QUEENSTOWN – The helmets and sticks were thrown down on the ice, the players hugged each other and the capacity home crowd erupted in excitement as the Southern Stampede celebrated a record-breaking fifth win of the Birgel Cup.
It was the third successive win for the Stampede in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League when it beat the West Auckland Admirals 5-2 in a closely contested and physical second final at the Queenstown Ice Arena.
The Stampede beat a determined West Auckland Admirals 5-3 in the first final at Auckland and it was buoyed by home town fans to become the first team in the league to win five titles.
The New Zealand league started in 2005 and the Stampede moved ahead of the Botany Swarm and the Canterbury Red Devils that have both won four titles.
It was the third time the Admirals had reached the final after filling the same spot in 2005 and 2010.
It was a bruising and physical second final with both teams putting their bodies on the line. 26 penalties were awarded – 10 against the Stampede and 16 against the Admirals. The defence of both teams was strong and only two goals came during power plays.
Veteran Braden Lee was knocked to the ice and was assisted from the rink three minutes from the end.
The Stampede started aggressively and Colin McIntosh scored the first goal after just four minutes and Mitchell Frear pushed a loose puck into the net three minutes later to give the Stampede a 2-0 lead at the first break.
Captain Matt Schneider led by example and rammed home the Stampede’s advantage with two more goals in the second period.
The standout forward in the game was new Canadian import Colin McIntosh, who prepared Schneider’s second goal with a brilliant solo run down the right flank to give the Stampede a 4-0 cushion after the second period.
The Admirals were down but not out and came back into the picture when Hungarian import Adrian Toth scored in the first 40 seconds of the third period.
But it was too little and too late. Both teams traded goals in the last six minutes of the game.
The Stampede had a tight defence with Hayden Argyle, Bert Haines and Stephan Helmersson disrupting the talented Admirals forwards.
The team owned the win to the brilliance of goalie Aston Brookes, who played the game of his life as he stood up to some powerful shots by the Admirals forwards and brought off four top-draw saves. He conceded two goals from 27 shots.
The win was special for Bert Haines and Braden Lee, who have been key members of the Stampede team since the start of the league and have won a record five titles.
Defender Hayden Argyle, who joined Stampede last year after winning three titles with the Red Devils, also won his fifth league title.
It was a special for Haines and Lee, who remained loyal to the Stampede and waited nine years to win their third title in 2015.
“It was incredibly special for me,” Haines (36) said. “I never stopped believing. That’s why I keep showing up every day. There was quite a gap between the second and third championships but we always had the intention of winning again and the belief that we could do it.
“We have the right team now and are doing the right things to keep up the culture of winning.”
What is special about the Stampede?
“We are a total ice hockey community and have the backing of the whole town,” Haines said. “We have a family culture. It just feels good to be in the room with the other guys.”
Captain Matt Schneider (32) came to New Zealand in 2012 and the three Birgel Cup wins have been the highlight of his ice hockey career.
“We put together a team that could win again but it wasn’t easy,” he said. “But it was a lot better playing games that were close and competitive.”
The loss of Jade Portwood, who topped the league goal scoring with 25 goals last year, was a big blow at the start of the season.
“It left a hole and others had to chip in and make up the goal scoring,” Schneider said.
Schneider and McIntosh filled the breach to keep the Stampede on top.
McIntosh was the top goal scorer in this year’s league with 24 goals and Schneider was runner-up with 22 goals.
But the win rested on a strong defence that was the foundation of Stampede’s tactics.
“It’s such a short season and it’s tough to build systems and consistency,” Schneider said. “But there have not been many changes in our squad and we built on what we achieved in previous years.”
It meant a lot to the Stampede to win the third successive title.
“It was our goal from the start and anything less would have been disappointing,” Schneider said.
What has been the secret of the Stampede’s success?
“We have a family atmosphere and are very close off the ice,” Schneider said. “We have maintained a core of players over the last few years and hang out together outside the rink.
“All summer long we are always together and this camaraderie lets us go on to the ice and play for each other.”
