“Ice hockey is not a game, it’s a lifestyle.”
Those are the words of current Ice Blacks coach Anatoly Khorozov – a name familiar to many within New Zealand ice hockey.
He’s dedicated his life to the sport he loves, often moving himself and his family from country to country in order to continue pursuing his passion.
That’s given him a wealth of hockey experience, and an infectious attitude that will hopefully take NZ hockey to the next level.
And like many, it all started at a young age.
Born in the Ukraine, back when it was still a part of the Soviet Union, Anatoly described his first experience of ice hockey – put in skates before he was even at school.
“I started playing when I was five or six,” he said.
“I played with a lot of great players and a lot of superstars. In my junior team, we had two guys who would go on to be NHLers. That’s where the journey started for me.”
He went through the ranks of playing junior hockey, before linking up with academies and pro-programmes. However, a move away was always inevitable.
The Soviet Union began to collapse in the 1990s, and Anatoly made the decision to leave his home and head to the UK.
“The UK wasn’t the best hockey country at the time,” he said.
“But honestly I didn’t have many options and I just wanted to go somewhere, so that was a start.”
Evidently, it would turn out to be a good start, as it was in the UK where Anatoly was introduced to coaching.
“I came there as a player and one day, all of a sudden, they asked me to coach.
“I had just coached kids before that, so when they asked me to take a team, I said ‘yes of course!’”
That was 1995, in what was formerly called the British National League. Anatoly helped coach a Scottish side – the Dumfries Vikings.
At the time, it was a fully professional league.
Eventually, he would return home to the Ukraine with his wife and coach a local side there until they had their first child.
That proved impetus enough to get back on the road.
“We had our first daughter and my wife and I said ‘well, we need to go somewhere’ because life wasn’t perfect at that time” he said.
“That’s how I landed in New Zealand.”
He had been in constant communication with Graeme Glass, then president of New Zealand ice hockey, and when the time for the move came in 2002, it all worked out perfectly.
The NZIHF was running a holiday programme and they needed a coach. Anatoly got the call up, and his coaching career in NZ began.
You could say the rest is history. He would help coach the West Auckland Admirals and the New Zealand U18s, before moving to the Canterbury Red Devils where he spent most of his time – winning three NZIHL titles.
That even included some time on the ice himself!
After spending two years in Kazakhstan, while his family stayed in New Zealand – which he admits ‘wasn’t easy and wasn’t cheap’ – he came back to the Red Devils.
“The coach at the time said ‘do you want to play?’ I said, ‘look I haven’t played since ’95!’ and he said ‘you’ll be fine’.”
“So I said OK and played a couple of seasons for the Red Devils! I was 40 at the time, so didn’t do too well.”
It almost seemed like a given then, giving his experience around the world, his success in the NZIHL, and his love for the game, that he would become the Ice Blacks coach.
That happened in 2017, and he’s already taking the team forward – gaining a famous series-win over Australia in Queenstown last month.
“That was great,” he said.
“To think last year we were very, very close, and to be honest the Aussies were a bit lucky. So we’ve actually been getting better and better against them and playing at home fresh off the NZIHL season made a massive difference.”
And Anatoly’s goal is to continue to improve the Ice Blacks as much as he can. While he thinks that’s limited because of the nature of ice hockey in New Zealand, there are still improvements to be made.
“We should be a division up from where we are now – if we get all the best players,” he said.
“Same division as Australia, and we should be an above average team in that level.
“My goal is to get to the division first, and then return to that division for the next season. But I don’t think we will go any higher than that in the near future.”
That’ll mean having access to the best players possible in New Zealand – something made extremely difficult simply because the game is not professional in NZ.
Most of the players are either students, have fulltime employment, or have families and cannot go away – meaning many have to make themselves unavailable.
Couple that with the fact they quite often have to pay to represent the country, something that didn’t surprise Anatoly until he knew just how much.
“That’s what really amazed me when I came here, how much guys spend to play,” he said.
“There is many differences between hockey overseas, and hockey in New Zealand, and in a way it’s very hard to compare. Over there, it’s a job. For kids, it’s a legitimate career pathway whereas over here it’s social, they just play because they love the game and they pay to play.
“Honestly, some of them would be playing big over in North America or Europe, they were just born in the wrong country. Over there it’s a business, it’s big money, whereas here it’s all just fun.”
With that in mind, it is no wonder more and more young Kiwi players are spending their off-season in North America and Canada. But does Anatoly legitimately think an NZ player could crack the NHL in the future?
“You want the truth? No.”
“Unless someone like Nathan Walker goes away somewhere and grows up in a system overseas, there’s no way someone will make it from here to that level.
“We did have players playing overseas, but they were playing second and third tier leagues in Europe, which is a much higher level than the NZIHL to be honest.
“But realistically, at this point in time, I don’t see any player playing NHL unless they go and leave and spend time playing hockey overseas at a very early age.”
So for now, we’ll just have to continue to grow our own talent back here and invest in our coaches – the more the merrier.
And as a small fish in a very, very large (frozen) pond, we don’t do too badly.
“For where we are in the world, we play very well overall,” Anatoly said.
“Kiwis have a pretty good set of skills and talent which is pretty amazing when you think about it.”
Written By Sam Hewat.