QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand – It was a home town triumph. The capacity crowd at the Queenstown Ice Arena erupted at the final whistle when Southern Stampede beat the Red Devils.
The crowd, dressed in yellow, yelled support as captain Matt Schneider did a victory skate holding the New Zealand Ice Hockey League’s Birgel Cup to music from “We are the champions.”
Southern Stampede stamped its dominant note when they beat Red Devils 2-0 in the best-of-three finals series at the weekend.
They convincingly retained the Birgel Cup at their home bastion in Queenstown with an emphatic 7-1 win. It backed up the winning 6-2 margin in the first final at Christchurch.
It was especially pleasing for new captain Matt Schneider, who was in his fifth year with the Stampede.
“It was a big deal for us,” he said. “It's a short three month sprint with a very long off-season. The year revolves around this time of the year when we are all very hot and crazy.”
He enjoyed the atmosphere at the Queenstown Ice Arena with the supportive crowd so close to the ice.
“I love it. The fanfare is great. I’ve played in front of 10,000 to 15,000 before but the crowd in Queenstown with the noise and atmosphere rivals anything I’ve ever played in front of before,” said the Canadian who played in the WHL and CIS before moving to New Zealand.
The New Zealand Ice Hockey League was first held in 2005 and the Stampede is now on equal terms with the Red Devils with four wins each.
The Queenstown based team dominated the first two years and won the trophy in 2005 and 2006. But there was a long nine-year wait until they gained their third win when the Red Devils were beaten in last year’s final.
Stampede also finished runner-up three times – 2009, 2011 and 2012. This year was the fourth time that Red Devils have finished runner-up.
Stampede looked lethargic during the first period of the second game when the Red Devils, playing out of their skin, led 1-0.
This did not please coach Adam Blanchette and he let the players understand that they had to lift their game to beat the persistent Red Devils and win the league.
The Stampede came out firing in the second period and Mike McRae scored a quick goal to level the scores and Braden Lee added a second in the last minute of the period.
It was a one sided procession in period three when Stampede took complete charge to add four more goals.
The goalkeeper statistics highlight the dominance that Southern Stampede had in the second and third periods. Stampede goalkeeper Adrian Volpe saved 23 of the 24 shots he faced and let in just one goal. The Red Devils’ Michael Coleman had a busier time with 51 shots sent at his goal. He saved 44 and let in seven.
Mike McRae was the Stampede player of the two finals and scored four goals to end the season with 16. He added two assists and topped the league with 27 assists.
The other key player for Stampede in the finals was defender Hayden Argyle, who captained Red Devils last year. Argyle won three league titles with the Red Devils from 2012 to 2014 and gained his fourth with Stampede this year.
At two metres Schneider, 31, is one of the tallest players in the New Zealand league and he is a dominating figure on the ice with his speed and uncanny knack of being in the right spot when the puck is close to the goal.
He captained junior teams when growing up in Canada and at the University of British Columbia.
The highlight of his ice hockey career was to be drafted by the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
“It is everyone’s dream in Canada to make the NHL,” Schneider said. “But when I didn’t crack the roster I studied biology at university instead.”
After completing his degree he took time out to travel to New Zealand and learnt about local ice hockey when he was working in a winery at Blenheim.
“A guy in the hostel told me about the league so I came down to Queenstown and contacted the team. I enjoyed my first season so decided to stick around.”
Schneider has always regarded the Red Devils as the Stampede’s toughest opponent.
“Going into the season it’s always been the team we have focused on in the league,” he said.
Queenstown is noted for its adventure sports and skiing but ice hockey is the only sport where the locals have the top team in the country.
Since becoming coach last year American Adam Blanchette has instilled a more disciplined approach into the team.
“We have focused more on defence this year,” Schneider said. “Last year we had so much offensive power and just went out there and focused on ourselves.
“This year we put the focus on team structure and have stayed grounded.”
Blanchette, 30, played semi-professional hockey in North America, the Netherlands and Australia before joining the Stampede in 2013.
He suffered concussion early last season and was advised by his doctor to retire from the sport.
“It came a bit early in my career,” Blanchette said. “But the opportunity to coach was great for me to stay involved.
“Ice hockey is something I’ve done my whole life and l’ve loved it. It was hard to give up playing but coaching is a way to stay involved. It’s been a new chapter for me.”
Being coach of a national league team is only a part-time job for Blanchette. He is also an apprentice builder.
His team won the league last year and he wanted a repeat win.
“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t our intent,” Blanchette said. “We played to have fun but also to win. We wanted to keep the cup in Queenstown.