For coach Adam Blanchette it was his third title in a row and gives him the credentials to become a future coach of the Ice Blacks.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a good team around me,” Blanchette said. “It makes the coaches job easier when you have the right guys on and off the ice. That's very important for developing a winning culture.”
Blanchette admits that it is important to recruit the right import players to win the New Zealand league. The Southern Stampede have been lucky to have overseas players who enjoy living in Queenstown and keep coming back. Some gain residency and a few become New Zealand citizens. Blanchette grew up in the United States and has the overseas contacts to recruit the best players.
Among these stalwarts are Ice Blacks captain Bert Haines, who has lived in Queenstown since the start of the national league, Stampede captain Schneider and Mike McRae. They have been key players for the Stampede in this year’s league.
Schneider was ranked fourth with 37 points on the scoring leaders table with 22 goals and 15 assists. He was the second-best goal scorer in the league.
McRae was seventh on the scoring leaders table with 26 points and ranked fourth with 22 assists. Haines used his vast experience at critical times and was a solid defender.
“It is not always about finding the best guy on paper but about finding the best fit for your team,” Blanchette said. “As a coach you have to do your best to research the right players.”
Blanchette believes that the import players have done an important job in lifting the standards of the New Zealand born players. He quoted the example of Callum Burns, who was a novice Queenstown player when he joined the Stampede squad.
“The imports help develop the local players,” Blanchette said. “When Callum first came into the squad he was barely scratching the line-up.
“We have given him the right type of knowledge and he’s grown on and off the ice and has played for the Ice Blacks.”
Blanchette makes it clear that he always wants to win but realizes that the best chance of achieving this goal is by making sure that the squad has fun when they are together.
“When you have a fun side in the team culture it makes it easier for the guys to buy in and have the motivation to get better,” he said.
An important key to the Stampede’s success over the last three years been the development of depth within the squad.
“It’s the first time I've seen teams in this league with four playable lines,” Blanchette said.
“Most teams have very good two lines but we’ve developed a nice mix of youth and experience and have had success with our third and fourth lines.”
The coach admits that he has developed a squad around the ability to play well in the small Queenstown rink.
“We are definitely a small ice team,” Blanchette said. “We like to be in the face of our opponents and take the game to them.”
It is the hard, physical North American style that Blanchette is used to.
“Most of our imports are from North America and have grown up with this style and we have had success with it,” he said.
Blanchette watches the North American Stanley Cup finals on television and noted that the winning team always puts a big emphasis on defence.
“I want the Stampede to take care of our end of the ice first,” he said. “We play from our net out.”
West Auckland Admirals
The West Auckland Admirals recruited well and had a squad that looked capable of winning the Birgel Cup for the first time.
They started the season in style by winning their first seven games. This included big wins against four-time champion Botany Swarm, 14-0, and last year’s runner-up Canterbury Red Devils, 16-2.
The first loss came in the eighth round-robin game when beaten by Southern Stampede 5-3.
They suffered injuries to key players – captain Justin Daigle (eye), Jacob Ratcliffe (ankle), Taylor Rooney (ACL joint) and Dylan Dickson (wrist) – after this and lost five of their last eight round robin games.
The most telling losses were Ratcliffe, who has played in the United States and was one of New Zealand’s rising stars at the World Championship tournaments, and Daigle.
“It was very hard to replace Justin as a player and captain,” coach Csaba Kercso-Magos said. “We had to readjust our lines. We just had to go with the fit players we had.”
The new imports dominated the scoring and played a key role for the Admirals in this year’s New Zealand Ice Hockey League.
Hungarian Adrian Toth topped the scoring leaders table with 55 points. He scored 21 goals and topped the table with 34 assists.
Toth (26) has played for three years in the Austrian-based EBEL for Hungarian club Fehervar AV19 and plans to return to DVTK Jegesmedvek Miskolc of the Hungarian league. He has played over 450 games at senior level and brought a lot of energy and knowledge to the Admirals team.
Sweden’s Henric Andersen was third in the scoring leaders table with 44 points. He scored 14 goals and was runner-up on the assist leaders board with 32 assists.
