AUKLAND – The 2008 ice hockey campaign has been one of growth for New Zealand, both on the international and domestic fronts. That may seem like an odd statement, given the fact that the Kiwis’ senior national team, the Ice Blacks, finished last at the 2008 World Championship Division II Group B and were relegated to Division III. But one need not scratch far below the surface to find signs of encouragement.
Ice hockey has been played in New Zealand for over 60 years and the country has regularly competed in World Championships since 1995. The rate of progress has been slow, and success elusive. Last year, the Ice Blacks broke through to win the Division III World Championship. What’s more, the traditional Maori haka the Ice Blacks players perform before each game garnered some international publicity for the Kiwi hockey program.
The Ice Blacks faced a tall challenge earlier this year at the Division II tournament in Australia. But while the New Zealanders went winless in the tournament, their performance was hardly the typical showing of a relegated team.
Kept games close
The Ice Blacks were competitive in each and every game and, in fact, were in position to win several games only to come up a bit short. But the team’s nine-day pre-tournament preparations in Beijing, China pad some dividends.
Most notably, when New Zealand played eventual gold-medalist Australia, the Ice Blacks went off after two periods tied 2-2 with the Mighty Roos. While the Aussies ultimately prevailed 4-2 and the Kiwis needed 43 saves from goaltender Zak Nothling to keep the game close, the match showed how much New Zealand has closed the gap between itself and some of the higher-end Division II teams. Twenty one years ago, New Zealand suffered at the hands of Australia one of worst defeats of the modern hockey era – a 58-0 drubbing on March 14, 1987.
In the Kiwis’ other games, Canadian head coach Jeff Bonazzo’s squad fell 3-6 to Iceland, 2-0 to Mexico, 2-6 to China (New Zealand led 2-0 early and the game was tied 2-2 midway through regulation), and 5-4 to Spain in a match that was tied 2-2 early in the third period. Arguably, the outcome of the Spain game hinged on the Spaniards scoring a shorthanded goal to take a 4-2 lead.
Come next April, New Zealand stands a strong chance of winning gold at the World Championship Division III, while will take place on home ice in Dunedin. The Kiwis’ competition will include fellow relegated squad Ireland, Luxembourg, Greece, Turkey and Mongolia.
Challis and Eaden emerge as pride of junior program
Meanwhile, the New Zealand national U20 and U18 teams enjoyed strong success in their respective World Championship tournaments this year.
The U20 team went a perfect 6-0-0 and scored 66 goals while allowing just 15 to earn the gold medal and a promotion at the World U20 Championship Division III in Serbia. Along the way, the New Zealanders defeated Australia for the first time.
At the U18 level, the Kiwi squad split four games at the World U18 Championship Division III Group A in Mexico, but enjoyed a 45-18 goal differential in the tournament.
Perhaps the single most exciting development in New Zealand hockey has been the emergence of young forwards Jordan Challis and Christopher Eaden, who are already capable of competing successfully among much older and more experienced players.
Challis, who turned 16 in March, plays regularly for the NZIHL champion Botany Swarm and played for the national U16, U18 and U20 teams this year. He was also invited to practice with the Ice Blacks, although he won’t meet the minimum age requirement for the senior national team until next year. Challis produced five goals and 10 points in four matches at the U18 World Championship and six goals and 14 points in six tilts at the U20 tourney.
Eaden, who will turn 18 at the end of August, plays in the NZIHL for the Canterbury Red Devils. Despite lacking size, his offensive talents and ice vision enable him to beat larger defenders. He won the Best Forward Award from the tournament directorate at both the U18 (nine goals, 18 points in four games) and the U20 (16 goals, 28 points in six matches) tournaments.
Senior national team goaltender Nothling (Botany Swarm) joined Challis and Eaden on the victorious U20 team. He grabbed Best Goaltender honors with a 2.43 goals against average and a 93.08 save percentage. A year ago, the talented young keeper won the NZIHL’s Best Goaltender award.
Domestic league expands, lures more imports
The 2008 NZIHL season is underway. Last year, Botany grabbed the championship. The Swarm appear poised to make another run at the top spot. After 10 games played, Botany is undefeated (seven wins, three ties) and has allowed a league-low 27 goals while scoring 55. Botany is seven points ahead of second place Canterbury, which has played two fewer matches to date.
The circuit has expanded from four teams to five this season, with the addition of Dunedin Thunder (struggling in last place with a 0-0-8 record). A year ago, among the 88 players to suit up in the league, 66 were native New Zealanders and the other 22 were foreign-born players. This year, the number of imports has grown to 35.
This season, there are 16 Canadian players in the NZIHL, four from the USA, four from Sweden (all of whom are originally products of the Linkopings HC junior system), reigning league MVP Janos Kaszala from Hungary, two returning Italian players, two from Germany (including last year’s playoff MVP Georg “Charlie” Huber), and one apiece from Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland, France and the Republic of South Africa.
While the goal of the domestic league is to provide opportunities for New Zealanders to play, the presence of the imports has helped to bolster the calibre of play to some degree.
In addition, every team in the league except the Southern Stampede features a foreign-born head coach.
Ideally, as the know-how of foreign coaches and players from more traditional hockey countries becomes more widespread within the New Zealand hockey, the Kiwis will produce a wider array of homegrown playing and coaching talent that can push the national program to the next level.