South Africa: land of safari, surf... and a burgeoning hockey scene. The 2016 World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend saw more events than ever in the country, with youngsters taking to the ice in Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Erasmia and Amanzimtoti. New rinks and new teams are helping to develop the game in one of its remotest outposts.
Port Elizabeth Ladies Ice Hockey is a team so new it doesn’t even have a full name yet. “We’re still thinking of something a bit more exciting,” admitted Carine van Eck, secretary of the Eastern Province Ice Hockey Association. But when the city got its first rink for 16 years early in 2015, old-time hockey fans rallied to start rebuilding the game from scratch. Most of the players from the previous arena had grown up and reached veteran age, but many have returned to the ice to encourage a new generation to take up the sport.
The World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend was a big step towards that. “Saturday morning was awesome! We had 43 brand-new girls who had never played the game before,” van Eck added. “Some of them had never even been on the ice, but we had others who were already good skaters. We even invited one to join our senior women’s team.
“We’re very grateful that so many people came – we got about twice as many as we were hoping for. Now we’ll try to do something similar for our boys’ team. They’re a bit jealous that the girls are getting so much attention this weekend, but hopefully our new recruits will bring their brothers along as well.”
The fledgling women’s team is the only one in its league, playing non-contact hockey against men’s teams in the second division of Port Elizabeth’s local league. But it has already enjoyed some success, with several players joining up to represent Eastern Province in South Africa’ national Inter-Provincial Championship last month. “We’re quite proud that we’ve managed to get a team representing our province in just a year,” van Eck said.
The national tournament took place in Cape Town for the first time this year, having previously been hosted in Johannesburg. For Nadine Sheffield, a veteran of 10 World Championship campaigns with South Africa’s ladies, it’s added new impetus to the Cape Town Griffins. Helped by coverage on local radio station KFM – “we pestered them until they came down,” smiled Sheffield – the competition generated so much interest that there are now plans to take it to other parts of the country.
“The Western Province Ice Hockey Association really looked after the event well,” Sheffield added. “We got really good crowds and the stand down one side of the ice was completely full, which is great for us. Now we hope we can take it to Durban and Port Elizabeth in the next couple of years and give the sport more exposure across the country.”
The Girls’ Hockey Weekend brought new faces to the Griffins’ Sunday morning training session, with two beginners aged just four among the potential recruits. But attracting attention in a country where rugby, cricket and field hockey dominate the sporting landscape is not always easy.
“The game isn’t really known here or anywhere in Africa so it’s really hard to attract sponsorship and media coverage,” Sheffield explained. “Government support and corporate funding tends to go to the bigger sports. Hockey costs a lot of money to play, so there’s a danger that it becomes an elitist sport where only rich people can do it. That makes it hard to attract kids.”
One scouting technique that has proved effective has been watching out for good skaters in public sessions at the rink and inviting them along. That was how Sheffield and her elder sister, Sabrina Bundock, got involved 19 years ago, and it’s something she still tries to do today. “Most of our players at the Griffins were figure skaters who decided that playing hockey was more fun,” she added.
Bundock is now based in Durban where the local team, the Rays, is barely six months old. But her experience of playing internationally is something of an inspiration to the club – especially as it prepared for its first ever World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend event on Sunday.
“It’s summer all year around here in Durban, so we’re competing with the beach and the surfing,” said head coach Lee Jones. “But we’re hoping to see maybe 10-15 new faces this weekend, and it’s a good way to get new people involved. We’ve got some hockey moms who are up for trying the game themselves for the first time and we’ve got a few figure skaters who might be interested in trying something a bit different.”
The event was divided into a series of practice drills, with players from the Rays’ first division team helping to break down the skills for newcomers. Then there was 20-minutes of cross-ice games, giving the new arrivals a taste of competitive action.
Although Durban is a relatively new club, there is already a local heroine to help inspire young players. Sabrina Bundock is a member of the senior ladies’ team and was also a regular member of the South African women’s team, along with her sister Nadine Sheffield. “She’s back in the game now after taking a bit of break, and that’s something of an inspiration for us,” Jones added. Another player, Roxanne Baney, recently won representative honours when she was called up to play for KwaZulu-Natal in that recent Inter-Provincial championship.
While the current hockey scene is looking bright, there is still much to be done for the future. The country’s geographical isolation causes problems: importing kit is difficult and expensive, while the lack of neighbouring countries that can offer international opposition makes it hard to give young players greater experience.
In Port Elizabeth, van Eck is hoping that moves to support emerging hockey nations could result in more equipment becoming available. “Compared with cricket or rugby, our gear is so much more expensive and harder to find,” she said. “That’s a major drawback. There are people who would love to play if we can help them get the gear, but it’s a big outlay up front to get all the kit from the skates up to the helmet. Not everyone can afford it. That’s where we’d most like to see support.”
For Sheffield, more opportunities to travel to other countries and gain first-hand experience of the game could be a big difference.
“If we could get help sending players, coaches, even officials, to events in Europe then we would really benefit from that,” she added. “There’s so much to learn from taking part, even in a fairly small, local event. We’re so far away from the rest of the hockey world, but we’re really trying to make things happen.”