Victory Song – Matt Sandford, Womens U18 Head Coach

Victory Song – Matt Sandford, Womens U18 Head Coach

Success isn’t a smooth road; it’s filled with ups and downs, someone who has experienced this on the world stage recently is Matt Sandford, the Head Coach of the New Zealand U18 Women’s Ice Hockey Team. Matt walks us through the incredible journey that led to a gold medal victory at the start of 2024.

Looking back on the past year, Sandford shares, “This past year has been a rollercoaster of challenges and rewards. Starting 2024 with a gold medal win made it all worthwhile. Seeing the team grow through training camp, and playing our victory song for the last time, is my most cherished hockey moment.”

Talking about the tournament mindset, Sandford says, “Honestly, we talked about winning gold, but did I 100% believe it? No. However, we went into every game with the intention to win, knowing that if it happened, we’d need some luck, which thankfully came our way.”

One of the crucial moments was the decision to pull the goalie in the final game against Bulgaria. Sandford recalls, “The biggest decision I had to make was pulling the goalie. We needed a win in regulation to secure gold, otherwise, it would be bronze. With the score tied 3-3 in the final minutes, we made the call, and it paid off.”

Highlighting standout performances, Sandford praises, “Another key moment was Zadia Paulse’s shutout against Iceland and her bounce-back win against a physical Bulgaria with a passionate home crowd, following a tough match against Belgium.”

Nerhys Gordon emerges as the team’s overall MVP. Sandford commends her, saying, “We had several players deserving of team MVP accolades throughout the tournament, but Nerhys Gordon finished as the top point scorer and displayed remarkable commitment, creating offense for her teammates through effective forechecking and understanding her various roles within the team’s playbook. For this, she was awarded our overall team MVP.”

Expressing gratitude, Sandford acknowledges, “I want to express immense gratitude to my assistant coaches, other team staff, the NZIHF for their belief in us, traveling parents, our fans at home, and the Ice Fernz for their inspirational video. We couldn’t have done it without you.”

Reflecting on the gold medal win in his first year as head coach, Sandford says, “It felt surreal at the time. Stress levels were high going into the Belgium game, understandably so, as we were in an unusual position at the top of the table.” Addressing the challenges faced during the tournament, Sandford notes, “We faced various challenges, including playing five games in six days due to our first scheduled game against South Africa being cancelled (their team and gear arrived late). We experienced a similar situation last year, which allowed me to draw on that experience and make adjustments. However, this impacted players’ playing time, especially rookie goalie Lucy Thomas from Wellington. Despite the disruption to our goalie rotation, Lucy displayed great sportsmanship, supporting and encouraging Zadia Paulse admirably.”

With being labelled early on with an underdog status, Sandford shares, “I felt like we were the underdogs in the early games against Mexico and Iceland, but we managed to win our first three games thanks to some amazing goaltending, lucky bounces, and timely goals.” The toughest test for the team, according to Sandford, was against Belgium. Despite facing challenges, he emphasizes the team’s resilience, saying, “The belief in one another was still there after a debrief in the changing room after the game. The next day, we were all fired up, and I knew we were in a good place by the mood on the bus to the rink. It was a complete opposite from the day before.”

Acknowledging the young talent and rookies in the squad, Sandford comments, “We had a lot of rookies and many first-time goal scorers. Izzy Power was a definite standout for me. She was a reserve called in and finished the last game in our top four defence. The reason why Izzy stood out and improved is because she listened to all her coaches and executed the skills and strategies she was asked to undertake. She was a great defensive partner for Eden Greaves, who was our team MVP in our last game against Bulgaria, getting two goals. Some other standouts for me would be Camryn Linton and Jess Ryall, also known as “truck and trailer.” Both these players are tireless workers and play the game well in all three zones. They were rewarded for their team-first mentality with their first international goals. “

Looking ahead, Sandford outlines future goals, stating, “If I’m selected to coach this team again in 2025, the first goal for the team will be to stay in Division 2A after gaining promotion this year. To do that, we will likely need to win two games. And for me personally, I will be trying to lead the Canterbury Inferno into a better standing in the women’s league this season. 

Last season was the most difficult season for me as a coach as we didn’t win a game, so to pick the team up mentally and put the players in a position to succeed was very hard and draining. But it was definitely still rewarding as the team never gave up and kept fighting. This was evident as we nearly pulled off an upset in the Bronze medal game against the Dunedin Thunder. I will also be aiming to attend all the NZIHF camps again this year as it’s a great place for me to improve as a coach and see all the up-and-coming local talent.”

Matt Sandford’s unfiltered reflections provide an intimate look into the highs and lows of the NZ U18 Women’s Ice Hockey Team’s journey to gold. Matt’s genuine appreciation for his team’s efforts underscores the resilience and teamwork that defined their success on the ice.