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Experienced defender Tristan Darling has returned from a two-year stint in Australia.
The 26-year-old is no longer the grinder he described himself as when he first spoke to the Otago Daily Times eight years ago.
Back then he was bruiser. His job was put the opposition up against the boards and zap their energy in the various melees which make the game so physical.
But these days he is more of a playmaker and shapes as a key cog in the line-up.
"I was a bit of a hard worker but my role has definitely changed since then," Darling said.
"Back then I was more of a third of fourth-liner but now I usually play in the first or second line and I am bit more of a playmaker.
"I try to stay away from hitting [people against the boards] and try to use my skills a bit more now."
That said, Darling is a large man and you always end up battling to stay off the boards at some stage.
The steel fabricator has been based in Melbourne for the past two years. He played for the Melbourne Mustangs and was lined up to play again last year but the tournament was called off due to Covid-19.
"It was definitely a step up from the New Zealand league for sure. There is a lot more money in the league over there with big sponsors involved.
"That means they get good imports and a lot of guys stick around. "They’ll get an American or a Canadian who will move there full-time and play for the team for five years or so.
"That boosts the league as well."
Darling stuck it out in Melbourne through the first wave of Covid-19 but returned home to New Zealand in early December.
He has managed to get out the ice for "a couple of run-arounds with the boys" since returning.
The start of the season is still three months away so the Thunder has not officially assembled yet.
The league has expanded this year meaning the season will be longer than usual.
Earlier this week, the Auckland Ice Hockey Association and the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation announced a new team, the Auckland Mako, will join the competition.
The side is very much a development team and will be comprised of under-23 players along with a splattering of veterans to help bring the younger players through.
"I think it is going to be good going forward as far as development is concerned," Darling said.
"The main ideal is to give kids who are not playing an opportunity and a bit of a run.
"We’ll use the games [against the Mako] as an opportunity to give our young guys an opportunity to play some serious minutes which they might not normally get.
"I think it is a really good move for the league."
As for the Thunder, Darling said the team had a "younger core" with "good potential" and the goal was to make the playoffs.