Cool, calm and collected, three words that are used to describe AJ Spiller. Having moved from the land of maple syrup and Celine Dion to one of mince & cheese pies and Dave Dobbyn only seven years ago, Spiller has already made his mark on the Auckland Ice Hockey Association (AIHA) as general manager, coach and ex-national league player, and the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation as head coach of the New Zealand U18 men’s national team, assistant coach of the New Zealand U20 men’s team, liaison of national ice hockey on the NZIHF management committee and actively involved with Darren Blong (national coaching and player development coordinator) in regards to the development camps held across the country.
Spiller hails from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in Canada where his hockey career first started at the age of four, where he first began skating at age two. The rink was easily accessible to him, as it was two doors down from his house. Spiller played in various leagues growing up such as the Manitoba Midget and Junior leagues and in his later years in the South Eastern Manitoba League and Canadian Interuniversity Sport. Hockey runs through Spiller’s blood, where his father Blake is the head coach of the highly acclaimed Portage Terriers. Spiller’s father coached him all the way through until he was 15, where his dad went up a level and coached another team but as AJ got older and progressed into older leagues, his father ended up coaching him again. When recounting his experience of having a parent as a coach, he said that looking back on it as an adult it was good but during the time “it sucked because my dad was hard on me in a good way but it was difficult to separate family from coach, as well as the fact that no one else in my team had the same circumstance.” Having a father as a coach has provided AJ with skills that other coaches may not have because of the lessons his father has taught him. AJ explained that his father “was always a student of the game, he always tried to be better and keep up with whatever was new or different- he didn’t just focus on what Canada was doing but also what other places were doing and he has always been like that since I was young”.
New Zealand first welcomed Spiller in 2013, where he originally came to play softball. Cue the awes and hit play on Somebody to Love by Queen because shortly after that, Mr Spiller met his now girlfriend Monique and moved back and forth between Canada and New Zealand until he got his residency in 2016 and officially moved here. AJ first got into ice hockey in New Zealand because he wanted to play a sport during the Winter to balance out softball and so he came down to our store where he met Darren Blong, arranged to go to the Admirals practice that night and was asked to play for them in the NZIHL. AJ slowly transitioned into coaching roughly four years ago, where he helped coach some youth practices or assisted in coaching. It was only in the last two years that he became more focused on coaching, quitting the Admirals and becoming employed by the AIHA.
AJ Spiller – West Auckland Admirals vs Skycity Stampede 2019 | Photo credit: Chenzo
AJ’s role at the AIHA is as general manager, where he “does a bit of everything” in that he manages the budget of the association, schedules the different leagues and practices alongside Karen Messenger and makes sure that everything fits together like a puzzle as there are now many age groups in the AIHA such as Learn To Play, Super League, U15, U18 and Men’s. AJ finds that his biggest challenge in this role is his organisational skills, which have gotten better but still struggles to organise himself as well as things for other people. As well as being the general manager of the AIHA, Spiller is the head coach of the NZ U18 men’s team. What AJ finds most satisfying about this role is that U18 is the first step to playing the national team and is considered to be an important transitional spot where he helps set their players on their journey to further ice hockey things such as Ice Blacks, but also giving them further life skills as a mentor. He says that “so far all of the players have been super passionate and want to get better to further their hockey careers and play for their country”. While coaching the U18’s, AJ also is heavily involved in running and assisting in the nationwide development camps. What he loves about being involved with this is the fact you make connections with players and coaches alike across the country.
Spiller is also involved in a number of new projects to help with development with players and coaches. He is helping with the Triple Star programme, which is a combination of players across age groups from specific national teams to help with their development as a whole. The men’s camp was held in April which consisted of U18’s, U20’s and the Ice Blacks whereas the women’s camp will be held later in the year for U18’s and the Ice Fernz. AJ says that “the Triple Star programme is a good streamline for national teams to have as it acts as a continuation from the development camps and their home rinks”. He believes that the Triple Star programme is good as players compete against each other in the regular season but this programme allows coaches to come together and identify what skills need focusing on as a whole so that the New Zealand hockey nation can improve. AJ was specifically looking forward to being able to work with all the players and coaches together as never been a camp like this. “It’s similar to development camps in that you learn off the players and other coaches, even some coaches that don’t have as much experience still bring things to the table and learn from them”. Another project that AJ is involved in is the newest team to the NZIHL, the Auckland Mako. The Mako are a team made up of U23 players and some current NZIHL veterans from across the country. The aim of this is to give U23 players the opportunity to gain experience and confidence to go further in their hockey careers. AJ will be acting as a coach and a player, which is what he is most excited about.
As for the future of New Zealand Ice Hockey, AJ hopes to get more people into the sport at a young age. He believes that having these new programmes will entice more players and cause them to stick with the sport as they have various leagues available to them.
It is clear that AJ has made a huge contribution to ice hockey in New Zealand as a whole, which he does recognize to be his greatest hockey achievement. Many of us would be jealous that he gets to have his passion as an occupation and continue with something that began in his childhood. It’s a fair statement to say that AJ is a pretty interesting guy, but it’s hard to believe that someone doing such great things and helping the youth out to achieve their goals could support the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Written by Janna Blong