DUNEDIN, New Zealand – KC Ball did not achieve his boyhood dream of playing in the NHL but he has made a significant contribution to ice hockey in New Zealand.
Ball, a 42-year-old Auckland accountant, grew up in the small British Columbian town of Mission on the west coast of Canada and learnt to skate at the age of two and first played ice hockey at four.
He was an avid watcher of big hockey games on television.
“As a kid growing up I had dreams of playing for Canada. I watched NHL and the big thing then was the Canada Cup (later became World Cup) watching Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux play against top Russians. It was a big rivalry. I was glued to TV watching international events.
“When the game was over we’d go out and play road hockey and we’d be Gretzky or Lemieux or Messier. That was every kid’s dream in Canada.”
Ball played in the Midget Double A competition in Canada, trialled for some junior B teams but focused more on his university studies.
After graduating from university he decided to travel and landed in the British capital of London for two years. There he met his wife from New Zealand, which was the reason he decided to move to New Zealand in 2004, a year before the New Zealand Ice Hockey League (NZIHL) was launched.
He was one of the first imports who have made a huge contribution in lifting the standard and profile of New Zealand ice hockey.
It was a permanent shift for Ball, who married his wife Greer and became a New Zealand citizen. The couple has two children – Chloe (7) who has followed her father on to the ice and Isabelle (3).
“My wife’s a Kiwi and I have lived in New Zealand for 13 years and Auckland is my home town,” Ball said.
Ball has represented New Zealand at two World Championship tournaments and was on the team that won the 2009 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III on home ice in Dunedin.
“Winning at Dunedin in front of home fans was special. I stopped playing regularly for the Ice Blacks when we had children because going away for weeks at a time was just too difficult.”
Ball has been a key member of Botany Swarm since its inaugural league season in 2005 and is the club’s leading point’s scorer.
He is fourth in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League’s all-time point scorer list and fourth with assists and has the fifth best goal scoring record.
Ball was a key member of the Botany Swarm team that won four Birgel Cups between 2007 and 2011.
He has always been a leader in the team and has played a significant role in the development of younger members of the squad.
Last year Ball followed the Botany Swarm captain Andrew Hay in becoming only the second Swarm player to reach the milestone of 150 league games. He reached 168 games after the Botany Swarm’s home games against the Dunedin Thunder last weekend.
Ball makes no secret of the fact that he would like to win another Birgel Cup with Botany Swarm.
“That’s why I keep playing and wanting to be competitive. I want to win another Birgel Cup,” he said.
“Yeah it is hard at my age. It is a lot of time I need to commit, in summer and winter, to keep fit enough to keep playing at this level. It is virtually 12 months a year to stay in shape.”
He now needs more time to meet his family commitments as well.
“Going away at weekends and leaving my young kids is difficult. My wife and I balance it off. It is a big commitment but I still have a passion for the game, still want to compete and still feel that I’m playing at a competitive level. As long as that continues it’s a commitment I’m happy to continue to make.”
Ball said that the standard of the New Zealand league is now much higher than when it started 13 years ago.
“At the beginning it was focused on the New Zealand players,” he said. “Teams with the best local players won the league.
“We only played six games in the first couple years and didn’t have any money. It was difficult to attract foreign players to come over to play just six games.”
It is different now with a well-established league with a 16-game programme before the finals. The profile of the sport is better and the games can be watched by live stream on the internet.
“It has changed,” Ball said. “Teams that get the best foreign imports win. They provide most of the scoring. Teams that have the best imports end up in finals.
“In early years the imports were not much better than local players so teams that had best local talent won.”
Teams now adopt a more professional approach to the sport.
“The commitment to games is much higher today,” Ball said. “There was no fitness regime in the past. Players have learnt more about fitness and are more dedicated to the task.”
New Zealand players now get more overseas experience in the off-season by playing in leagues in Europe and North America.
“This has improved the local talent and the whole standard has improved,” Ball said.
“Local players are getting better and more committed and a higher standard of foreigners are now coming to New Zealand.”
What made Botany Swarm the most successful team in the New Zealand league from 2007 to 2011?
“It was all about local talent in the early days,” Ball said. “The imports were just support players. We had good young players. Players like Andrew Hay, Richard Idoine, Jordon Challis and Mitchell Oak formed the nucleus of the Ice Blacks and New Zealand under-20 teams.
Ball would not predict how long he will keep playing in the New Zealand league.
“I still have a passion for the game. I grew up in Canada and ice hockey was all I wanted to do,” he said.
He always asks himself three questions at the end of each. season: Am I helping my team to win? Am I still enjoying the sport and having fun? Am I willing to put in the time to keep my fitness where it needs to be?
“If I can say yes to all those things I will keep coming back,” Ball said.
“I take it year by year. Five years ago I wouldn’t have thought I would have played to this point. I take it one year at a time.”
Ball praised the work of Gunther Birgel, Grant Hay and the many others who were founding administrators of the New Zealand league and put so much time into the sport.
“Every region has those people who work behind the scenes and organize the league,” Ball said. “We as players just show up and have fun. They spend so many months each year organizing the league and take care of all travel and accommodation.”
Ball appreciates the work of the volunteers who have contributed in lifting the standard of the league and New Zealand’s standard at international level in the last 10 years.
“We owe a debt to those who had vision to create the league,” he said.
The regular season of the five-team NZIHL continues until 6 August followed by the final. Defending champion Southern Stampede from Queenstown leads the standings three points ahead of the West Auckland Admirals.