Gemma McCaw's retirement from hockey on Wednesday night - seven months after returning to the sport for a shot at Olympic gold - came as a surprise to many. While McCaw has cited family reasons for the move, there could be more to the 30-year-old's decision.
This article has been updated to include additional comment from Hockey New Zealand chairman Mike Bignell.
Black Sticks veteran Gemma McCaw abruptly gave up on her Olympic hockey dream after growing increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of change in the high-performance programme, according to sources.
The 30-year-old, who has played 254 tests, announced her retirement from the sport for a second time late on Wednesday night - after coming out of retirement in November last year to have another crack at the Tokyo Games, which have been postponed to next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hockey New Zealand immediately said McCaw, who first retired after the Rio Olympics in 2016, would be doing no interviews in the wake of her latest decision.
However, a source said McCaw was just one of many players increasingly frustrated by dysfunction within the sport, which would have made her decision to quit now a lot easier.
It is understood McCaw, whose retirement follows shortly after Brooke Neal walked away at just 27, had spent some time agonising over the decision.
McCaw pointed to the postponement of the Olympics as the driving force behind her decision.
"No one could've imagined a global pandemic getting in the way of that dream, but there are things beyond our control," McCaw wrote on Instagram. "Lockdown taught me many things, but most importantly those seven weeks at home brought into focus just how important family is. So, with that in mind, I've made the decision to end my Black Sticks journey here."
In the post, McCaw made a point of thanking coach Graham Shaw.
View this post on Instagram
When I came out of retirement to rejoin the Black Sticks last year, I was so excited to be back playing and working towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. No one could’ve imagined a global pandemic getting in the way of that dream, but there are things beyond our control. Lockdown taught me many things, but most importantly those seven weeks at home brought into focus just how important family is. So, with that in mind, I’ve made the decision to end my Black Sticks journey here. I am so glad I gave it another shot and I’m proud to have done this as a Mum, but I feel it’s time now to focus on our family. I’d like to thank my coach Graham and my teammates for their support as well as my family and friends. A very special mention to my husband for his unwavering encouragement and being the best Dad to Lottie that we could ever ask for. To my little girl, I love you beyond words, thank you for travelling so well and being my motivation each step of the way. And last but certainly not least, my heart felt thanks goes to my amazing mum, who gave up a year of her life to support us. This would not have been possible without you. It takes a village, and I’m so grateful for mine #thankyou
A post shared by Gemma McCaw (@gemflynn) on
A well-placed source said in May that some members of the squad and management team were actively working against culture changes that Shaw has been trying to implement.
Shaw denied any discussions with McCaw over the high-performance environment.
"As far as I'm concerned there's nothing in there around her retirement, it's just life moves on for people and people make decisions," Shaw told Newstalk ZB's Alex Chapman. "Gemma has a young family and I'm sure she's got a lot of aspirations to do things in the future.
"We had a very good relationship and I thoroughly enjoyed working with her and we'll miss having her on the field and in the environment."
Hockey New Zealand chairman Mike Bignell earlier acknowledged that "philosophical differences" remained even as the organisation worked hard to create a more positive environment.
Bignell, who spoke on behalf of the board, the executive and the Hockey New Zealand high-performance unit, said that the fallout from former coach Mark Hager's near 10-year reign continued to "cast a long shadow".
In an email to the Herald on Friday, Bignell insisted McCaw's retirement was not triggered by any recent event. The decision not to do any media interviews was not taken by Hockey New Zealand, but was under instruction from McCaw, Bignell said.
The Maria Dew Report into the culture established by Hager lies at the heart of the tensions.
The report found that 70 per cent of players interviewed had serious concerns about the Black Sticks' environment. Crucially, it established a "very clear disconnect" between the majority player view of a negative environment and the almost unanimous view of the HNZ and High-Performance Sport NZ staff, as well as a smaller group of players, that the environment was largely positive.
Multiple sources have told the Herald that "disconnect" continues and McCaw's sudden departure will do nothing to quell that belief.
Hager left his role in 2018 but a number of staunch loyalists remain in the squad and the management team, including captain Stacey Michelsen and assistant coach Katie Glynn, leading some to feel their concerns have been minimised.
The Dew report came with 11 recommendations under four terms of reference that covered operational aspects at HNZ, increased engagement with players, implementation of policies and procedures and the enhancement of health and safety measures.
HNZ's administration and high-performance unit is under pressure to deliver change.
Bignell said in May that "some actions have unfortunately taken longer to complete than we would have hoped".