Ten players, five on each team, speed around a sheet of ice, travelling at speeds of upwards of 32 km/h. Their goal is to chase after a small black disc of rubber and slot it into a net using nothing more than a stick, skill and smarts.
Along the way they are able to aggressively force their opponents out of the way, knock them down and pin them against a wall in order to achieve that feat. And for a group of passionate and dedicated Southlanders, it is their weekly ritual. Some would even call it their religion.
Ice hockey is one of the most popular sports among the world’s northern hemisphere countries. In Canada it is one of two national sports (the other being lacrosse). The National Hockey League (NHL) is one of the most attended sporting leagues in the world. Wherever you go north of the equator that has ice, it’s more than likely you’ll find somebody with skates on their feet and a stick in their hand.
Canada alone has close to 10,000 ice rinks in the country. New Zealand has six. So it goes without saying that the sport isn’t exactly among the most viewed, participated or well known sports in the country. But that doesn’t stop more than 50 players, both male and female, battling it out in Gore every week during the winter months for their taste of the sport they love.
President of the Gore Ice Hockey Club Grant Scott first got involved in the sport when his five-year-old son decided it was the sport that he wanted to play.
“We used to farm over near Tuatapere and my son said ‘I want to play ice hockey’. And we said ‘what? No! How are we going to do that!’,” “During the holidays my wife and I would bring the kids over to the grandparents’ place and then come here [to Gore] and there used to be a structured skating thing during the holidays. So both kids learnt to skate.”
It was not long after that he tried his hand at the sport at the age of 39 and, as he says, the rest is history. Mr Scott oversees the players who form two senior teams, known as the Gore Grizzlies and the Gore TNC, which both compete in the Senior Non-Checking league (SNC) against teams from Tekapo, Dunedin, Queenstown and Alexandra.
Outside the senior teams they also have an under-15 team as well as players who attend a special weekly learn to play session to encourage them to continue in the sport. Success has come through Mr Scott’s involvement in ice hockey, with his daughter Beth representing New Zealand in the national under-18 squad, a feat which he said was made all the more special for some of the players who are capable of representing their country.
“Because it’s a bit of a fringe sport, if you’re good at it you’ll get noticed. There are kids down there who get to have a silver fern on their chest and representing their country overseas. If they were playing netball or rugby they may not get that opportunity. So all the power to them. We just need more people playing it.”
He said one of the biggest detractors to people playing ice hockey were the costs involved, as well as the access to ice rinks. Several of the players travel weekly from right across Southland to play, and costs could be as high as $4000 for the equipment involved. The club shares equipment, but there was only so much to go around each week.
“We don’t have a lot of spare adult stuff,” Mr Scott said. “We’ve got skates and a few helmets and stuff, but to be fair it’s kind of tricky. It’s not the cheapest sport you can play.”
Despite the high cost and lack of access to facilities, many of the players have developed a lifelong passion for the sport and continue to turn up every week no matter what.
Jens Jensen started skating when he was eight years old in Invercargill when the city used to have a rink. His skating prowess saw him represent New Zealand in speed skating during the 1980s. But it was ultimately ice hockey that kept his passion alive when he found himself returning to the ice.
“I’ve been out for about 20 years and they wanted some of the old timers to play again so they looked out through a Facebook post and my son said you should go back and play some hockey. So I got the gear out and came back to it… you pick up the stick it all comes back to you. Now I’m here every Tuesday night without fail unless I’ve got work commitments.”
He said the sport helps keep him fit and have fun at the same time.
“It’s fun and fast. It’s a bit of balance. You’ve got that and a bit of aggression as well. You can have fun with it.”
Another player, Lionel Ritchie, has been playing for 38 years and was good enough to be on the New Zealand national team for two years. He said the sport was incredibly fun to be involved in and was slowly gaining more popularity, not only in Southland, but across the country as well.
“We would love to get more people involved. Especially the young ones to get them all through just to keep the sport alive and going. It is starting to kick off in New Zealand really. It’s getting really good now.”
Mr Scott said anybody could give it a go, and the sport wasn’t as hard as it looked.
“It just takes time. You need to get on the ice and skate. Even if you just go to public sessions and skate at those, it’s just getting the feel for those skates. After that it’s stick handling and it goes from there.”
And while the sport would no doubt never compete with the likes of rugby and cricket for participation rates and crowd numbers, there was hope that, with a bit more enticement for kids, it could at least continue to grow in Southland.
“The big focus for us at the moment is this learn to play and getting kids on the ice and trying to build those kids,” Mr Scott said. “If you don’t have kids you don’t have a club. We just need to get more kids here.”
This article was originally written for The Advocate. You can read the published version here