Andersen (26) played for the Swedish under-18 national team and later played in the second-highest league in Sweden and followed this up with three years in the top French league.
American Thomas Battani (28) played professional hockey in North America in the third-tier ECHL. He made his contribution to the Admirals season by finishing fifth on the scoring leaders table with 35 points. He scored 18 goals and had 17 assists.
Canadian Andrew Spiller (30), who now has New Zealand residency, had 19 assists and was fifth on the table. He was a strong defender and topped the defencemen’s scoring table with 24 points.
The talented Admirals squad included nine members of the New Zealand national team, the Ice Blacks, that finished runner-up to China at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B in Auckland.
The best performers were Nick Henderson, who was ninth on the goal scoring list with 12 goals, Frazer Ellis who jumped up to nine goals when he scored two in the first final, and Jacob Ratcliffe, who made 12 assists.
Captain Justin Daigle was a strong defender and finished third on the defencemen's scoring list with 17 points before being sidelined with his eye injury.
The Admirals had two top goalies with veteran Ice Blacks defender Rick Parry finishing fifth on the list. He conceded 33 goals and had 234 saves. Goalie Csaba Kercso-Magos junior topped the table with a save percentage of 92.83 percent. He conceded 22 goals and made 277 saves. His father has been head coach for the last three years and has instilled Eastern European discipline into the team.
He was once selected for the Romanian national team in the mid-1970s but did not play because all games were cancelled because of an earthquake.
Kercso-Magos coached Admirals in 2006/07 for one year and came back as an assistant in 2014.
“I didn’t think we had a good enough team to be in the finals last year but this year we did,” he said. “We started our programme three years ago and I have seen an improvement this year. Our squad is larger and competition to get into the team is higher.
“The team now understands my rules and are following them. That is what is making us a strong team.”
Kercso-Magos comes from Romania and likes the European style of hockey. But his understanding of the game has changed since he has been in New Zealand.
“In the last 20 years world hockey has changed and has combined the physical element with being technical and practical as well,” he said. He has also noticed a significant change in the style played in the New Zealand league.
“When I arrived 10 years ago it was only physical,” he said. “It is still physical but you can see some great technical aspects as well. New Zealand ice hockey has come a long way in the last few years.”
The Dunedin Thunder did Otago provincial counterpart Southern Stampede a favour late in the round-robin programme when it beat the West Auckland Admirals twice in the double header at Auckland.
The Stampede and the Admirals were on level pegging for the top spot and it meant that the Stampede was given the home advantage for the best of three game finals.
The Thunder won the first game 3-2 – its third overtime win – and the next day took control from the start to win 5-1.
The Dunedin-based Thunder performed above its weight when it finished third in the league.
Captain Paris Heyd, who returned this year after 10 months in London, was the only member of the Thunder squad in this year’s Ice Blacks team.
The Thunder also had two members of the New Zealand under-20 team – Felipe Aguirre Landshoeft and Noah Leahy.
New coach Canadian Matt Hladun brought a positive attitude and team unity into the squad.
“There has been a bit of separation in our squad over the last few years but this year everyone was included in the group and on the same page,” Heyd said.
The younger players felt part of the squad, raised their standards, and four of them were rewarded by being named in the Ice Blacks for the first time.
Dylan Devlin, Tristan Darling, Daniel Lee and Kevin Jagau will play against Australia at the New Zealand Winter Games next month.
“We knew we had a young team and knew it would be difficult,” Heyd said. “But as the season went on we became more consistent and stepped up against the better teams.
“Some of the younger guys are now in their late teens and early twenties and displayed the maturity and experience we were looking for.”
The best of the younger players was Daniel Lee, who was the second ranked goalie in the competition with a save percentage of 91.07. He made 408 saves and conceded only 40 goals.
His best performance was against the Stampede at Dunedin when he made 50 saves in the 4-0 win against the league champions. Darling finished 15th on the leagues scoring chart with 17 points. He scored six goals and finished 15th on the chart with eleven assists.
