Wellington has always been a home for many things – politics, art, culture, craft beer, and wind… just to name a few. But it’s never been considered as a home for ice hockey. The capital has seemingly lagged behind some of New Zealand’s “big centres” when it comes to the sport taking hold.
Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Queenstown all boast a significant hockey culture, but Wellington never caught the same bug. That was until recently when the region finally got an ice rink – albeit of modest standards – and started to push the sport on to its folk.
Liam Roth, formerly with the Dunedin Thunder in the NZIHL, recognised the potential that Wellington had to become part of the ice hockey community when he moved to Wellington for teaching and is now doing his part to help kids get into the game.
He’s helped put together the fabled Poneke Pirates – Wellington’s first kid’s team that is competing in Wellington’s “Bear League”.
“It started off as just scrimmages on Wednesdays and Sundays,” Liam said. “But more people started showing up, so we turned the Sunday one into the ‘Frosty Fours’ for advanced players and created a Tuesday league for beginners called the ‘Bear League.’”
The Pirates, who Liam helps coach, is made up of players with a diverse range of hockey backgrounds. There are kids who have come from playing hockey in North America, local inline, and field hockey players, as well as beginners who have attended Wellington’s youth ice hockey training sessions for the last two years. “I think that’s the cool thing, that these kids come from all these hockey backgrounds,” Liam said. “A lot of the kids have come in with a lot of experience, and some have only ever trained and played in Wellington. It’s great to see them learn from each other and develop as a team. So far they have had a few draws, and some solid wins against the adult teams.”
Fans of the sport should be excited to see that Wellington is beginning to develop a hockey base that is growing in size. For North Island players, Auckland is the only current outlet, but a second hub would provide opportunities for more competition. Liam said the key to their growing success has been the cohesion of all within the small hockey community in Wellington. “From the start, there’s been great cooperation between the rink owners, players, and volunteers, to help get more people playing hockey,” he said
“The rink owner – Rob – and rink manager – Matt – are just so enthusiastic about pushing the sport and getting people involved and that’s made a massive difference- including making sure we’re given plenty of ice time for hockey. “The other important aspect is the club – the Wellington Ice Hockey Association. They’re the ones helping organise and run the various leagues and programmes, so they’ve played a big part too.” The sport is seeing more and more kids come through, with a one-and-a-half-hour session on Sundays, that often attract upwards of 30 kids a session. “It’s definitely growing, and the level is getting better,” Liam said. “Originally, everyone just played together but now we’ve got enough players to split people into groups so we’re able to match skill levels a bit better.” Of course, continual growth is always the goal, as it is for the sport in general in New Zealand, however, Liam now wants to try and broaden the scope of the Pirates team, entertaining the idea of playing teams that are out of town.
“The level here is a bit lower than an area like Auckland, Christchurch, or Dunedin, because we haven’t had a lot of kids coming through the system from a young age,” Liam said. “But I know that there are other teams around that would be at their level, and it would be great to have them playing against other areas to just give them more opportunities to compete, especially at the midget/junior level, and playing opposition outside of Wellington.”
If anyone wants a game, why not take on the feared Poneke Pirates?! His own team aside, however, Liam thinks there is still exponential opportunities for the sport to really kick off in Wellington.
“We’re doing all sorts of things at the moment with the focus on getting more kids,” he said. “The rink is in a popular location in Upper Hutt and has a lot of foot traffic, so we’re working on getting posters made for people to see as they’re walking into the rink, and hopefully get them interested. We’re also working on getting information out to more schools. “The other thing that has been a massive help is the association getting funding for new gear and getting a lot of gear from the NZIHF. “Without that gear, you can’t get kids learning and playing.” It may be a smaller rink than its cousins around New Zealand – at the moment only allowing for 4v4 play – but at the end of the day… it’s still a great ice rink.
If it’s run well, has passionate volunteers, and an organisation that cares about growing the game, more players will come.
Then, hopefully in the near future, the Pirates will have more loot to plunder.
For information about playing ice hockey in Wellington, visit wiha.nz
Written by Sam Hewat