New Zealand U18s win gold
by Andy Potts|17 MAR 2023
The New Zealand players celebrate after moving to the top spot on the last day of the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group B.
photo: Fuad Esack
New Zealand’s U18 men’s national team came out on top in the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group B in South Africa after an exciting final day of action in Cape Town. The young Ice Blacks, playing their first international tournament since 2019, secured gold with a 7-1 victory over the host nation in the last game of the competition. Hong Kong, China came second, with Thailand collecting the bronze.

That wrapped up a frenetic final day of action in Cape Town. Thursday’s schedule began with three of the four teams capable of taking top spot. Hong Kong, China was the favourite: anything better than a defeat in regulation against Thailand would guarantee first place. A Thai win would put that team in pole position, but would also open the door for New Zealand, which could then force a three-way tie with victory over South Africa.

The opening game turned into a thriller. Thailand led 3-0 and 4-1, but Hong Kong, China battled back. Two goals in a minute midway through the third period saw defender Darren Cheung complete his hat trick before Wai Wong tied it up at 4-4. That was good enough for gold as long as HK kept Thailand at bay.

However, with 2:08 on the clock, Thailand delivered a knock-out blow. The team with the elephant on the jersey had an extended spell of possession in the opponent’s zone but struggled to create a clear look at Chung Yang’s net. There didn’t seem to be much on when Suwichak Suttigarn got the puck at the top of the left-hand circle, but the 16-year-old defender picked out a wrist shot that went over Yang’s glove and into the net.

That changed the picture in the group completely. Suddenly, Hong Kong, China was out of the gold medal race with Thailand on top. Despite a late storm from the Hong Kongers, the Thais closed out a nail-biting 5-4 win and the tournament went all the way to the final game.

Kiwis dominate against host nation

As host nation South Africa faced New Zealand, looking for its first win, it enjoyed the full support of the Thailand contingent. New Zealand needed a win in regulation to take gold in a three-way tie with its Asian rivals, but if South Africa could take even one point from the game, Thailand would finish on top of the pile.

However, the young Ice Blacks gave South Africa little chance in Thursday’s game. New Zealand won 7-1, outshooting the opposition 60-8. There was some brave resistance from home goalies Nico Janse van Rensberg (40 saves from 44 shots) and Connor Gilbert (15 from 16), but the onslaught was irresistible. Once Nash Hayward Jones opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal in the 15th minute, there was little doubt about the final outcome. South Africa came close to tying the game late in the first period: many in the arena thought that Noam Levin’s deflected shot had found the target, but it rippled the twine from behind the goal rather than crossing the goal line.

In the middle stanza, New Zealand took complete control, adding three more goals. Samson Jansen Middleton doubled the advantage before Max Simpson added two more. Captain Yuval Levi potted a consolation effort for the home team.

The final frame saw Simpson complete his hat-trick as the Ice Blacks sealed an emphatic victory and celebrated gold. New Zealand hasn’t been playing in the Division IIIA of the U18 category since 2019. That year, NZ was relegated – albeit by a narrow margin after suffering two overtime losses – and since then the team has been unable to compete due to the pandemic. The tournaments in 2020 and 2021 were cancelled, and New Zealand had to withdraw from last season’s competition. As a result, the class of 2023 was comprised of players with no prior IIHF experience.

New Zealand’s success was very much a team triumph. Instead of eye-catching individual performances, A.J. Spiller’s players focussed on collective responsibility. During the tournament, the Canadian-born head coach, who played several seasons of junior hockey back home before coming to New Zealand in 2016, spoke of his pride at his players’ performance.

“After many years of tournaments cancelled due to COVID-19, this is the first time this team has played together at a World Championship,” he said. “The players have been hard at work, turning up to regional camps, working on their fitness and understanding what it means to be a team player, and I couldn’t be more proud of them and this achievement.”

The gold was New Zealand’s first at any level of IIHF play since 2018. New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation president Andy Mills hopes that this is the start of more medals for his country.
A gold medal at a World Championship event is something these players will remember for the rest of their lives.
Andy Mills
New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation President
“We are so very proud of them and this achievement, something they truly deserve after putting in countless hours of training in the lead up to this event. This result bodes well for continuing the development model the NZIHF has been implementing over the last several years and I’m sure we’ll see these players representing New Zealand on the world stage again,” Mills said.

Spiller’s emphasis on team play ahead of individual results may explain why the directorate awards went to players from other countries. Nico Janse van Rensberg of South Africa was voted top goalie after some brave displays under heavy fire. Hong Kong, China’s defender Darren Cheung got the nod in his category after leading the tournament in scoring with 7 (6+1) points. His teammate Yau Yam was named best forward after he produced 7 (2+5) in his three games.
2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group B