The classy Heyd, the best-performing New Zealand born player in the league, finished sixth on the scoring leader table with 28 points. He was fifth-ranked with 15 goals and had 13 assists.
The best import was Oliver Easton from the United States, who ranked fifth in the table for defencemen scoring leaders with four goals and eight assists for 12 points.
The Thunder finished the season with two away wins against the Admirals and two big home wins against the Canterbury Red Devils 15-2 and 7-1.
The retirement of long-time coach Andreas Kaisser after 13 years meant a new start for the Botany Swarm that has been one of the top clubs in the NZIHL. Kaisser took the Botany Swarm to its four Birgel Cup wins from 2007 to 2011. He coached the team for 151 games and holds the New Zealand league record. He also had the most wins with 85.
His replacement was Frenchman Geoff Boehme, who has lived in New Zealand for a decade and was the assistant coach of the Botany Swarm for five years.
“I had big shoes to fill,” Boehme said. “Andreas had his own unique style and achieved a lot of success.”
Boehme uses a practical approach to his job.
“I’ve got to go with what I’ve got in the locker room and the strength and weaknesses of the players,” he said. “My style is to put as much responsibility on the players as I can. They are making the plays on the ice and should be empowered as much as possible.”
Boehme (44) was born in Colmar in the Alsace region of France and played hockey non-stop from the age of six to 18 before becoming a law student in Paris. He played regional hockey in France.
The Botany Swarm won five games, one of these in overtime, and beat all the other teams in the games played on a Sunday afternoon.
The most significant was in its last game when it beat the Admirals 5-4 in overtime. It drew level in the last second of regular time when United States import Alex Mitsionis scored. The winning goal came early in overtime.
Another important win came when the Storm rattled the Stampede’s cage with a 6-3 win at Auckland after losing 1-6 to the Southerners the previous day. It also beat Thunder 5-3.
Botany Swarm had 12 Ice Blacks and two New Zealand under-20 representatives in its squad.
One of the old hands to stand out was KC Ball (42), who made 11 assists and was ranked 14th. Alex Polosov made 10 assists and was ranked 17th. Mitsionis (21), the best performer on the team, was ranked eighth on the scoring table with 24 points. This included 15 goals with a rank of sixth. Another young import was German Maximilian Hadraschek, who scored five goals and was ranked 24th.
Canterbury Red Devils
It was a rebuilding year for the Canterbury Red Devils that had been one of the dominant teams in the New Zealand league for the last five years when it won three Birgel Cups and was runner-up in the previous two years.
“We have had 13 rookies in our squad over the last two years,” head coach Matthew Sandford said. “We lost six players from last year’s squad.”
The key losses were goaltender Michael Coleman and defencemen George Coslett and Josh Greenwood.
Add to that injuries and sickness to key players in this year’s squad. New Zealand under-20 representatives Shaun Brown (19) and Liam Dallimore missed eight games. The experienced Kim Jeong (27) injured his shoulder in a warm-up game and was out for the season.
“Our younger guys had to play more this year. It was a big step up for them,” Sandford said.
Ice Black Chris Eaden finished tenth on the scoring leaders table with 22 points. He scored 13 goals and was eighth on that list.
U.S. import Robert Banks was the best defender and was fourth on the defencemen's scoring stats with five goals and 12 assists. He was ninth in assist points.
Goaltender Damien King from Great Britain conceded 49 goals from 507 attempts and was ranked fourth with a percentage of 90.34.
The Southern Stampede know how to punish mistakes. They took advantage of the West Auckland Admirals lapses to take control of the first final at Auckland in a six-minute goal scoring blitz.
The Stampede scored two goals in the last 30 seconds of the second period to take the lead 2-1 and added another goal five minutes into period three before winning a tight game 5-3.
Strong defence and a cautious approach by both sides resulted in a scoreless first period.
The momentum was with the Admirals for 10 minutes in the middle of the second period when they applied pressure on the Stampede by using their top two lines. It was only good defence by experienced defenders Bert Haines and Hayden Argyle and goaltender Aston Brookes that kept them out.