“We learnt how to win last year and we wanted to do it again. The results proved that we were on the right track.”
The big difference to last year was that the Stampede learnt how to win more games on the road.
The win at Christchurch in the first game of finals was crucial for the Stampede’s confidence after losing its last two regular-season games to the West Auckland Admirals at Auckland.
“It was most important,” Blanchette said. “We went on the road last year and lost the first game and had to win our two games at home.
“Our win at Christchurch made us feel pretty confident we could win one of the last two at Queenstown.”
With the coach and captain coming from North America it was natural for the Stampede to play the North-American brand of ice hockey.
The Queenstown rink is small and it suits the Stampede’s game.
“It suits our style a bit more,” Blanchette said. “We practise on a smaller rink and the North-American style is more suited to small rinks. We can play the physical game and battle around the edges.”
Returning imports McRae, Jade Portwood, Adrian Volpe and Schneider made a significant contribution to the Stampede’s success. Newcomer Stephan Helmersson (Sweden) was a strong defender.
Portwood was the top scorer in the league with 25 goals and 22 assists. Schneider scored 16 goals and had 11 assists.
Adrian Volpe was the best performed goalkeeper. He made 360 saves and conceded only 22 goals. Aston Brookes made 187 saves and conceded just 11 goals.
“It was not just on the start sheet and putting on points for us,” Blanchette said. “The imports pass knowledge on to the young guys. This became more evident than ever this year because we have home grown Kiwi guys like Callum Burns (19), Luke Pickering (23) and Ben Harford (18) setting up and distributing.“
Portwood was a good example of an elite player taking a younger team member under his wing.
“He has played with Callum for the last few years and has lifted his game. Callum has used this experience to play in Sweden,” Blanchette said.
“I credit a lot of our success to younger guys who can chip in. and have stepped up this year.”
A key factor in the Stampede’s back to back league wins has been the willingness of everyone to buy into the game plan and play as a team.
“Everyone has their roles. And without our third line we couldn’t have a top first line,” Blanchette said.
The Canterbury Red Devils lost three key Ice Blacks – Hayden Argyle, Brett Speirs and Dale Harrop – from the 2015 squad and were not expected to make the finals.
“It was a massive void to fill and it meant that other guys had to step up,” new head coach Matthew Sandford said.
“We weren’t given much of a chance this year but we’ve worked hard and showed a lot of people that we punched above our weight and did better than what was expected from us.“
The Red Devils had the youngest team in the league with seven squad members under 20.
“Those guys learnt a lot, stood up and took high roles in the team,” Sandford said.
Because of this the Red Devils contracted older imports to add experience to the team and teach the younger players.
The key imports were Ciaran Long (Great Britain), Matt Puntureri (USA), who played in Australia for a year, and British forward James Archer from Manchester.
He turned up after the first round, scored 12 goals, and made an important contribution to the team in the crucial must win last four games.
Puntureri and Long both scored 18 goals and experienced Ice Black Chris Eaden 14. Long made 23 assists, James Archer 20 and Dean Tonks 19.
On defence home grown Kiwis Mason Kennedy and Taylor Kennedy made significant contributions.
The recruitment of more import players from Europe has changed the Red Devils approach over the last two years.
“We were not a big hitting team this year,” Sandford said. “We don’t mind being physical a bit but we don’t do a lot of it. We played a more European style, fast and open game this year.”
Co-captain Chris Eaden knew that the Red Devils were in trouble after losing both their second round games to Stampede at Queenstown.
Pressure was coming from the West Auckland Admirals that had a chance after getting a bonus point when Dunedin Thunder forfeited a point for dressing a suspended player in a game that the Admirals won in overtime.
With four round-robin games left the Red Devils and Admirals were level on points but Admirals would have advanced to the final on goal difference.
“The task didn’t change. We had to win our last four games,” Eaden said. “We didn’t want to rely on other teams. We wanted to do it ourselves and make a statement that we should be a finalist.”
The Red Devils did their bit by gaining two wins against both Dunedin Thunder and Botany Swarm.
Admirals kept their hopes alive by beating Stampede twice in Auckland. They had reached the finals twice before in 2005 and 2010.
Their hopes of making it this year looked promising because their final two games were against Dunedin Thunder that was in a rebuilding phase and had won only one game in the league.
The Admirals won the first game comfortably 8-2 and a win the next day looked certain.
But Thunder coach Janos Kaszala had other ideas. It was the last game for Shaun and Connor Harrison and French import Guillaume Leclancher.
“We wanted to farewell them in style and our boys put their bodies on the line,” Kaszala said.
