Canada, one of the super powers of world ice hockey, is doing its bit to help New Zealand, which is one of minnows.
The Leaside Girls Hockey Association of Toronto is giving the New Zealand women’s team a helping hand.
The close link between Leaside and New Zealand started in 2011 and New Zealand national team players Grace Harrison and Anna Goulding were among the first to play in the Wildcats team.
Canada accepted a challenge that the president of the International Olympic Committee issued at the close of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for the top nations to help improve the competitiveness of other nations.
Hockey Canada responded by allowing the Toronto Leaside Girls’ Hockey Association to “adopt” New Zealand to develop its female players.
Canada has 86,612 female hockey players and 38,982 come from the province of Ontario. New Zealand has just 184 women who play ice hockey.
The former manager of the women’s national team, the Ice Fernz, and a former board member of the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation, Jan Goulding said that 16 female New Zealand hockey players have honed their skills in Toronto over the last five years – 13 in the Leaside programme and three in the university programme.
The Toronto-based Leaside club and the York University have billeted the New Zealand players for three months during the Southern Hemisphere summer and given them playing and training opportunities.
They have all gone on to represent New Zealand at Women’s World Championship events. Five are currently at school or university in North America as a result of the contacts they have made.
Goalie Grace Harrison became the first New Zealand male or female to receive an ice hockey scholarship to an NCAA Division I university in the United States when she joined the St. Lawrence women’s team last year.
Anna Goulding was the first New Zealander to play in the top Swedish women’s league for Leksand IF alongside Swedish national team members.
It needed people on the ground to develop the system and a key person in establishing the Leaside club link at Toronto was expat New Zealander Andrew Smyth.
“To play in the student system at York University the girls had to be aged over 18 and needed a greater skill level,” Goulding said. “The Leaside club was for the younger players.”
Goulding said that last year eleven of the top Ice Fernz played competitive hockey in North America or Sweden.
“It raises the level of our game and we are creating role models for younger players to aspire to a higher level,” she explained.
“When we bring them together in the Ice Fernz we have a strong team for world championships.”
The Leaside club has played an important role in developing the strength of New Zealand women’s hockey. It led to the invitation for Leaside to send a team to New Zealand this year.
“We wanted to acknowledge the contribution Leaside has made to individual players and the New Zealand women’s national programme,” Goulding said.
During August this year a team of 34 from Leaside made a two-week tour of the South Island of New Zealand and played three exhibition games against the New Zealand under-18 team at the Gore indoor rink.
Leaside made a clean sweep of the series 7-1, 2-1 and 5-1.
“We always hold Canada and the United States away up there and aspire to be like them,” Goulding said.
“The contact made our girls realize they could compete with players from one of the best ice hockey countries in the world.
“They realize that they can play alongside these Canadian players and there is a door they can go through to explore hockey at a higher level. It gives them hope to fulfil their dreams and explore that opportunity.”
The Leaside team visited four of the main ice hockey regions in the South Island – Christchurch, which is the home of the Red Devils national league team, one of the original venues for outdoor hockey in New Zealand at Tekapo, the home of the Southern Stampede, and the tourist town of Queenstown and Gore.
The driver of one mini-bus that transported the Leaside team around New Zealand was Simon Heale whose daughter Caitlin was an exchange recipient at Leaside.
She was billeted by the Smyth family during her stay at Toronto.
“We looked at ways that New Zealand could reciprocate the favour,” Heale said.
“The idea was to provide opportunities for members of their club that they would not be able to access through the normal channels in Canadian hockey.
“They only offer opportunities to those at the extreme elite level. We wanted to give opportunities to a larger pool of kids.
“Hopefully they go back home enthused about their hockey and also become good ambassadors for New Zealand because they had a ball.”
Vanessa Stratton and Kori Cheverie are two ice skills coaches from Ryerson University who travelled with the Leaside team. They have worked with the New Zealand players during their time in Toronto.
Stratton was a defender in Canadian inter-university hockey and has been a high-performance official at five World Championships.
Cheverie is in her sixth season as a top-level player in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League with the Toronto Furies.
“When the New Zealand players come to Canada we train them at the Ryerson Centre,” Stratton said. “This tour gives our girls a different take on ice hockey.”
The Canadian coaches talked with fellow Canadian Adam Blanchette, who is in his second year as coach of Southern Stampede in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League.
“I have found that New Zealand coaches have the same philosophy as us,” Stratton said.
“The trip has been valuable for our own personal and professional development. It’s been cool.
“We like to work with players from other countries and see the different venues and facilities they have. The sessions with the New Zealand coaches and players have been invaluable to us.
“It’s been the trip of a lifetime for our girls to come halfway around the world to play the game we love. We played against the New Zealand under-18 team and that is something we don’t get to do ever.”
Stratton believes that New Zealand ice hockey is on the right track. To keep improving it needs to keep on the same path, to invest in infrastructure and bring in professional coaches.
67-year-old Ray Halse has been coach at the Leaside Girls Hockey Association for the last 18 years.
“I always wanted to visit New Zealand and it has been a dream come true for me,” he said. “I’ve been around the world but I’ve always wanted to come to New Zealand. It’s been the trip of a lifetime for me.”
Halse has had a close association with the New Zealand girls that have played with Leaside.
“Some of the girls are capable of playing in the top AA leagues and the provincial leagues. We try to fit the others, who lack a few of the basic skills, in our teams at a lower level,” he said.