Imports Henric Andersen, Adrian Toth and Thomas Battani were looking dangerous inside the blue line. Dale Harrop missed a sitter in front of the goal when the puck bounced over his stick.
The Admirals opened the scoring with five minutes of the spell left when Toth’s angled shot dribbled into the net off the pads of Brookes.
That goal woke up a Stampede team that had been looking lethargic and they came to life to score two goals in the last 30 seconds of the second period to take the initiative and lead 2-1.
Captain Matthew Schneider led by example and evened the score with a penalty and three seconds from the end of the period Canadian import Colin McIntosh sent a miracle pass between two defenders for Tomi Martikainen to score.
The Stampede rammed home their advantage after five minutes in the third period when Schneider scored his second goal to give Stampede a two-goal cushion.
The Stampede concentrated on defence after this and looked to have the game sewn up when Connor Harrison extended the margin to three shots with 5:31 left.
But the Admirals were not finished and peppered the Stampede goal with 15 shots in the third period. Frazer Ellis scored two goals in the last three minutes during power plays. The Stampede added a bonus goal in the last 30 seconds when Kyle Mulder scored after Admirals had pulled their goalie.
The Admirals failed to capitalize on its seven power-play opportunities compared to four by the Stampede.
Both goaltenders had strong games. Brookes conceded three goals and saved 33 and Admirals netminder Csaba Kercso-Magos let in four goals and stopped 30.
First final: Southern Stampede 5 (Matthew Schneider 2, Connor Harrison, Kyle Mulder, Tomi Martikainen), West Auckland Admirals 3 (Frazer Ellis 2, Adrian Toth). Period scores (0-0, 2-1, 3-2).
Second final: Southern Stampede 5 (Colin McIntosh 2, Matthew Schneider 2, Mitchell Frear), West Auckland Admirals 2 (Adrian Toth, Andrew Spiller). Period scores (2-0, 2-0, 1-2).
Regular season standings:
1. Southern Stampede 39
2. West Auckland Admirals 32
3. Dunedin Thunder 24
4. Botany Swarm 16
5. Canterbury Red Devils 9
Scoring leaders: Adrian Toth (West Auckland Admirals) 55 points, Colin McIntosh (Southern Stampede) 55, Henric Andersen (West Auckland Admirals) 46, Matt Schneider (Southern Stampede) 37,Thomas Battani (West Auckland Admirals) 35, Paris Heyd (Dunedin Thunder) 28, Mike McRae (Southern Stampede) 26, Alex Mitsionis (Botany Swarm) 24, Andrew Spiller (West Auckland Admirals) 24, Chris Eaden (Canterbury Red Devils) 22.
Goal Scoring leaders: Colin McIntosh (Stampede) 24, Matt Schneider (Stampede) 22, Adrian Toth (Admirals) 21, Thomas Battani (Admirals) 18, Paris Heyd (Thunder) 15, Alex Mitsionis (Botany Swarm) 15, Henric Andersen (Admirals) 14, Chris Eaden (Red Devils) 13, Nicholas Henderson (Admirals) 12, Frazer Ellis (Admirals) 9, Braden Lee (Stampede) 8.
Assist leaders: Adrian Toth (Admirals) 34, Henric Andersen (Admirals) 32, Colin McIntosh (Stampede) 30, Mike McRae (Stampede) 22, Andrew Spiller (Admirals) 19, Thomas Battani (Admirals) 17, Jeremy Akeson (Stampede) 15, Matt Schneider (Stampede) 15, Robert Banks (Red Devils) 13, Paris Heyd (Thunder) 13.
Top Goaltenders: Csaba Kercso-Magos (Admirals) 22 goals, 277 saves, Daniel Lee (Thunder) 40, 408, Aston Brookes (Stampede) 44, 452, Damian King (Red Devils) 49, 458, Rick Parry (Admirals) 33, 234.
Best players selected by directorate: Goaltender: Csaba-Magos (West Auckland Admirals). Defenceman: Justin Daigle (West Auckland Admirals), Forward: Adrian Toth (West Auckland Admirals).
League MVP: Matt Schneider (Stampede).