The best player for Thunder that day was Estonian national team goalie Villem-Henrick Koitmaa, who saved all 37 shots at goal by the Admirals.
The Admirals slumped to a 2-0 loss and missed their final, but still made a significant improvement under Romanian coach Csaba Kercso-Magos.
“It wasn’t my expectations for this year to be in the finals,” he said. “I was expecting a place of third or fourth.”
“We don’t have super stars. We are a hard working team and this was our strength.
“Halfway through the season we got unity and started working as a team. It is very important to work together on the ice.”
When Kercso-Magos became coach last year he changed the team culture.
“I was happy to take over but it had to do be done my way,” he said. “The first thing I asked from the skaters was commitment.
“Those who weren’t committed to what I wanted and the commitment level I wanted were not in the team.”
The key Admirals players were imports – captain Justin Daigle (Canada), who made 20 assists, Andrew Spiller (Canada) and Mario Mjelleli (USA), who made 15 assists and scored 15 goals.
Daigle was also assistant coach.
“We did a lot work in the off-season and started to teach the technical side in more depth. We were in the gym for countless hours and put in the hard work,” he said.
The key moment in the Admirals season came after they lost both games against Botany Swarm.
“From that moment on we took the season into our own hands and were a different team,” Daigle said. “We had the focus. I don’t know where it came from. It just happened.”
A break away by Canadian Jade Portwood early in the third period was the decisive act as Southern Stampede kept its discipline to beat the Red Devils 6-2 in the first final at Christchurch.
The Stampede led 3-1 after the first two periods but the Red Devils came storming back when American import Matthew Puntureri scored a brilliant solo goal after a breakout in the first minute of the third period.
It reduced the gap to one goal and the Red Devils had another chance to add an extra goal soon after when they had a power play.
They put all their efforts into attack but it rebounded against them when Canadian import Jade Portwood scored from a breakaway to give Stampede a two goal cushion.
Stampede took an iron grip on the game after nine minutes when American import Mike McRae scored his second goal with an angled shot from the right flank for Stampede to lead 5-2.
The Red Devils became desperate and pulled goal keeper Michael Coleman out with five minutes left. Swedish defender Stephan Helmersson took his chance and hit an accurate shot from near his own goal to score Stampede’s sixth goal.
The scores were level 1-all after the first period but the more disciplined Stampede took control in the second period to lead 3-1. The Red Devils discipline started to let them down and little mistakes proved costly.
The key players for Stampede were Matt Schneider, McRae, Portwood, Helmersson, Braden Lee and promising Kiwi youngster Callum Burns who made two assists.
The best players for the Red Devils were English import James Archer who scored in the first period, the aggressive Puntureri, Ciaran Long who made two assists and Chris Eaden.
Stampede goal keeper Adrian Volpe conceded two goals from 37 shots while Red Devils keeper Michael Coleman let in five shots from 36 attempts.
First final: Southern Stampede 6 (Matt Schneider, Mike McRae 2, Braden Lee, Jade Portwood, Stephan Helmersson), Red Devils 2 (James Archer, Matthew Puntureri). Period scores (1-1, 2-0, 3-1).
Second final: Southern Stampede 7 ( Mike McRae 2, Jade Portwood 2, Braden Lee, Matt Schneider, Bert Haines), Red Devils 1 (Ciaran Long). Period scores (0-1, 2-0, 5-0).
Regular season standings:
1. Southern Stampede 37
2. Red Devils 30
3. West Auckland Admirals 27
4. Botany Swarm 20
5. Dunedin Thunder 6
Goal scoring leaders: Jade Portwood (Southern Stampede) 25, Matthew Puntureri (Red Devils) 18, Ciaran Long (Red Devils) 17, Matthew Schneider (Southern Stampede) 16, Mike McRae (Southern Stampede) 16, Mario Mjelleli (West Auckland Admirals) 15, Chris Eaden (Red Devils) 14, Gints Leitis (Dunedin Thunder) 13.
Assist leaders: Mike McRae (Stampede) 27, Ciaran Long (Red Devils) 23, Jade Portwood (Stampede) 22, James Archer (Red Devils) 20, Justin Daigle (West Auckland Admirals) 20, Dean Tonks (Red Devils) 19.
Best players selected by directorate: Finals MVP: Braden Lee (Southern Stampede); League MVP: Jade Portwood (Southern Stampede); League top points scorer: Jade Portwood (Southern Stampede); League top goalkeeper: Aston Brookes (Southern Stampede); League top rookie: Stephan Mawson (Botany Swarm).