It’s been a year since Andy Mills was appointed president of the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation, and his journey with the game has been no stumble in the dark.
His love for hockey is rivalled only by his strong desire to make a difference, and years of service has put him in a position to perpetuate both.
Andy picked up ice hockey 21 years ago when he moved to Queenstown. Up until that point, he was a football man, playing at a high level all through high school up in Auckland.
But a change of scenery felt like a good time to change up the hobbies, and hockey quickly made its way onto Andy’s radar.
Playing socially for his local club in Queenstown, he quickly became the president of the league. After having kids, he got involved in teaching Learn to Play – joining various committees and completing a number of coaching courses while he was at it.
Naturally, he was placed in a rep coaching role with Southern in 2013, while also becoming a registered referee, officiating both the local leagues and the national league.
All the while, Andy was joining committees left and right, quickly finding himself as vice-president, and then president of the Queenstown club.
So it might seem like a logical progression for Andy to finally make his way up to the NZIHF, and that’s exactly how he describes it.
NHL Coach Barry Smith and Andy Mills at West Coast prep camp.
“It really has just all come up naturally over the years,” he said.
“Just as I’ve gone through, I was always pretty keen to make a difference. I was asked to stand for the president role by a number of people which gave me the confidence to stand.”
As it would turn out, he was exactly what the NZIHF was looking for.
Over the past 12 months, he’s dived into the deep end to try and take New Zealand ice hockey in a new direction.
There’s been a lot of sorting out, as he says, but now the trajectory is well and truly set.
“We’ve achieved a lot in the past six to 12 months,” Andy said.
“I’ve instantly found there’s some incredible people within the organisation that put hours and hours a week of their personal time into ice hockey, so I feel privileged that I’m working with such dedicated people.”
For Andy, growth is a major focus for the federation moving forward.
As outlined in last month’s Centre Ice newsletter, the regions are doing a great job of growing Learn to Play programmes and are beginning to thrive under a more coherent national structure.
“The Learn to Play is a key focus for us,” Andy said.
“It’s the bottom of the pyramid and the foundation of success really.
“Our national teams pretty much result on what’s done right in the basement. What we do with the Learn to Play is a pathway of development and retention and that basically equals success long term.”
“At the end of the day, we want to be selecting teams out of 100 applicants, as opposed to selecting out of 30.”
Some of the initiatives include the First Shift programme, which rolled out for the first time last year and is supported by Grant Hay. It’s all about getting kids into hockey for the first time and has been hugely successful.
Darren Blong is also working very hard on a cohesive development model to be rolled out through the regions which they hope will help the regions grow and retain players for longer.
“We’ve got to have good structures regionally and good pathways regionally,” Andy said.
“As always, the financial burden is a big challenge, but we just have to keep finding ways to keep kids engaged and it comes down to good structure.”
But Andy isn’t just focused on the kids. He knows the key to a strong hockey community is having parents and adults love the game too, as they too contribute to the growth of the game.
“A lot of people look at the NZIHF as if it is solely kid-focused,” he said.
“But it’s the contrary. The kids are the bottom of the pyramid. What we do with the grassroots in the game transpires into all your SNC leagues, from the six year old learning to skate, right through to the 49-year-old SNC player and above.
“We’re actually feeding players because, for us, if a player who started playing at six years old, is still playing at whatever level at 26 and beyond, we’ve done our job.”
Andy thinks parents play a huge role, as the sport can sometimes be self-growing.
Many young kids who play hockey, may pick it up again after university, and then when they have kids of their own and they’re 36, they are standing out on the ice doing what their parents did to them.
“The sport is still quite young in this country and that’s only just starting to happen, so I think that’s quite exciting.”
But Andy is just like every other volunteer in the ice hockey community. There’s no paid stuff among the NZIHF, it’s 100% volunteer.
Andy has a full-time job, as a manufacture jeweller.
“Yeah I’m a goldsmith,” he said.
“So that’s my creative side!”
But he knows, that without the awesome group of volunteers, the game wouldn’t run in this country. We wouldn’t have rinks, we wouldn’t have leagues, and referees, and scorers. And for that, he owes them a mountain of gratitude.
“You know the volunteers as a whole – from mums and dads doing up skates, to the ones transporting kids, to those sitting in the score box – without all those volunteers, we wouldn’t have ice hockey in this country.
“Even in SNC – and they don’t probably acknowledge all those people sitting in the box taking score – it goes right through”.
“There are so many great volunteers out there, and in such a small community, everyone’s help is so greatly appreciated.”
If Andy’s passion is anything to go, hockey has a great path ahead in New Zealand, and we’ll all be looking forward to what it looks like in future generations.
Written By Sam Hewat