QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand – It was a simple goal. The aim of the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend in the resort town was to give the new recruits an enjoyable time and make them eager to come back.
“We may not recruit all the players into league teams but if by word of mouth we let people know that ice hockey is a fun sport then we have done our job,” the general secretary of the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation, Jonathan Albright, said.
“It went well tonight. It was a lot of fun. The girls were pretty tired at the end but there were a lot of smiles on their faces. They loved it and really enjoyed the night and are keen to continue.”
Fifteen women attended the event at the Queenstown Ice Arena and they were aged between 15 and 35.
Albright was impressed by the potential of the new players.
“They are natural athletes,” he said. “They didn’t have much equipment and fell over quite a bit. But they got straight up and kept on going.
“A couple of the mums had kids running around who play for the Junior Stampede and local teams. It gave the women an opportunity to try the game that their kids are playing.
“It was great to see the players give it a go and put on a helmet, hockey gloves and handle the stick. I have coached the national team and it was great to see grass roots hockey again.”
Most of the women had never been on skates before.
“We were really starting from scratch,” Albright said. “They were so afraid when they hopped on the ice but by the end of the day they were totally independent and running around the ice claiming it as their game.”
Albright said that the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation embraces the concept of a World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend. He admitted that the timing was not ideal for New Zealand because it comes at the end of the New Zealand season.
“But we understand that it is the start of the Northern Hemisphere season and the IIHF is spearheading the event and have based it on their season” Albright said. “It is ‘Catch 22’ for us but we have to live with it.”
The Queenstown weekend was part of a world-wide weekend and this was emphasised to the girls before the start.
“We had a team meeting at centre ice before we got into the training and told the girls that this was a world-wide event and took a team photo,” Albright said.
“The concept was a bit alarming for some of the girls at the start but they settled into the training and in the team photo they were grinning from ear to ear.
“The World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend is great for women's hockey,” he said. “Women’s hockey doesn’t get enough exposure on the home front and this is great for it.’’
The statistics prove that the day has increased the number of females playing ice hockey.
“The men’s level has been quite stagnant in recent years but the women’s numbers are growing,” Albright said. “This weekend, combined with the New Zealand under-18 women’s development team that participates in IIHF tournaments, is raising the numbers.”
Albright was not able to confirm that the recent Trans-Tasman clash between the men’s national teams from Australia and New Zealand had increased interest in the women’s hockey day.
“But we did have a guest coach in experienced Ice Black Paris Heyd from Dunedin and all the girls seemed to know him,” Albright said.
The coaching team on the day was led by the head coach of the national women’s team, Andreas Kaisser, who stepped down from his national league job with the Botany Swarm after 13 years.
Also on the ice to highlight another facet of the game was registered referee Barrett Wilson of Dunedin.
The session at Queenstown lasted 90 minutes with the first 20 minutes concentrating on learning to skate.
“We did skating waves back and forth to get balance, posture and the feel of the edges of the skates,” Albright explained.
The next period was spent getting the feel of the puck on the stick and the feeling of the stick handle.
“That lasted 20 minutes we then started playing games like ‘Ring Around the Rosie’’ and shooting the puck.
“For the last 45 minutes of the session we cut the ice in half, divided the group into two teams and let them have fun.”
The organising committee want to provide a pathway for the girls and make sure none of the players are lost through the cracks.
“We got all their contacts and will pass the details on to the Southern women’s team so they can tell the girls when and where the training is happening and hopefully keep them in the sport,” Albright said. “They will get in touch with the girls before the start of next season.”
Four of the novices returned to the Queenstown Ice Arena on Sunday night to join in an organised game played by 18 female players and two female goalies. The game was controlled by two female referees.
“This is the first year that we have ever done this so we have no previous years to compare against,” event organiser Heidi Gillingham said.
“It was great to see some new skaters on the ice and have a last bit of fun before the season ends,” Gillingham said. “Hopefully we will see them back next year at practices, drop in games and maybe even in the social league.”
The fun theme for the girls’ weekend was continued in the game and comments from the new recruits reflect this.
“It was so much fun,” one of the new recruits said. “I loved it!”
“Can I play next year?”
One of the old hands playing in the game was impressed by the skills of the new recruits.
“It’s so nice seeing new skaters on the ice and getting more women involved in the game. Hopefully they’ll still be keen next season.”
Gillingham believes that the success of Southern Stampede in winning three national league titles in the last three years has boosted an awareness of ice hockey in the resort town.
Holding the Trans-Tasman series against Australia in Queenstown during the New Zealand Winter Games has also lifted the profile of the sport.
“It’s been great to watch some world-class hockey in Queenstown and cheer the local boys on to victory again,” Gillingham said.
“It’s definitely raised awareness in the region and the profile of hockey in the town and brought in some new fans and tourists who may not have seen live hockey before.
“Hopefully it continues next season with even more and better show cases.”
The next big ice hockey event in Queenstown will be the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group B next April. It will be the first time an Ice Hockey World Championship event has been held in the resort town.