DUNEDIN, New Zealand – It could be the start of a New Zealand dynasty. The Canterbury Red Devils’ three-peat is a new record for the New Zealand Ice Hockey league. The league started in 2005 and the Canterbury Red Devils are the first team to win three titles in a row. They also won the league in 2009 and this is their fourth title.
The Botany Swarm is the other team that has won four titles – 2007-2008 and 2010-11.
“We want to get the ultimate status of being a long-term strong dynasty team and making history,” head coach Stacey Rout said.
There is precedence in other sports in Christchurch because the Canterbury rugby team has won the national championships for the last six years.
“It’s close to the Golden Days for the Red Devils,” Rout said. “We have a very positive club and a lot of people do a lot of hard work.”
The Red Devils took just two games to win the best-of three-games final against Dunedin Thunder. In previous years there was just a one game final.
The first game in Dunedin was won narrowly 4-3 but the Red Devils reached new heights last Saturday with a dominant 14-6 win at the Alpine Ice Arena in Christchurch.
Rout was ecstatic after the win.
“We have experienced something no one else has experienced,” he said. “We are the only team to get a three-peat.”
The Red Devils gave a patchy performance in Dunedin but they delivered in style and broke all records at Christchurch.
It was the biggest winning finals score since the league started 10 years ago and the margin of eight points was the biggest winning margin.
It was a special night for Canadian import Brent Vandenberg, Ice Black Chris Eaden and United Kingdom import Dean Tonks, who all scored hat tricks and dominated the goal scoring in the finals.
Vandenberg scored two goals at Dunedin and added three more goals at Christchurch to collect five goals in the finals. He ended the season with 12 goals.
The 25-year-old joined the Red Devils in July as a replacement for Slovak import Vladimir Kutny whose season ended with a serious shoulder injury.
He joined the Red Devils on the advice of an old school mate Evan Zych from the Canadian town of Burlington.
They played together for 10 years until they went in different directions from the age of 15. Being united again in the championship winning Red Devils was a bonus for both players.
The aggressive Eaden scored a hat trick of goals in the Christchurch game on his 24th birthday. He has been an important part of each of the Red Devils three-peat wins. He was also in the winning team in 2009.
Eaden was the leading scorer for the Red Devils with the 18 goals he scored in the league this year. Eaden has a marketing degree from the University of Canterbury but has switched tack and become a personal trainer and is the conditioning coach of the Red Devils.
“I'm a proud trainer of the 'Eaden Project' which works on transforming individuals into superior human beings focusing on making the body more powerful than imagined,” he said.
“I also provide a 360 degree insight on fitness and make people more superior than they already are.
“I have coached numerous elite athletes and sports people but this is my first official sports conditioning coaching role for a semi-professional team.”
He was always confident that the Red Devils would win three titles in a row.
“The boys have worked really hard and deserve this,” he said.
Tonks three goals in the final took his tally for the season to 10.
Hayden Argyle, 28, the successful captain of the Red Devils for the last three years, claimed his third national title.
“We gel together as a team,” he said. “Everyone listens at training and we all get along together. We all want to succeed as a team.”
The Red Devils had beaten the Dunedin Thunder in their four round-robin games but they were not complacent before the final.
“Finals is different hockey and the Thunder played a better game at Dunedin than in other games this season,” Argyle said.
Hockey is an amateur game in New Zealand and the players all have day jobs. Argyle is a concrete grinder which is an important job in his home town of Christchurch that is recovering from the severe earthquakes in 2010-11.
Argyle played a key role in the finals with his strong physical defensive game. He also scored the decisive goal of the game at Christchurch in the last minute of the second period.
Dunedin Thunder, inspired by the experienced Paris Heyd, had come back into the picture with two quick goals and trailed 6-4.
But the Red Devils third goal from a breakout by Argyle sapped their morale and opened the gate for a seven goal scoring spree in the third period.
The Red Devils looked a class above Dunedin Thunder with their skills and speed on the ice. Their puck control was superior. They appeared hungrier and the quick following up led to goals from rebounds.
Their ability to break out and score goals left the Thunder defence floundering.
The Red Devils scored a goal in the first 30 seconds of the game to lead 5-2 at the end of the first period at Christchurch and 7-4 after the second period. A goal in the first 30 seconds set the pattern for the third period.
