DUNEDIN, New Zealand – Paris Heyd’s venture into European ice hockey has raised his expectations and made him a potential super star of the sport in New Zealand.
He was a talented New Zealand ice hockey player before his seven-month stint with the Cergy-Pontoise Jokers in France.
The constant play and more time on the ice have honed his skills and he is now demonstrating this in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League as the new hockey season has started in the southern hemisphere.
Heyd, 21, is the best ice hockey player in the country and the first New Zealander to get an overseas professional contract.
He recently returned to his home town of Dunedin after his time with the Cergy-Pontoise Jokers, a team from the second tier about 40 kilometres northwest of Paris.
Heyd was a first-line member of the Jokers and played in all 26 games and scored 28 points – 13 goals and 15 assists.
The standard of the ice hockey league in France was a step up from the experience he had in New Zealand. The consistent hockey at a high level week by week has added a new dimension to Heyd’s game.
His start to the New Zealand Ice Hockey League was delayed because of an ankle sprain.
But he returned in style to score a hat trick to help Dunedin Thunder beat defending champions Botany Swarm 8-2 at Auckland before winning 6-1 in the second game against the same opponent.
He has teamed up with the three Finish imports to give the Thunder its second double header in the league when it beat the Southern Stampede 4-2 and 6-3 last weekend.
It was a record fourth straight win by the Thunder and keeps it at the top of the New Zealand league.
Heyd’s European experience has sped up his skating and he is using it to help the Dunedin Thunder to its best ever performance in the New Zealand league. The time spent in the French league was an eye opener for Heyd.
“They play a different style of ice hockey in France. It is a lot faster and not as rough,’’ he said. “It is typical of European hockey. It is a lot more skill-based rather than physicality and contact. There is more finesse and they skate faster. The reaction time is quicker and the execution of shots and passing is more accurate.”
For Heyd it meant adjusting to the new environment and style of play à la française.
“More thought and preparation is needed for each game. You have to keep playing at a top standard. You can’t slack,” he said. “You are held accountable for the work you do and you learn not to make mistakes.’’
Dunedin Thunder Finnish import Matti Haapakoski has described ice hockey in New Zealand as a rough and tumble physical game that is played in a rugby style.
New Zealand ice hockey has adopted the more physical North American style of ice hockey where players are more frequently pushed into the boards.
It is different in Europe.
“In France it is all skills with few physical clashes,'' Haapakoski said. “It is a bit more physical in Finland.'”
The Jokers team finished 13th of the 14 teams in the competition.
“But there was only three points between eighth place and 13th. We were only three points off the play-offs,” Heyd said. “We played one game each week and we trained on another three days.”
“It has always been my dream to make a living playing hockey. It came true in France,” Heyd said after his one-year contract had expired. “It was what I expected it would be. They have more depth in Europe. We lack depth in New Zealand.”
His talent was recognised last year by the Dunedin Thunder assistant coach Kevin Arrault, who coaches professional hockey in France. He recommended Heyd to the Jokers.
It was a better deal than he ever had in New Zealand.
His accommodation and flights were paid by the Jokers and he got enough “pocket money” each month to enjoy his overseas experience.
A couple of inline hockey players from New Zealand have made the trek to Europe to play in leagues but Heyd was the first ice hockey exponent to blaze the trail. It was a reward for six years of hard slog.
“I hope it has opened the doors for others,” he said. “The game is a lot faster and more serious over there. It's been the dream of my life. I just love playing hockey on the ice.”
Heyd’s early form in the New Zealand league indicates that the standard of his hockey has improved after his intense period in France.
“I was on the ice four times a week for seven months,” he said. “I’ve had a lot more time to build up my skills. I’m now faster on skates and it has helped my shooting accuracy, stick handling and puck control.”
Heyd’s French was non-existent before he left. It is not much better now but he can make himself understood by French shop keepers.
“I found it so hard to learn the language before I left New Zealand and I didn’t pick up that much over there,” he admitted. “The French speak too quickly and I still can’t follow a full conversation.”
He was lucky that the Jokers had a French-Canadian coach who could speak English.
“The young French guys in our team spoke English and I could get by,” he said.
He was invited back to the Cergy-Pontoise Jokers for next season but put the invitation on hold to concentrate on his university studies.
Heyd also gave up the chance of representing the Ice Blacks at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Reykjavik, Iceland, in April. He did not want to miss the first four weeks of his second-year business management and tourism degree course at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
“It was also the cost,” he said. “I had to save my money for university. I want to advance my degree. Playing for the Ice Blacks is a massive financial commitment, so a lot of people can’t play. It’s all funded privately, by our parents, our summer jobs, however we can get the money.”
Knowing there is a life after ice hockey, he wants to advance his university degree first.
“I’m taking the year off international hockey to get my study going and then go back to Europe to gain more ice hockey experience and finish my degree by a correspondence course,” he said about his future plans
The plight of talented New Zealand ice hockey players has been highlighted by the three Finnish imports playing for Dunedin Thunder in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League this season.
Haapakoski, Jussi Vähämaa and Joni Nukari play semi-professional ice hockey in Finland and have come to New Zealand to gain more experience.
When playing in Finland they need a part time job to supplement their income from ice hockey. In New Zealand they have to pay to play for Dunedin Thunder. There are no free rides in New Zealand ice hockey.
“Kiwis even have to pay to play for the Ice Blacks,” Haapakoski said. “I just play for the experience. I don’t get paid. I came because I want to play all year round. The team organises me a job while I am playing.
“The reason I came to Dunedin is because they have a great rink. When I was coming here we could tell that everything is done with passion and love for the sport.”
It is different in Finland with elite players earning hundreds of thousands Euros a year.
“Young players have two dreams – to play for Finland and then play in the NHL,” Nukari said.
The situation in New Zealand is different. Rugby is the national sport and any player contracted for the All Blacks (the national team) is paid a minimum of $NZ 250,000 a year. The super stars get paid more and with endorsements could be paid over one million each year.
International cricketers are also well paid in New Zealand with rates of around $NZ 180,000 a year. The best players can also get short-term contracts with the lucrative Indian league.
Rowing is New Zealand’s most successful Olympic sport and international rowers get all their expenses paid and earn a comfortable wage to train fulltime.
But elite performers in other sports have to juggle their careers with their sport.
For Paris Heyd, ice hockey has been his passion since he was a kid.
“It has been his dream since he started playing ice hockey at the age of five," his father Maurice Heyd said. His family have backed him and given him financial help to represent New Zealand internationally.
His father, mother Ushi and sister Cuba (11) were at the Dunedin Ice Stadium last year when Heyd was one of the star players for New Zealand at the New Zealand Winter Games. He scored a hat trick in the 6-1 semi-final win against China.
Heyd was born in Alexandra but he grew up in Christchurch, before spending the last three years of his school days in Canada.
“I went to secondary school in Montreal to improve my hockey,” he said.
Heyd has played for the Ice Blacks for the last three years and now feels confident on the international scene.
Heyd got his start in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League as a 15-year-old for the Southern Stampede. He spent 2006 training and watching from the bench.
But a shift to Christchurch saw him start to get regular ice time for the Canterbury Red Devils.
For the next three consecutive New Zealand summers he attended an ice hockey school in Montreal, Canada, to hone his craft.
Heyd shifted back to Dunedin where he was raised to begin a degree in business management at the University of Otago in 2010 and joined the Thunder.
Some strong performances in the league propelled him from the national under-20 side to the Ice Blacks, playing for the senior national team at the 2011 IIHF World Championship Division II Group A. It was his first time, but it will likely not be his last time, despite his break.