing absolutely everything he could to make sure that his name would appear on the Stat Sheet by the end of the game, and still getting back to help the Goalies whenever the puck came back to our end.
Scott: I guess the other thing to add into the mix here is the two expansion teams – the Central Coast Rhinos and the Brisbane Lightning. Have you had a chance to watch any of their games, and what do you think of what you’ve seen?
Sledge: I haven't had a chance to really watch too much of the games.
I will say the Rhinos haven't put too much out that I've seen. They just seem to be doing what they have to do in the background. Hopefully they come out strong next season and show why Central Coast deserves a team. They absolutely do - Erina is a fantastic rink and they have a huge player base and they should be able to do some really great things.
I've seen nothing but good things out of Brisbane (on the ice). They seem to be bringing the fight to every team they play. They're putting up some huge scores. They have a very solid team - if you look through that Roster you’ll recognise names from over the years of the Australian Ice Hockey League. They seem to be doing everything right at the moment.
Scott: Alright - now onto predictions. This is always the bit that freaks people out! Do you see the Ladder as it stands being the way things finish up for the season?
Sledge: I believe this will be the way things finish. I know we've got another month of Hockey to get through..
Scott: ..the Brave aren’t playing very much.
Sledge: You're right - I think this weekend will be very telling, with Newcastle in Canberra going up against each other for the last time this season (before Finals, that is!) so will get to see what kind of depth Newcastle really does have and how far they can push.
They’re two games behind Canberra now, so there is a chance that flips. Even if that does happen it is still gonna be very tight coming into the Finals.
Scott: Last question then. Are you prepared to make a Goodall Cup prediction and why is it the CBR Brave?
Sledge: (Sledge chuckles) Look, it's been a while between drinks so it's gonna be good to see the Brave get up again. Down in Melbourne – fantastic atmosphere, fantastic Rink – it’s gonna be great to see the team lift the Cup again.
Scott: We shouldn’t jinx them too much. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves – because we KNOW how this works.
Sledge: Yeah – very much “Touch Wood”.
Scott: Can anyone say ‘2019’?
Scott: Anything else you want to add?
Sledge: Yeah – let’s take it to Newcastle. I’m so excited for this game, this double-header.
Also a big thank you to everyone who has put this season together – thank you so much for getting Hockey back on the map!