INGOLSTADT – Fans saw many tight games between the top teams of the 2012 IIHF InLine Hockey World Championship. But there’s even more to this event, especially at the rather “exotic” Division I level, where teams from as far away as New Zealand get to show their stuff.
This year the teams outside of Europe and North America are Australia, Japan and New Zealand. In the previous years there were also teams from Argentina, Brazil, Namibia and South Africa. But it’s the New Zealanders who have to come from farthest away.
Nobody knows that better than Team Leader Robert Henry, who arrived in Germany suffering from a case of thrombosis after two days of travel.
“We came to Australia, to Dubai and Munich, and from there by bus,” Henry said. “Our flying time was about 26 hours plus stopovers, so it takes us 30 hours plus to get here.
“It’s a different time zone, a different hemisphere. It’s not easy. It has some influence, but we came a bit earlier, we make sure the players are rested, we don’t go out in the night apart from the festival we went with the German team before the tournament.”
And for the Kiwis it’s worth it. “It’s a great tournament and we love to be here,” Henry said.
While ice hockey has its roots in the chillier south of the country, inline hockey is more popular in the northern island with cities like Auckland and Wellington.
The New Zealand Inline Hockey Association counts roughly 2,000 players and 22 clubs while there are about 1,200 registered ice hockey players.
There are also some players who do both sports. “Some like inline, but also like the glamour of ice hockey, but it’s way more expensive to play ice hockey,” Henry said.
Another cost point is travelling to international events, as most countries where the sport is practised are far away.
“We’re not big enough to pay everything. We manage to cover half of the cost and the players have to pay the other half,” said Henry.
“It costs several thousand dollars each to get to the World Championship. Many just finished study or started to work. There’s a number of players I would like to have brought with me, but they made themselves unavailable for work or money reasons.”
About half of the team has been at the IIHF InLine World Championship at least twice, while the other half consists of new players.
Zachary Beardman, one of the more experienced players at the event, confirms what it means to travel to Europe.
“It takes almost two days to get here, but you get it done. It’s expensive for us to play in international tournaments as we’re far away from the rest of the hockey world. Even to get to Australia is expensive,” Beardman said.
“It’s hard to get the same team every year. You have to spend a lot of money one year and then save to come back the next year. And you also have to get time off from work and family.”
To have more time to adjust to Germany, which is pretty much at the other end of the globe from New Zealand, the team travelled there earlier and played an exhibition game before going to a Bavarian festival with the host team.
There the New Zealanders also showcased the Haka, a dance from their indigenous Maori people that some sport teams (including ice hockey teams) do before games as a ritual.
“We did a Haka and there were many people who saw us and came to our game because of that and cheered us on,” Beardman said.
And who’s the best Haka dancer? Beardman immediately pointed to Lewis Taiapa. Joined by his younger brother Jensen, he’s one of the most experienced players with four participations. And he’s of Maori origin.
“It’s my culture. It’s like a team sort of thing. We do it as a group in many sports,” he said about the dance, also showing his tattoo.
Apart from that he doesn’t feel too different from others. People of both Maori and European descent are integrated well together in New Zealand’s society. More than in many other former colonies.
“It is a little bit different,” Taiapa said about his heritage. “We have our customs and ways to prepare food. It’s sort of a subculture in New Zealand.”
Taiapa and his teammates enjoy their time in Germany and also used the day off after the preliminary round to visit Munich.
“It’s really nice in Germany. The people are friendly, it’s well organized, the food is good, the hotel is good. Everybody is looking after us,” the 27-year-old forward said. “The German team is really nice too. We played a friendly game against them. They’re pretty cool.”
Taiapa’s debut came in 2007. A tournament he remembers well. It was also held in the German region of Bavaria, in Landshut and Passau.
“It was my first tournament. We played well and came back the year after. We were second,” said Taiapa.
“My most memorable moment was the first game. We played Hungary. They told us we’d never ever beat Hungary. Half of their team was of professional players. But then I scored the game-winning goal to help us win the first game. We celebrated like we had won the whole tournament. It was crazy. The Hungarians were looking at us and thought ‘What?’.”
It was a 9-8 victory that was followed by losses against Brazil and Australia in the preliminary round. But in the playoffs the Kiwis defeated Japan and Australia to reach a Division I gold medal meeting with Brazil that ended with a 5-4 overtime win for the South Americans.
Five years later the balance of power has changed in the Division I tournament. New Zealand defeated Japan, but lost to Hungary, Austria and Croatia. Now the Kiwis have to play to avoid relegation within the group of the bottom teams that also includes today’s opponent Japan as well as Australia and Bulgaria.
In the worst case they will have to go through a qualification tournament again to get back to the 2013 IIHF InLine Hockey World Championship Division I.