“The programme has been a marvellous success. The girls in both countries have learnt from each other. It has been a win-win for hockey in Toronto and New Zealand.
“The girls from New Zealand want to play, want to learn and want to have fun.
“They may not have the skill level at the start but we can teach them that because they bring an international feel to our club.”
Halse said the initiative for the programme started on a personal level and was driven by expat Kiwi Andrew Smyth.
“It was experimental at first but the initial trial with two players was so successful that the gates opened,” Halse said.
New Zealand is the only country that has this relationship with the Leaside club.
This year 34 members (including 10 officials, coaches and parents) of the Leaside club visited New Zealand.
“They have treated us like royalty and made every girl in our team feel comfortable,’’ he said. “We enjoyed every moment of our trip.”
He believes that the worldwide development of women’s hockey internationally “will not get the recognition it deserves if only two teams can win the World Championships and Olympic titles.
“When only the U.S. and Canada can win it keeps hockey as a minor sport in other countries.
“Our girls needed the experience of playing overseas,” he said. “I’m sure they will remember this trip in 40 years time. It will be a special memory of their time playing hockey.”
Christina Curtis, 18, has been a member of the Leaside team for the last five years and plays in the Ontario competition.
She enjoyed playing against members of the New Zealand under-18 team who have played for Leaside including Tessa Broadbent and Rebecca Lilly.
Curtis has played hockey in Sweden and the United States but this was her first visit to New Zealand.
Curtis, a business student at the University of Ryerson, plays in the intermediate A competition in Ontario. She started playing the sport at the age of 3.
“The girls in New Zealand love hockey and play with so much passion and are willing to learn. They go hard at every practice and in every game and they want to play,” Curtis said.
Stephanie Crimi, 16, started playing hockey five years ago at the age of 11.
Crimi has played hockey in the United States but New Zealand is only the second foreign country she has played in.
“It’s been an amazing trip and I have fallen in love with the country and I want to come back.
“I have learnt a lot about the culture. The people are friendly and very warm to us.”
Her highlight was to play hockey on an outdoor rink at Tekapo while it was snowing heavily.
“It was fun,” she said. “We had to look for the puck in the snow. There are very few places in Canada where we play tournaments outdoors.”
Janna Getty, 17, started ice hockey at the age of 7 and plays in the North Toronto Collegiate competition.
She enjoyed games outside in the snow at Tekapo but the tourist town of Queenstown was her favourite spot.
“It’s magic there,” she said. “Nothing in New Zealand was what I expected. I didn’t think there would be mountains here.
“It’s been amazing. I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want to go home.”
She knew there were only a small number of female hockey players in New Zealand.
“I know hockey is a small sport in New Zealand but I was surprised how good everyone was,” she said. “They provided good competition for us.”
New Zealander Tessa Broadbent, 17, spent two years at Leaside.
“I learnt a lot about hockey and played with some very good teams. The hockey culture in Canada is different from here.
“The hockey was amazing. I went to the women’s hockey league, saw the best players and watched the all-star games. The level of hockey was so high.
“I improved every aspect of my hockey at Leaside. I got better at stick handling and became faster on skates. It improved my game a lot.
“I was very close to my host family so it was good to see them again,” she said.
She has been a member of the New Zealand under-18 team for the last four years.
“It would be cool to play for a professional team overseas,” she said.
Rebecca Lilly, 17, grew up on a farm and has played hockey since the age of 12. She has been a member of the Ice Fernz for the last two years.
“It is nice to come back because a lot of the people didn’t understand what I was getting into,” she said.
When she was at a training camp in Sweden a scout asked her to play ice hockey in Canada.
“It was a dream I had since I started playing but I didn’t think it would come until I was at college.
“To be the best in New Zealand means leaving the country and playing in college and professional teams. I’m looking at colleges in the U.S. to play hockey.
“Leaside was a good experience and settled me into the more physical game the Canadians play.
“At Winnipeg the girls in my team are like a family. It is preparing me for next step at college in the U.S. and it will help me to grow my game, help the girls back home improve their standard and make our national programme stronger.”
She enjoyed having Leaside come to New Zealand.
“A lot of girls whom I played with are here. It’s been an exciting series of games.”
Emma Kloss, 15, emigrated from British Columbia with her family five years ago and was selected in the New Zealand under-18 team for the first time.
“Their passing is better and their game is more structured than ours,” she said. “I always wanted to play ice hockey when I lived in Canada but my parents wouldn’t let me play until we came to New Zealand.”
New Zealand under-18 coach Angelique Mawson said that the tour was valuable to the New Zealand players because it gave them exposure against a travelling international team.
“It gives our players aspirations and something to aspire to when coming into the sport by having exposure to international competition at an early age.
“Leaside has 26 women’s teams. We only have three national league teams in New Zealand.
“The tour gave our players an understanding that if they go further in the game there are opportunities for overseas travel.
“It was good to have three games together before we go to the Challenge Cup of Asia. It gave us a chance to work our combinations.”
Mawson has been involved with New Zealand ice hockey since 1990.
“Our national trial used to have just 13 players turning up,” she said. “There are now 30 or 40. We are improving.”
An annual national women’s tournament was first held in 1998 at Queenstown. The national women’s league started in 2014.
The under-18 team now competes for the first time in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia in Bangkok where they play against senior teams from some of the smaller Asian member. They are 3-0 now after beating Singapore 6-2, Malaysia 13-2 and a key game for first place against host Thailand 4-3.
The senior women’s team just finished the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B in Akureyri, Iceland, in third place.