Aug 12, 2005 (pubished on www.tvnz.co.nz)
By Fred Lunjevich
It’s the same catch cry for ice hockey in New Zealand as it is for any other minor sport: without fans and money things go nowhere.
Unlike many other minority sports, ice hockey requires special facilities and can cost upwards of $1000 for a full playing kit.
Training ice time at Paradice Botany Downs costs $225 an hour.
Despite the challenges, the powers that be in the game are well on their way to developing some top class players with the newly formed New Zealand Ice Hockey League.
That being said, Auckland has around 450 registered players of various ages and about 250 people showed up at each game to watch last weekends round at Paradice Avondale.
NZIHL general manager Gunther Birgel says there is plenty of interest in the sport in major centres but there are only four rinks that are open year round.
Auckland has two rinks while Christchurch and Dunedin prop up the South Island. Queenstown has a rink but it closes in September.
“We would like to have more teams and can’t wait until places like Hamilton and Wellington come on board,” says Mr Birgel.
“We’re waiting for Wellington City Council to build a rink at the events centre in Newtown.
“There are a number of roller hockey players in the region who would love to play.”
In the meantime the league continues with four teams with four rounds.
The league will expand to five rounds next year and there may also be a semifinal round added.
A league of this nature was started 10 years ago but quickly fizzled out due to high travel costs. With more players in the New Zealand domestic airline market costs have come down to a level that allows teams to travel more.
The NZIHL takes over from a Nationals competition that would see Auckland, Canterbury and Southland face off over a weekend. It was apparent each year that Auckland’s dominance wasn’t helping strengthen the sport around the rest of the country and so the NZIHL was born.
“It is our goal to make stage a good competition with even teams throughout the country,” says Mr Birgel.
“One advantage Auckland has that a place like Christchurch doesn’t is that there are quite a few good import players in the Auckland area.
“There are five Canadian players in the Southern Stampede team and two of them are really carrying the team.”
Foreign players have strengthened local ice hockey in a way that All Blacks would in places where rugby was a minority sport.
Each team is permitted to have a maximum of five foreign players in any one game.
New Zealand’s national team – the Ice Blacks – moved into the second division of the international competition, which Mr Birgel says took years to achieve.
“The goal for the Ice Blacks is to get into the first division, and realistically, that’s all we can manage in this area of the world.”
New Zealand are ranked 37th in the world and will find competition tough when they host China, Mexico, North and South Korea at Paradice Botany in April next year.