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Battle scars won’t stop driven Black Sticks captain

Two games into hockey’s new global revolution, and Black Sticks captain Stacey Michelsen has the wounds to prove that this is war.

She has a shattered finger on her right hand; a raw throat. And that air of frustration you get when your team has yet to post a point on the board.

She walks off the field at North Harbour’s hockey stadium on Friday night the worse for wear after a 1-0 loss to Belgium – their second defeat in a week since the new world Pro League began.

Her voice is croaky – the result of an unknown virus that spread through the Black Sticks camp a few days before.

Her purplish finger is tender. She broke it in the opening game against world No. 1 the Netherlands – a game they also lost 1-0. As New Zealand’s first runner out defending penalty corners, a thundering drag flick slammed straight into Michelsen's gloved hand.

The top phalanx of her ring finger has multiple fractures. But Michelsen, one of the most feared players in world hockey, says she’s okay playing with just a small black cap over it for protection.

“It happened in the first quarter of the first game, and I’m like: ‘Are you kidding me?’” she says. “I felt sick when I hit the ball, but thankfully I don’t hit it that often." (She's an expert at the push pass).

“It’s not a good start. But it’s all up from here, surely?”

It has to be. The Black Sticks face another 14 tests against the world’s top sides over the next six months, in which they'll be determined to make their mark on the inaugural Pro League.

This latest loss is an especially bitter one: the Black Sticks, sixth in the world, going down to Belgium’s Red Panthers, ranked No. 13, for the first time in their history.

The deciding goal came with just barely a minute left in the game, Panthers’ captain Jill Boon smartly volleying a slam from outside the circle into the roof of the net behind Black Sticks keeper Grace O’Hanlon - who’d only just heroically saved a penalty stroke shot from Boon.

It must leave the Black Sticks wondering what they have to do to score a point – or even score a goal – in the home-and-away world league.

It’s been a rough start to a new era. The Black Sticks already suffered a loss before they took the field, with the departure of their coach of a decade, Mark Hager, only a fortnight ago.

The former Australian international has switched allegiances to now lead the Great Britain women. It came in the wake of review into the Black Sticks environment; the public release of the review’s findings are now well overdue.

But the show must go on and, later this week, Michelsen’s troops will come up against the British – and Hager - in Christchurch.

“We’ve certainly joked about hearing Mark’s voice and reacting to it,” Michelsen says of her team.

“But we’re treating it no differently to any other game. We respect Great Britain regardless of who’s coaching them.”

Michelsen is proud of the way her players have responded to a late coaching substitute, with Hager’s assistant, Sean Dancer (also an Aussie), stepping into the breach.

“I’ve been really impressed with the girls and how well we’ve focused with all that’s been going on,” she says. “We’ve come to the games with the attitude that we want to be here to win. But obviously there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Especially in the area of scoring. Since their unforgettable triumph at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games last year, they’ve struggled to successfully finish off their attacking ploys.

It’s hard to know what’s going wrong, their captain says. “We’ve always been a team who create a lot [of chances]. We love to play fast attacking hockey, and we do that really well. But we’re very much aware we have a lot to do in our attacking circle.”

Dancer has called on the experience of retired Black Sticks striker Katie Glynn – one of New Zealand’s most prolific scorers, with 77 goals in 134 tests. She’s been advising the team every day for the past fortnight. “I definitely think her influence will change us up front,” says Michelsen.

Former captain Suzie Muirhead has also been brought into the camp to add her defensive nous.

Michelsen (left) debriefs with Black Sticks team-mates Sam Charlton and Rose Keddell after their loss to the Red Panthers. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

The importance of accumulating points early, while they’re playing in their home environment, hasn’t escaped the Black Sticks. They have another five consecutive tests at home, before two testing tours of duty - from Australia to China then Argentina; and then the United States and through Europe.

"We need to ensure we don’t get ourselves in a hole. We want to make the league finals in June. But as long as we keep building, I’m sure we’ll be okay," Michelsen says. 

With so many games in New Zealand – and double-headers with the men’s Black Sticks too – this is an opportunity for hockey to boom here.

“It’s the game-changer we need as a sport,” Hockey NZ CEO Ian Francis says, as he watches the first game of the night. “We’ve previously played in tournaments overseas, most not in favourable time zones. And now so many games are being played here, and on free-to-air TV.”

The crowd for the Belgian double-header is what you’d expect for a Friday evening in Auckland, on the first week back at school. Two-thirds of the bleachers are full once punters have conquered rush-hour traffic.

Hockey's version of the Beige Brigade has come to life up on the grass bank: the ‘BS Brigade’ – old club hockey players decked out in black and white stripes – sing and chant through a megaphone. They become even more raucous as the Black Sticks men draw 4-4 with the world champion Belgians, only to lose the shoot-out.

“How can you not get into the movement?” two-time hockey Olympian Chris Arthur asks. Now deputy principal at Diocesan School for Girls, Arthur naturally wishes there had been an worldwide league like this in her day.  

“It’s an amazing opportunity for the athletes, and for everyone to see world-class hockey at home. It’s so inspirational,” she says.

“It’s the start of something really special, and it means [the Black Sticks] can stay connected to the rest of the world. Instead of always playing catch-up, we’re learning at the same time. The whole standard of hockey across the world will lift.”

There are other changes afoot for the sport. Just outside the North Harbour ground, huge concrete pipes sit in wait. This is the last hurrah for the stadium in the industrial suburb of Rosedale – to be demolished at the end of the year to make way for a motorway connection. Already under construction a kilometre away is the National Hockey Centre, which will have four water turfs and finally a permanent home for the Black Sticks.

Michelsen, who’s played 263 games for New Zealand, knows it’s a monumental time to be involved in the game, with the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon as well.

But, remarkably, she’s chosen this year to start a new career, on top of her Black Sticks commitments.

Having finally finished her law degree at the end of last year, Michelsen begins her first job, with law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts at the end of this month.

“Obviously it will be a real challenge, but I’m just so excited to join the working world after taking such a very long time to get my degree,” she laughs.

She can see an beneficial crossover between her roles as captain and a law clerk in the dispute resolution team. “There are definitely a lot of people management skills which will be useful in both,” she says.

“Yeah, it’s tough timing. But it’s just the way it’s panned out. It’s great to be doing something different, to have something outside of hockey too.”

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