Rise of the Mako
by Janna Blong|13 AUG 2021
Auckland Mako players during a face-off against the Dunedin Phoenix Thunder.
photo: Wayne Curtis
New Zealand has never been seen as a big ice hockey playing nation. Rugby? Definitely. Netball? For sure. But ice hockey? If you asked a person on the street who their favourite team was in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League (NZIHL), they would probably look at you like you just said Australia is the better at rugby – confused and disappointed – it’s that small.

Although the ice hockey community is small, New Zealand is going the extra mile to try to grow the sport. New Zealand has been able to carry out their 2021 hockey season. The hockey community of around 2,000 used this to their advantage to grow the sport and develop their players and coaches. One way of doing this was the introduction of the Auckland Mako team to New Zealand’s top league, the NZIHL. The introduction of this team marked hockey history in the country, where this was a team composed of players from around the country aged 16-22 who played alongside some of New Zealand’s best current and veteran players.

So why the introduction of a young team to verse players who had years of hockey experience? AJ Spiller, the current head coach of the New Zealand under-18 team and general manager for the Auckland Ice Hockey Association (AIHA) sees this team as ‘another pathway for players to play out of the U18 and U21 categories’. The team allows the 50 chosen players to get the opportunity to have more ice time and more game experience than they may normally get playing in their regular teams. With the guidance of handpicked older players such as Nick Craig, captain of New Zealand’s national team, the players are also having the opportunity to be mentored by some of New Zealand’s best. The formation of this team also falls under the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation’s (NZIHF) current goal of ‘ice hockey for life’, which is basically the principle to keep players from 5 years old to 65 in skates and playing the game they love. 

What is hoped to be achieved through the introduction of the Mako is to see the younger players have their shot to play at a young age, with and against older players, to grow and improve from this experience. Spiller believes that based on the excitement of the wider hockey community and the interest in the team, that this new formation is something that younger players can look forward to, as well as providing motivation to continue playing.

This team isn’t like every other team in the league where the players do not get together and train, instead they come together whenever their game is and play off the bat – regardless of whether they have experience playing with one another or not. Although this team is made up of players across the country, it is considered to be an Auckland-based team. The mentor players rotate each round robin to give players a multitude of experiences with different mentor players. If a mentor player normally plays for the Queenstown Stampede, and the Stampede play against the Auckland Mako, then the Stampede mentor player will play for the Stampede instead of the Auckland Mako; the mentor player will be replaced by another mentor player from a different region. The same goes for if a youth player is representing their home team yet versing the Mako.

The games that the Mako play do not count towards the New Zealand Ice Hockey League (NZIHL) standings, nor will they be eligible for the NZIHL finals as the team plays less games in comparison to the other NZIHL teams. Although this does sound like a bummer, the players are not phased by this as they see the extra ice time and opportunity as a win in itself.

So what else is to come from the federation? Andy Mills, president of the NZIHF, says that they are largely focusing on the growth of the learn to play programme, which is the starter programme for youth players in New Zealand, and the retention of players and coaches alike. The introduction of the Mako holds key elements to help grow the game in New Zealand. Mills says: “The team is a focus for the future, not the here and now and COVID has given us the opportunity to reset and work on our core values.” The Auckland Mako is a great example of turning adversity into something great. 

The players themselves have seen this team as something exciting and are grateful for the opportunity. Spiller commented: “So far the experience has been awesome, the players and hockey community have really embraced the team and are encouraged by the idea of giving young players a platform to grow and improve”. Ben Taylor, 17, thinks that “the best part of playing for the Mako is the amount of ice time we get and how we learn stuff from the mentor players that we might not already know because they play for another team.” Alex Soncodi, 17, sees the team as “a great idea that gives me a chance to play with people I have more chemistry with, and there is less of a senior/junior feel to it. It’s just like playing a game with the boys.” CJ Kemp, 17: “The best part of playing on the Mako is being able to play with players I would normally verse in the regular season, as well as having more ice time.”

So what is next for New Zealand ice hockey? Moving up the ladder in world rankings? Or maybe even having a first player in the NHL? A nation can dream. For now, this small community is working hard to get the players to achieve their goals and grow as people so that someday, they might see one of their own hoisting the Stanley Cup.