A feature of the Red Devils style during the season was their ability to hold on to the puck to run the clock down and deny the opposition possession in the third period.
The standout defender in the finals was Jamie Lawrence, who kept blocking shots and scored a goal on a power play for the Red Devils at Dunedin.
It was the coach who did the hard work in the break after the first period in the first game when the Dunedin Thunder led 2-0.
The Dunedin Thunder stunned the Red Devils with goals to imports Jesse Kantanen and Ben Gavoille to lead 2-0 after the first period.
But the initiative came back to the Red Devils with its four goals in the second period and they hung on to win the game.
“I gave them both barrels,” Rout said. “I knew we would have a tough first period on their ice. We had to adjust to the larger arena.
“We had an honest conversation in the break. It was not what we came to Dunedin for and was not what we were training for.
“The momentum changed in the second period and we got on top of them. They got some momentum back in the third period but the damage was already done.”
There was a lapse of concentration by the Thunder in the second period and this allowed the Red Devils to score four goals in a 10-minute purple patch to lead 4-2 before the last period.
Rout has been part of five winning teams in New Zealand league finals. He was in the winning Southern Stampede team in 2005 and 2006, played for the Red Devils in 2012, was assistant coach in 2013 and head coach this year.
He has a busy day job and is the operations manager for City Care in Christchurch that deals with the city’s rebuild after the earthquakes.
“Ice hockey is my passion,” he said. “My son Ollie (7) is our mascot and comes on the road trips with us.”
His wife Heidi backs the Red Devils and also looks after daughter Ana (5) and Carter (18 months).
“I’ve got more than just key players,” Rout said. “I’ve got two key lines.
“We don’t rely on one person to score. We have got two key lines that can score goals.
“A key in the final was our third line because the Thunder coach was trying to match our third line.”
Key players in this line were Max Macharg, Bradley Apps, Josh Greenwood and Tayler Kennedy.
“Our main strength this year has been our team play and speed,” Rout said. “We worked on picking up speed through the neutral zone and using it deep in the offensive zone corners.”
Rout grew up in Queenstown and was a key member of Southern Stampede that played rough and tumble North American style hockey.
But since coming to the Reds Devils he has been influenced by the European imports.
“We play a mixed hybrid style,” he said. “I learnt a lot from the previous European coaches at the Red Devils.
“We’ve worked very hard in getting all our guys understanding our team system. We don’t want to lose the European style of speed and passing.”
The coach has been pleased with the Red Devils season.
“Every player has brought something to the table and we have been focused throughout the season,” Rout said.
When Janos Kaszala became coach of Dunedin Thunder three years ago he had a plan to win the title in his third year.
“In my first year my plan was to beat every team in the league which we did,” Kaszala said.
“My second year was to make the final which we did and my third year plan was to win the league this year.”
It was only the second time that the Dunedin Thunder had made the final since it entered the league in 2008.
“I’m pleased with that,” Kaszala said. “That was a huge achievement. But winning the final was what I really wanted.
“We controlled the first game for 50 minutes and had 10 minutes when they capitalised on our mistakes and scored four goals.
“We came back strongly in the third period but we were against the best team in the league and they have the most experienced players. We have a very young team and came so close.”
Kaszala played professional hockey in Hungary for 10 years before immigrating to New Zealand with his family in 2006.
He was a member of the Hungary national team that won a silver medal in the 2002 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B. He was in the Red Devils team that won the New Zealand league in 2009. He does not think that the home team has an advantage in the New Zealand league.
“It's not like overseas when you have a huge home advantage,” Kaszala said. “The league is not for professionals so we don’t have that big fan bases.”
This year’s target was always going to be difficult because the Red Devils were a polished and experienced team and beat the Dunedin Thunder in their four round-robin games.
The two best players in the Thunder team were experienced Ice Black Paris Heyd in the forwards and Canadian import Matt Canaday as goaltender.
They were both counted in the finals with Heyd able to split the defence up the centre with his skills with the puck and his speed on skates.
The experienced Ice Black honed his skating skills during a year playing professional hockey in France. He was the quickest player on the ice in the finals and almost gave the Thunder an upset win in the first game.
The goal he scored with seven minutes left in the first game at Dunedin rattled the confidence of the Red Devils.
