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This week we would like to welcome Claire Ziegler of Goodbye Puck Pie to tell us about the New Zealand Womens Ice Hockey League
Underfunded, under-reported, under-resourced: the challenges facing women’s hockey in New Zealand are sadly common across women’s sport and all-too-easy to focus on. That said, the view from the bleachers is also one that holds a great deal of promise.
2014 saw the establishment of a dedicated women’s league, the NZWIHL, with teams based in the three most populated centres for ice hockey in New Zealand – Auckland, Canterbury and Southern.
As a country with around 4.5 million residents in total, hockey players, fans and enthusiasts make up only a small fraction of the population, with female hockey players making up an even smaller fraction of that starting populus.
As a country with 9 ice rinks in total – and some of those open only in winter – ice time is at a premium for any of the rink-based winter sports, and is highly sought after. The NZWIHL commissioners made a decision to base the women’s season largely over the southern hemisphere summer, which meant both stretching out the available hockey for fans to watch, and also cut down on competition for practice and game time. In its inaugural season, the NZWIHL was free to spectators, with donations encouraged to help grow the game.
With 71 women making up the three teams, and only 184 female players registered in the entire country, this meant almost 40% were taking part in this competition. Necessarily, this meant that there was some variation in both talent and experience levels across all three teams. The women’s game is still very much in its developmental phases in New Zealand, and the NZWIHL will assist that, providing valuable experience for players, coaches and officials.
The time and financial constraints faced by the league and players necessarily meant a short season – two games per weekend away and at home vs each opponent, plus a compressed schedule tournament to finish off the season, which was held in Dunedin, giving each team a total of 12 games. This also restricted the amount of games that spectators – other than those based in Dunedin – could see. That said, even within the few games I was able to attend in Auckland, it was clear to see all three teams improving their performances with each passing game.
The first game of the season was Auckland vs Southern, and was something of a blowout for the home side, with a score of 11-4. Southern came back strong on the Sunday, and were able to steal a win with a score of 2-1, building on a strong performance by goalie Jaimee Wood and a phenomenal individual effort on both days from captain Anna Goulding.
Improvement from game to game was clear in both individual players and in familiarity and comfort with team systems. The first game did feature some notably slow action – especially to fans who were in the midst of watching NHL and other Northern Hemisphere leagues – and overall the game was slower and less fluid. This was likely due to a product of time spent on the ice and the experience levels of the players, and the slower play became less and less noticeable as the season went on. Given the stunning improvements of this limited 12 game season, it’s hard not to imagine how much better off the women’s game in NZ will be when a longer and more competitive season is able to be held.
Even in the two weeks of game play between the opening weekend and the games held in Auckland against Canterbury, it was clear to see the improvements in the Auckland players. Both they and the Cantabrians put on a good performance, splitting the weekend results with a 7-2 Auckland victory and a 5-4 Canterbury one. Standout performances here were from Bridie Gibbings and Krystie Woodyear-Smith for Canterbury, and some great work in net from Auckland starter Lochlyn Hyde.
The Auckland team were the eventual winners of the 2014 season, dropping only 2 games, and posting a stunning goal differential of +40 – the only team with a differential in the positive. This was partially due to the absolutely incredible performance of forward Jasmine Horner-Pascoe, who netted 26 goals in just 10 games. Her ability to deke through even experienced defense was outstanding and thrilling to watch.
Auckland Assistant Coach Jonathan Albright said, looking back on the season, he and Head Coach Andy Kaisser were impressed with the level of play and competitiveness. He went on to say that in many ways he was reminded of the inaugural season of the national men’s league, and anticipates with time that the NZWIHL will grow and develop as much as the men’s league has.
