(Ice) Hockey Down Under

As we are bouncing between fjords along the coast of New Zealand, approximately as far south of the equator as Montreal is north, it seems a good time to examine the state of hockey in both Australia and New Zealand. Rather, we'll look at the state of ice hockey in the southern reaches of the planet. If you simply say "hockey" in these parts, the presumption is that you are speaking about field hockey, a sport with which the residents are far more familiar. Australia in particular has had considerable success in the non-frozen version, with the women's team dominating world play in the 1990's, and the men taking home the last two World Cup titles, in 2010 and 2014.

No, ice hockey has not yet reached the radar screens of your average Aussie or Kiwi, based upon my admittedly limited and highly unscientific survey of the locals. You won't find it mentioned in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame (located on the upper level of a beautifully restored train station in the city of Dunedin), and nary a mention is found in the local papers or on broadcast media. Field hockey, Rugby, Australian Rules Football and cricket dominate the spectator and participant landscape, with soccer and basketball also currying some favor, depending on who you speak to. A cab driver told us that Australia can be summed up in three words: "Sports, Beer and Beach, in that order". While the passion for sports cannot be denied, it has not quite extended to ice hockey . . . at least not yet.

In truth, ice hockey in both countries has existed in some form since the early 20th century, albeit on a limited basis. Australia joined the IIHF in 1938, and reports of ice hockey matches date back to before World War I. Australia periodically appeared in international competitions, and even fielded a team in the 1960 Winter Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, California. (It lost its two games to the U.S. and Czechoslovakia by a combined score of 30 - 2). New Zealand joined the IIHF in 1977, but similarly can trace some hockey roots back to much earlier in the century. However, in each case, it has only been since the new millennium that each country has focused and intensified its ice hockey emphasis. (However, Australia will gladly point to a 58 - 0 drubbing of the Kiwis in a 1987 IIHF contest).

All hockey in both countries is governed by IIHF rules, including rink sizes. They both field teams for the Men's, Women's, U-20 and U-18 World Championships, moving between Divisions IIA, IIB and III, depending upon the team's fortunes. The New Zealand Men's National Team, the Ice Blacks (taken from the much beloved national rugby squad), has earned eight medals at the world championships since 2000, with 2 of them gold. The Australian team - the Mighty Roos - has won seven medals since 2001, including a Division IIB gold medal in 2008. Both countries are expected to compete in the 2016 Division IIB World Championships in Mexico City.

On the women's side, Australia has fielded an IIHF squad since 2000, winning Division III gold in 2003 and 2007 and silver in 2011. Promoted to Division IIA, the Aussie women notched silvers in 2012 & 2013 before falling on hard times and being relegated back to Division IIB last year. New Zealand has fielded a women's team since 2005 (the Ice Fernz). They won four medals in four years in the Division IV Worlds, including gold in 2011. That earned them a promotion to Division IIA, where they failed to medal in four attempts. They finished last in the group in 2015, relegating them to Division IIB, where they will encounter their regional adversary - Australia.

Both Australia and New Zealand field U-20 junior teams. The Aussies struck gold in 2004 & 2010 in Division III, then were promoted to Division IIB, where they earned a bronze medal last year. New Zealand has earned silver in Division III each of the last two years.

"Professional" hockey - as such - does not exist in either country. Both countries maintain top level men's and women's leagues, from which national teams are drawn. However, the players are not paid a salary, and receive only varying levels of support in terms of transportation, meal & lodging allowances, etc. Similar to many soccer leagues, clubs in each country are allowed to engage a certain number of "imports" - i.e. ringers from other countries. For example, the New Zealand men's league featured 13 Americans, 6 Canadians, 2 French, 2 British and 2 Estonian players, in addition to single players from Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Hungary). Those imports can receive an "enhanced" level of support.

The New Zealand Ice Hockey League features two teams from Auckland (Botany Swarm & West Auckland Admirals), and one each from Dunedin (Dunedin Thunder), Christchurch (Canterbury Red Devils) and Queenstown (Southern Stampede). They play a 16 game regular season, limited to weekend back-to-backs, with the season ranging from June through late August (coinciding with Southern Hemisphere winter). The schedule also allows them to attract some Northern Hemisphere talent during their off-season. The Stampede were last season's champions, scoring an impressive 112 goals in 16 regular season games. Not surprisingly, they also boasted the league's top five scorers, led by Jake Portwood, with 22-24-46 in his 16 games. (Both New Zealand and Australia follow the IIHF 3-point system for computing team stndings. Just sayin . . . ) New Zealand also has a fledgling women's league, the NZWIHL, treated as a development league. It has three teams at present, and plays a November through March schedule.

Australia has an eight team men's league, with 2 teams from Melbourne (the Ice and the Mustangs), 2 teams from Sydney (the Bears and the Ice Dogs), plus individual clubs from Adelaide (Aelaide Adrenaline), Newcastle (Newcastle North Stars), Perth (Perth Thunder) and the CBR Brave, who hail from the region surrounding Canberra, the nation's capital, an area conceptually similar to the District of Columbia. They play a 28 game schedule between late April and the end of August, also confined primarily to weekends, with an occasional Thursday contest thrown in. (Fox Sports does hold the broadcast rights). The North Stars were the champions last year, led by Geordie Wudrick, who posted 44 goals, 47 assists and 91 points. Impressive numbers in any season, let alone one that spans only 28 games. As you might hve surmised by now, defense and goaltending are not the hallmarks of either league.

The Australian Women's Ice Hockey League began play in 2007, and features four clubs from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. They play a 12 game schedule between October and March. The championships have been divided exclusively between Adelaide (5) and Melbourne (4), though Melbourne has won the last three.

The IIHF estimates that Australia has 4,264 ice hockey players in the system, while New Zealand can claim 1,277. However, when you consider that Australia's population (23 million +) is more than five times the New Zealand tally of 4.4 million, the per capita participation edge goes to the Kiwis. Both countries have six indoor ice rinks capable of hosting IIHF games, but New Zealand also holds three outside facilities. Obviously, infrastructure is one major element holding back the sport's growth in either country. New Zealand's capital, Wellington, boasts 400,000 people, but can't get an ice rink built.

No matter, the sport is taking a foothold in these southern nations, although it is perhaps a tenuous one. It will need more to enable it to flourish, but it is fun to explore how the sport is viewed and progressing in these very sports conscious nations.

Good on ya', mate. Stay tuned.

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