Canaday (23) frustrated the hopes of the Red Devils with his outstanding defence in the first game. At Dunedin he conceded only four goals from the 41 attempts by the Red Devils. He was suspended for the Christchurch match after a spearing incident on Red Devil goal scorer Vandenberg and his experience and skill was missed by Dunedin Thunder.
His replacements Hunter Waugh (17) and Kane Easterbrooke (26) saved only 65% of the Red Devils shots at goal.
Canaday played for the Red Devils three years ago and followed coach Kaszala south to Dunedin in 2013.
He played in the Kazakh league before coming back to New Zealand.
Ice hockey is a very physical game in North America, while the European game is traditionally more focused on ice skills.
“It is a mix here. You have a lot of European guys and they know how to dance on the ice with the puck,” Canaday said.
“But when you have a couple of North American guys, like the Red Devils have, it's pretty crash and bang.”
The other key player in the Thunder team was Andre Robichaud (39), who has captained the team for the last two years.
“I’ll be 40 in a couple of months and am close to the oldest player in the league,” he said. “During the weekend games its fine but its Monday to Friday when I’m aching and creaking.
“Finding the balance between family and work and having an understanding partner is important to make things happen.”
He and his wife Kate have one child, Emerson (1).
“I just take it year by year. I thought last year would have been my last but when winter comes along I get the itch again.”
He grew up in Port Hardy, British Columbia, Canada, and immigrated to New Zealand in 1999. He works as a fire fighter in Dunedin and did not play hockey for 12 years until enticed back by Kaszala when he became coach three years ago.
“It was a long time between drinks,” he admitted. “But once I walked into the rink it was like being back home again.
“But it took time getting the skating muscles up to speed again.”
Robichaud has been surprised that the standard of competition in the New Zealand league.
“The first two lines in each team are just as good if not better that the junior A leagues in Canada,” he said.
“But there is not the depth here and the standard drops off after the second line has played.”
Robichaud has captained teams in Canada and was happy to take the Dunedin Thunder into the league final in the last two years.
His mother Hine Rangi grew up in New Zealand and he had a New Zealand passport when he switched countries. He played junior A hockey in Canada.
“I had four seasons of that then spent a year coaching,” Robichaud said.
The Dunedin Ice Stadium is the largest ice hockey arena in New Zealand and it attracts the European based players.
Two of the imports stood up in the first final with Jesse Kantanen (Finland) and Ben Gavoille (France) scoring early goals in the first final to rattle the Red Devils and give the Thunder a 2-0 lead midway through the first period.
Kaszala has adapted the European style of hockey for Dunedin Thunder and has concentrated on developing skills on the ice to beat opponents.
“I played that style of hockey all my life and I learnt that style as a coach,” he said. “I had many European coaches and I mixed everything together. My style is fast paced European style of hockey.
“We don’t have too many players with individual talent. Everybody knows their own job on the ice and that has made us into a strong team.”
The Dunedin Thunder is the youngest team in the New Zealand league with the average age just under 21 years.
First final: Red Devils 4 (Brent Vandenberg 2, Dale Harrop, Jamie Lawrence), Dunedin Thunder 3 (Jesse Kantanen, Ben Gavoille, Paris Heyd). Period scores (0-2, 4-0, 0-1).
Second final: Red Devils 14 (Brent Vandenberg 3, Chris Eaden 3, Dean Tonks 3, Tamas Lencses, Max Macharg, Brett Speirs, Hayden Argyle, Vitaljis Hvorostinins), Dunedin Thunder 6 (Andre Robichaud, Connor Harrison, Paris Heyd, Matt Enright, Mitchell Frear, George Coslett). Period scores (5-2, 2-2, 7-2).
1. Red Devils 37
2. Dunedin Thunder 31
3. Southern Stampede 22
4. Botany Swarm 21
5. West Auckland Admirals 9
Goal scoring leaders: Mike McRae (Southern Stampede) 21, Brandon Contratto (Botany Swarm) 21, Matthew Schneider (Southern Stampede) 18, Chris Eaden (Red Devils) 18, Paris Heyd (Dunedin Thunder) 16, Vitaljis Hvorostinins (Red Devils) 15.
Best players selected by directorate: Goaltender: Michael Coleman (Red Devils) 45 goals, 401 saves; Defender: Jesse Kantanen (Dunedin Thunder); Forward: Matt Schneider (Southern Stampede).