As a spectator, it was curious to see how many members of the national women’s team – the Ice Fernz – were actually playing in the NZWIHL last season. The Fernz who did take part were usually in the higher echelons of players for each team – Anna Goulding, Libby-Jean Hay, Jasmine Horner-Pascoe, Helen Murray and Hannah Shields were particular standouts – but it was also encouraging to see strong performances from previously uncapped players. This demonstrated both the growth in the women’s game in such a short period, and the effects of only being able to field a team for international tournaments, due to players having to fund the travel and tournament fees themselves.
New Zealand played host to their division of the IIHF Women’s Worlds in 2013. This enabled the Fernz to ice the strongest team they had been able to in years due to the decrease in costs for the players. It also opened up the game to hundreds of enthusiastic spectators who got their first good taste of the women’s game.
The Fernz narrowly missed out on medaling that year, but the abiding memory of that tournament will most likely be – for players and spectators alike – the stunning 4-3 victory over Australia in the round robin — which was the first official victory of a New Zealand ice hockey team over an Australian one in IIHF tournament play. It was a fantastic performance for skaters and goalies alike, with Ice Fernz goalie Grace Harrison making a statement with her performance in net at the age of 15.
The following IIHF tournaments have been tough for the Fernz, with travel to Italy and England incurring costs of both time and money. Poorer than expected performances – along with an increase in the competitiveness at the 2A level – have seen first Australia (2014) and then New Zealand (2015) relegated to the 2B division. The one benefit of this setback on the international stage is that the trans-Tasman rivalry will once again be on display in 2016, as both sides will be under pressure to both beat their neighbours and to earn promotion back up to Division 2A.
The past few years have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of players heading overseas for both school and playing opportunities, and nowhere has this been more obvious than with the vast number of talented goalies New Zealand hockey has been producing as of late.
Dunedin-based Jaimee Wood has trained in Toronto, and made the CBC news while in Canada. She was also impressive in the NZWIHL this year. Auckland-based Firth Bidois travelled to the USA to study and play at Lindenwood University Belleville in 2014-15 for the first season of their ACHA women’s hockey team, and performed extremely well. She is also the only non-US/CA born player to make the team. Lochlyn Hyde put in fantastic performances in the NZWIHL and the NZ U20s league, and hopes to be able to make her mark on the international team in years to come, while her sister Alex has already appeared for the Ice Fernz as a forward.
Just this month, news has spread that Grace Harrison has been offered a scholarship to play Division 1 NCAA hockey for St Lawrence, making her the first New Zealander to ever be offered an NCAA scholarship for ice hockey. At 5’10 she will be one of the tallest goalies in the competition, and those at home will be watching eagerly to see how she performs on this stage.
In terms of the immediate future for female hockey players in New Zealand, I’m thrilled to find out that the NZWIHL will be going into its second season over 2015-2016, and I look forward to getting to see more of our Kiwi players develop. I hope we’ll see growing support for the teams from fans across the country, and it would be marvellous to get to the point where there’s infrastructure to add more teams, more games, and more access for people outside the main centres to watch and compete.
I’d also love to see the NZWIHL teams form more individual identities for themselves – such as picking names and logos outside of the basic geographical descriptions. If nothing else, yelling “Go Southern!” or “Go Auckland!” doesn’t really roll off the tongue particularly well, and while the Canterbury team at least had more visually interesting jerseys, I’d also love to see a move away from names that are the ‘lady’ version of existing men’s teams.
Internationally, the Ice Fernz’ next competition will be in Ankara, Turkey in 2016. They’ll be aiming for promotion back to Division 2A, and a step towards their long-term goal of eventually qualifying for the Winter Olympics. I’ll certainly be following along from home, and can’t wait to see how they do. Let’s go Fernz!
Claire is a New Zealander with a taste for silly puns, cat pictures and Star Wars references. A lab technician by day, she spends most of her free time reading, writing and yelling at hockey on her TV. She volunteers with the NZIHL as a writer, editor, go-fer and occasional play-by-play voice, and conducts an annual unofficial survey of the best hot chips across the various Kiwi ice rinks.
All images (C) Suzy T Photography