The 2012 season was an important milestone for the Newcastle North Stars as they celebrated their tenth year as being part of the Australian Ice Hockey League. It was also the season that Gicu Oprea, the last remaining player from that inaugural 2002 team, decided to call it a career. In his ten year career as a player and a coach, Gicu has had a close up view of the growth of the AIHL and Australian ice hockey as a whole. He catches up with Tegan McQualter to reflect on his experiences.
1. What was your hockey background before coming to Australia?
I first stepped on the ice when I was 6, and have been skating ever since. Playing in Romania in my home town of Galati I played many years of junior hockey, winning numerous national championships. I then moved on to play for the senior side and enjoyed the privilege of representing my country at different international competitions. It was at that time that I got the idea that one day I would like to play in another country.
2. How did you come to play in the AIHL?
Initially I contacted the Sydney Bears through Wayne Hellier, in order to come to Australia to play with them. Wayne said that all of their import players would be returning for the next season; however there would be a new team in Newcastle that was joining the league. He put me in touch with Garry Dore and a few months later, in February 2002, I arrived in Newcastle as their first import and I’ve stayed here ever since.
3. You have been with the North Stars since 2002. How have the team and the league grown in the last 10 years?
The league has grown considerably since my arrival in Australia and I believe that this has been due to the numerous imports playing here. The imports are involved in developing the local young talent and this contributes to the ongoing growth of the sport of ice hockey. Some of the imports also settle here, like myself, and help to create a definite base for the teams they are playing for.
4. How have you grown as a hockey player?
As a player you always grow, of course you need to work hard. Working with different coaches, with different coaching philosophies has made me a better player. Also being in a team that has fantastic imports willing to share their experiences is another way in which I consider that my skills were improved since coming to Australia.
5. What is your proudest moment as a North Star?
One of my fondest memories as a North Star is playing alongside so many of the young players who I’d coached over the years. Players such as Mathew Wentini, Sam Austin, Joshua Broekman, Hamish Powell, just to name a few. It has given me such a sense of satisfaction and great pride to know that I have contributed to their development as valuable players and to see them achieving their aspirations of making their first team.
6. The North Stars have won more Goodall cups than any other AIHL team. What is their secret?
There is no secret. The North Stars is a great organisation and they do their homework really well when it comes to recruiting imports. The imports are a significant force when decisive games are played. It all comes down to hard work and everyone contributing as individuals to achieve a common goal.
7. This year the North Stars had a strong season only to lose the Goodall cup grand final at home to the Melbourne Ice, giving them their third straight championship. What makes the Ice such a dominant force?
The Melbourne Ice are a strong team with great character. What has made them so dominant for the last few years is that they have great depth, probably just as much as the North Stars, however, the Ice seem to have an ability to fully utilise all of their players, their individual skills as well as their capability to communicate and work well together. I believe that this is why the Ice is such a force to be reckoned with and why they keep winning!
8. What do you think 2013 holds for the Northstars?
It’s hard to say how 2013 might play out. All I can say is that I will be eagerly watching from the other side of the boards and hoping for some more of the success the North Stars enjoyed in previous years.
9. Over the years you have inspired a generation of hockey players , both as a player and a coach. What would you say to any of our readers aiming for AIHL and beyond?
Aiming to play at the highest level in Australia requires a lot of hard work. Young local payers must work at least twice as much due to the arrival of the import contingent. However, the players coming from overseas are a great asset to young payers for improving their skills and maybe penetrating into the senior team or Youth/Junior National Teams. Discipline, keen interest and hard work, are just a few of the ingredients that could very well contribute to playing at the highest level. I wish them good luck and all the best.
The author would like to thank Gicu Oprea for volunteering his time to be part of this interview