MELBOURNE – The first Trans-Tasman Champions League was an Aussie triumph. The Australian teams were unbeaten against their opponents from New Zealand and Melbourne Ice won the big prize.
Melbourne Ice showed their class from the start by thumping Queenstown-based Southern Stampede 12-2 in the first game and then came from behind in the third period to beat Auckland’s Botany Swarm 8-5.
Also the other team from Australia was successful. The Newcastle North Stars beat the Botany Swarm 6-3 and then demolished the Southern Stampede 11-3.
The two Australian teams finished the tournament unbeaten but Melbourne Ice won because they the better goal difference – 20-3 against Newcastle’s 17-6.
The tournament is a new concept that will run annually, alternating between the two countries. Melbourne Ice was the first winner of the Trans-Tasman Champions League Cup that was newly designed and developed for the event.
The Kiwi teams did not fare as well. Botany Swarm finished third by scoring eight goals and conceding 14. Southern Stampede scored five goals and conceded 23.
New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation treasurer and Stampede administrator Charlie Reid knows that New Zealand ice hockey has some catching up to do.
“Their standard is definitely a few steps up on us,” he said. “The Australian league is semi-professional and ours is amateur. lt doesn’t cost their players anything to play in the Australian league but we have to fund it ourselves.”
The New Zealand Ice Hockey League has been in operation since 2005, and the Australian league since 2000.
The Botany Swarm was New Zealand’s champion in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011. The Southern Stampede won two New Zealand championships in 2005 and 2006 and were runners-up in 2009 and 2011.
Newcastle was the powerhouse of the Australian league when it won four championships, while Melbourne is the reigning back-to-back champions, after beating the North Stars 3-2 in an epic grand final last September.
The Trans-Tasman result was expected but this did not worry Reid.
“The Australians have a very high standard but this was great for us because you only learn by playing against the best,” he said. “The annual competition will definitely continue.”
The Australian league has been split into two conferences and they only come together toward the end of the season.
“The same thing could happen with us and we could become another conference of the Australian league,” Reid said. “It is a few years away before that happens but there is definitely the potential for it.”
The crowds averaged between 700 and 800 for games during the Trans-Tasman series in Melbourne and they are even bigger for Australian league matches.
“There we usually get between 1000 and 1500 people at Australian league games,” Reid said.
“They get a sponsor who has naming rights on the jersey. We don't have that in New Zealand. We are the poor cousins.”
Reid enjoyed the tournament even though his team was thumped in both games.
“It is a fantastic concept and it was great to be involved with the inaugural one,” he said. “I'm certain it will continue because there are real benefits to us and to them as well.”
Australian Ice Hockey League Commissioner Tyler Lovering believed the inaugural Trans-Tasman Champions League was a success.
“Yes, on so many levels,” he said. “All four teams had a tremendous experience and have provided glowing reports of their respective weekends. Both on and off the ice our teams and key stakeholders embraced the concept.
“There was an incredible amount of media coverage – both mainstream and within the ice hockey community – and fans from all over New Zealand and Australia came to Melbourne to be a part of the historic event. We also had hundreds tuning into the live coverage over the internet.”
Lovering feels the Trans-Tasman league will grow the sport in both countries.
“It has... and will continue to raise awareness of the sport and opportunities for those within it,” he said. “I hope these opportunities inspire kids to grab a stick and go for a skate.”
Could it even develop into a combined Australasian league over whole season?
“The tournament itself – as a concept – could not develop into a combined league, but there is scope to form a longer term Australia-New Zealand league in the future,” he said. “But the lack of funding will be a major hand-break to stop this happening in the immediate future.”
Lovering’s highlight of this year’s inaugural event was to have two leagues and four club teams being given a platform to benchmark themselves with the best in the region in front of crowds who travelled from across Australia and the Tasman Sea to enjoy it with them.
“This Australia versus New Zealand event shows the commitment of both leagues to see the sport grow and be recognised by fans across both countries,” he said.
The Australian league is limited to 15-minute periods and sudden-death shoot outs to determine the winner in event of a tie.
It was harder in the Trans-Tasman Champions League because each period was 20 minutes long like in international hockey.
Teams needed to play three or four lines to keep pace with the competition.
New Zealand Ice Hockey League Commissioner Günther Birgel liked the concept.
“It was perfectly organised by the Australian Ice Hockey League,” he said. “Tyler and myself have agreed it is the right step forward to work together and learn from each other to grow the sport in both countries.”
Birgel admitted that he went into the tournament with mixed feelings since both New Zealand’s top teams from last season linger at the bottom of the New Zealand league this year.
“Southern Stampede was not able to lift their game to be competitive but the Botany Swarm certainly did,” he said. “The Swarm went into the games without their star forward Alexander Polozov who was injured, but they got back Charlie Huber who now playing for the Adelaide Adrenaline and it boosted the team enormously.”
Their coach for the last seven years, Andreas Kaiser, returned to the bench.
“It was pleasing to see that despite losing both games the team showed that the New Zealand League is competitive and can match it with the Australians,” Birgel said.
The New Zealand teams and Melbourne Ice have adopted the North American physical style of ice hockey. But Newcastle North Stars are different and have adopted a more European style that concentrates on finesse, skill and speed on the ice.
The physical style was demonstrated in the crucial last game between Melbourne Ice and Botany Swarm.
Melbourne led 3-2 after the first period but the Swarm came back in the second period to level at 5-5.
A big hit by Canadian import Matt Armstrong slammed the Botany Swarm’s top forward Joshua Hay into the unpadded divider and off the ice.
He was assisted from the ice bleeding from a cut in the head. It was a very emotional game where the physicality was high and intense.
It took most of the third period for the Ice to get the necessary two-goal lead to win the cup. The tournament goal scoring was topped by Jeremy Boyer (Newcastle North Star) with ten points (four goals and six assists).
Newcastle had four of the top five goal scorers. Brian Bales scored three goals and had seven assists and Beau Taylor hit five goals and one assist.
Melbourne’s Matt Armstrong had two goals and four assists and Rob Lawrence (Newcastle) six assists. Brett Speirs (Stampede), the only New Zealander in the top 10, hit two goals and had one assist and was placed eighth.
The best players for Melbourne Ice were Joseph Hughes, who scored three goals in the 12-2 win against Stampede, and Liam Webster, who scored two goals in the 8-5 win against Botany Swarm.
The best Newcastle players were Canadian import Rob Lawrence and Beau Taylor, who scored four goals to be named man of the match against Stampede.
The standout players for Botany Swarm were Richard Idoine and national team goalie Zak Nothling, who made 37 saves against Newcastle.
The best Stampede player was Canadian import Joel Cleroux.
Melbourne Ice captain Vinnie Hughes accepts the cup after his team had won the Trans-Tasman Champions League. Photo: Jack Geraghty