Drew McMillan grew up in the snowy lands of Alaska.
With white hills on either side of him, he picked up some skates and a stick when he was just five years old.
Now, I know what you’re thinking… was this kid playing in the “Saturday Game” alongside Russell Crowe and the lads?
He may well have, had he stuck around.
But his family made the move to New Zealand when he was 10, and luckily for us, he brought his passion for hockey with him.
Though he didn’t find his way into the hockey community immediately when he arrived, when he started working fulltime in Dunedin, he quickly learnt that the sport did indeed exist Down Under.
In true hockey fashion, Drew became involved with his local community and he quickly morphed into the main man behind a meteoric rise in Dunedin’s ice hockey scene.
It started with the DIHL (Dunedin Ice Hockey League), which had just 40 players when Drew first started out as a volunteer three years ago. Seasons ran in six-week chunks and often players wouldn’t even learn each other’s names, as they’d be playing on a different team every few weeks.
The Learn to Play programme had just eight players a session, and there was no real space for beginners to jump in and play in a league.
Wanting to bypass the usual bureaucracy of sporting organisations, Drew decided to take over the DIHL and Learn to Play, and give it a revamp.
“A lot of older people in the club were against it,” he said.
“There were a few people not wanting to change things. But any worries they had I think have gone out the window now they’ve seen its success”.
The DIHL quickly ballooned from 40 players, to 160. The six-week season turned into eight months, and four teams grew to 10 – with the hope of two more next year.
“There’s heaps of players coming out of the woodwork,” Drew said.
“Guys who used to play 15 to 20 years ago, hearing that the league is going well and growing and they all want to be involved.”
They’re also keeping more beginners involved, with Drew stating that the Learn to Play has grown to around 20 per session, and most stick around to pick up the game long term, rather than leaving after a few weeks.
In a way, it’s all run similar to the Backyard Hockey League here in Auckland. There are two leagues – the aforementioned DIHL – as well as “The Farm” – the so-called “beginner” league.
Both leagues feed into one another and include draft days, social beers, and a brand new stat centre that keeps a track of standings, player statistics etc.
But it’s not the lure of the competition, or the challenge it brings that has created such an explosion with Drew’s leagues.
“The social side is definitely the biggest part in Dunedin,” he said.
“There’s still huge gaps between the top and bottom players in the league, but what makes them all enjoy it is that it’s more than just the hockey. They’re there for the beers and the food and the banter. That’s what’s making it grow.”
And they have Drew to thank for a lot of it. He’s poured most of his spare time – when he’s not being an electrician – and most of his money into helping the sport grow.
He started volunteering an hour a week, before turning that number into 20.
He started by bringing a box of beers into the changing rooms before each game. Now they have a fully licensed bar.
You can even buy burgers and hotdogs at the games!
He gets minimal monetary return for the work that he puts in, but what he does get, he puts straight back into the game.
He’s given $1000 to the ice rink for new gear. Bought his own skate-sharpening machine to help players with their blades, and sponsored both the Dunedin Thunder, and young U20s and Ice Blacks in order to mitigate the cost of travel.
All in the name of growing the game in our small country.
“Ultimately, I’d love for hockey to become way more of a mainstream sport in New Zealand,” he said.
“I’m just hooked, I live and breathe it.
“Just the skill and speed, it’s such a good spectator sport.
“Every time I go to a Thunder game I try to take new people. I get free tickets each week and I try give them to someone else if they promise to bring someone new.
“And honestly, I’ve never had someone come along and go ‘that wasn’t really for me’.
“From the other side… I do a lot of coaching and I love teaching people something new and seeing them in training … every time something new clicks you can just see how addictive it can get for them.”
So while Drew isn’t exactly skating around against the New York Rangers on a pond in Mystery, Alaska… there’s still a part of that story that fits.
He’s a guy who is addicted to the game of hockey, who wants everyone in his town, and his country, to fall in love with it too.
Written By Sam Hewat.