Since New Zealand started to compete internationally in the ‘80s the sport has developed in the Oceanic country. Once a game played on frozen ponds by sheep farmers, New Zealand hockey is nowadays able to challenge their rival, Australia.
Hockey is a good fit for the country. The country is on the other side of the world from Central Europe and has a good climate for winter sports. As the season started in June, the temperatures were around 10°C.
The first ever-game on the island was said to be staged in 1937 on frozen ponds. The sport has grown since then to more than 1,500 registered players.
With the start of the new season this month, the New Zealand Ice Hockey League hopes to get to the next level and is even in talks with a national broadcaster.
Five teams play 16 games each in a three-month span before the final in September.
The season began with an upset as the reigning champion Canterbury Red Devils lost to the West Auckland Admirals. Most of the teams count on imports with the Southern Stampede as an exception with ten players from New Zealand’s U18 national team. They defeated the Dunedin Thunder, while the Botany Swarm, which has 11 players from the men’s national team, the Ice Blacks, had a bye the first weekend.
“The league has definitely raised its level and has helped develop Kiwi players, especially the kids,” said New Zealand’s U18 national team coach Jonathan Albright. “The kids try to emulate the imports and that helps.”
Albright will have new chances to scout candidates in the future. New Zealand has launched an U16 league, the NZJEL, with selections from three regions – Auckland, Canterbury and Southern – that play in four venues.
Another current topic is to increase exposure to attract more fans, players and sponsors.
The interest in hockey increased when the country staged the NZ Winter Games and people saw their team play on TV for the first time.
“We have never had the chance to get New Zealand ice hockey on TV before,” said Günther Birgel, the General Manager of the NZIHL. “The series win of the Ice Blacks against Australia last August raised the profile of the sport considerably. We also had the Vancouver Olympics and people tuned into watch ice hockey more so than other sports.”
Now he hopes to get each hockey weekend of the league on TV – at least if sponsors can be found to cover the production costs. “The exposure for hockey and possible sponsors would be quite considerable,” Birgel said. “It is an excellent opportunity to establish brands alongside an exciting, hard, fast, technical game with strong roots and even stronger future.”
New Zealand showed improvement also on the international stage this year.
In April, the Ice Blacks had their best result at the World Championship, Division II with a fourth-place finish. They were 36th overall in the World Championship program, a place they haven’t reached in the last 20 years.
“We want to challenge for a medal. Moving up a place next year and winning bronze would be an absolutely huge,” head coach Jeff Bonazzo said to TV3 and hopes that the clubs will profit from the coverage of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
“People in New Zealand saw the games played at the highest level at the Olympics and said: ‘Wow, it’s amazing to watch that fantastic game!’ And now they can come out and see it,” Bonazzo said.
With the Kiwis, Australia and South Africa, only three countries from the World Championship program are in the southern hemisphere which can be challenging as the national teams participate internationally while their leagues are on a summer break.
There are two ideas to take New Zealand to the next level. First, to have a team that participates in the stronger Australian League. The Australian island is about a three-and-a-half-hour flight away from New Zealand.
No application has been made yet, but the topic is being discussed within New Zealand’s federation. The other idea is to adjust the calendar to the northern hemisphere by playing in the hottest months of the year, which has pro and con arguments. One advantage would be better preparation for the national teams.
“If we join the AIHL, our national league could be played in the summer months but probably with a reduced schedule,” said Birgel. “People here are just not geared toward going to the rinks in summer. However, we may have to give it a trial.”