New Zealand leads the way
by Andy Potts|17 OCT 2021
A group of 33 women and girls took the ice in Wellington, New Zealand – the first of many World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend events around the world on Saturday.
This year’s World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend got an early start when Wellington, New Zealand dropped the puck on the first session. An 8:30 am start on the Saturday morning translates into a Friday evening slot in most of Europe, with the organisers at Wellington Ice Hockey Association celebrating the fact that, this time, they were the first in the world on Saturday.

And the early start proved productive, with 10 brand new hockey players arriving in the 33-strong group and an age range of 6-55 proving that this is game for the young and the young-at-heart.

This weekend’s event is the latest step on a five-year journey for the sport in the New Zealand capital. The city’s hockey association started in 2016 and, despite the counter attractions of rugby and field hockey, things have been developing nicely.

“Ice hockey is a relatively minor sport in New Zealand, not a lot of people know about it or play it, but over the last five years we’ve had a few women playing,” said Rachael Thorp, one of the players who helped set up Saturday’s event as part of the weekly women’s practice at the indoor rink in Upper Hutt. “This season is the first time we’ve had an all-women’s team playing in our leagues, and that’s been awesome.

“There’s a small group of us really trying to develop women’s ice hockey in Wellington and to grow the league to the point where we can have a women’s league of our own. That’s our main goal.”

In the longer term, a place in New Zealand’s national women’s league would be ‘the ultimate utopia’, pitting the capital city alongside the country’s other major centres in Dunedin, Christchurch, Queenstown and Auckland. “We want to be big enough – and good enough – to get into that,” added Thorp.

‘They try it once, and they’re hooked!’

As a country, New Zealand is keen to promote women’s sport. With the women’s national rugby team boasting five World Championship titles in another physically uncompromising sport, this isn’t a place with much sympathy for outdated stereotypes. “I think as a country we’ve always promoted women in sport,” Thorp said. “There’s a ‘give it a go’ attitude, a sense that girls can do anything.”

And Wellington’s girls certainly demonstrated that they can do it: Saturday’s exhibition game against a men’s team ended in a 2-0 win for the women.

Many of those players were recruited directly on the ice, with Wellington Women’s Ice Hockey primed to spot promising skaters using the public rink in town. “Quite often, the rink allows us to wear our hockey gear in public skating sessions and that usually gets a bit of interest from people who come along to skate,” Thorp added. “We get some good discussions with them; a lot of people know about the rink, but don’t know that we play sport there.

“And there’s a lot of word of mouth, we encourage people to drag their friends along and we usually find that, just like the rest of us, they only try it once and they’re hooked!”

Once involved, players find that costs are kept to a minimum despite the extensive kit required to play. “We want to promote that ice hockey is achievable for everyone: we’ve got gear that people can wear for games, for example. It can be seen as quite expensive if you have to shell out for skates and padding and so on, but the Wellington Ice Hockey Association has rally tried hard to get the gear so that cost is not a barrier, and we can encourage everyone to come and give it a go.”

Adapting to the pandemic

In the last 18 months, though, the pandemic has proven a barrier to sport all over the world. Back in August, local restrictions forced the closure of the Wellington rink and today there are still limits on how many people are allowed in the building. But the capital city has coped relatively well with the crisis, and that has helped the hockey association stay on the ice.

“Here in Wellington, we haven’t been hit by it too much,” said Thorp. “In some of the other centres, for example in Auckland, they are still locked down and unable to play. We’re relatively unaffected. We have to follow the same kind of rules you see globally – we have to wear masks, we’re limited to the numbers we can have – but we can still undertake our league games and carry on with practices, so we’re pretty lucky here.”

The pandemic has also emphasised New Zealand’s geographical isolation – the event in Wellington was the only WGIHW activity in Oceania or SE Asia this year, largely due to countries currently placing restrictions on indoor sport in this region of the world. And extra regulations affecting international travel make it even harder to form connections with hockey’s traditional heartlands in North America and Europe.

Meanwhile, keeping on the ice and maintaining the sport’s visibility is crucial for the future. “We just want to get the word out that ice hockey is an option for people beyond the regular sports that everyone does at school. The more people see us, the more we get out on social media, the more people get interested in what we’re doing.”

Click here to access the tracker with more stories from the World Girls' Ice Hockey Weekend.