It has been almost a year now since the country entered its first lockdown and life, as we all know, changed.

During the time we spent questioning reality and life itself as we stayed in our bubbles, we were forced to adapt and go without our weekly visits to local bars, staying away from mates and possibly the worst thing to have happened, going without ice time. Horrific, I know, it’s a miracle that hockey players around the country kept their sanity and didn’t march to parliament to demand Aunty Cindy to give the people what they want: HOCKEY.  However, while many of us binged Tiger King or ‘attended’ zoom calls, members of the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation (NZIHF) worked hard to plan and prepare for hockey after lockdown so that players and coaches alike could get back to doing what they love in a safe environment. We sat down with Andy Mills, President of the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation, to discuss the federation’s experiences with the lockdowns, what changes were made and what their next move is.

NZ U18 Men’s and NZ U20 Men’s Mini Series | October 2020

With Lockdowns providing a never-ending uncertainty, Andy Mills and NZIHF members spent a large portion of their time at home planning ahead, like what many of us had to do. The health and safety of players and coaches alike was paramount in plans to keep us playing, so rules were put into place once rinks were opened to stop any transmissions. The next looming threat to our sports continuous development, Finances. Yes, not the most exciting subject, one that makes people cry or gasp or faint. But not the federation. They took finances by the horns and anticipated as best they could by planning for any losses they may face as a result. “The federation worked hard to counter any financial losses as national teams around the country had already paid for airfares and booked accommodation for their tournaments, as well as ice time having been booked for the national tournaments such as U12’s, U15’s, U18’s, Men’s, Women’s and the development camps.” Not knowing when a sense of normality would return, when you didn’t have to wait your turn to go into the dairy for a Cornetto, go without Maccas or when national teams would be able to travel around the country, go to training or travel to their international tournaments. The NZIHF considered all these things and more so that the future seasons would make up for the time lost, so players and coaches could fuel their inner desire to play puck.

For some, lockdown was a time spent to discover new talents or passions causing them to abandon their old dreams. This of course was a concern for many hobbies as they saw a drop in numbers, but not hockey. “So far the lockdowns haven’t negatively affected hockey in NZ, in fact, there has been a slight increase in numbers since the lockdowns ended which is a fantastic way of countering the lack of ice time players were able to use.” In fact, we saw that while the world was slowly falling apart, players were determined to get a taste of hockey no matter what. Whether it was setting up makeshift goals, creating passing drills or shooting at the toilet in the house (would not recommend this one unless you’re wanting the misso or mother to bring all hell), players did whatever they could to stay connected to the sport. “The growth is a positive indicator that hockey was a great motivator through the lockdown and remains to be a good model.” Despite the major delay the hockey season had, most teams were able to get back up and running post-COVID. The Botany Swarm and West Auckland Admirals battled head to head for 4 games, whereas the South Island teams of the Queenstown Stampede, Dunedin Thunder and Canterbury Red Devils were able to have a series between the three. The U15, U18 and Women’s leagues also went ahead in Dunedin. Although COVID-19 prevented many things from going ahead, the NZIHF remained victorious in the way that they were still able to run some events to keep players motivated such as the U18 and U20 men’s teams versing each other in a heated stand off and development camps were held in both Auckland and Dunedin. However the U12’s got the short end of the draw, where their tournament was cancelled.

Photo Credit: Chenzo Photography | Botany Swarm vs Admirals, Game 2 October 2020

Some saw 2020 as a nightmare from hell having to stay home for extended periods of the year, for others it was just like Christmas break minus the joy and pavlova. For Andy, he saw it was a good time for players to reset and refocus on their skills and goals. “The lockdowns pushed players and coaches alike to look to their backyards and use what was available to them at home. It also allowed them to try, test and change things to continue their development. The lockdowns forced players to refocus on what was important.” Whether it be finishing all 15 seasons of Criminal Minds or finding a new passion or discovering your inner self, the lockdowns all left us with new life lessons.

For the federation, the lockdowns paved an important pathway into 2021 to help continue the development, growth and retention of players and coaches. This past year also welcomed a new and returning member to the NZIHF,  Jan Goulding, who was appointed  the Women’s Ice Hockey director. Andy says that “the federation is excited to welcome Jan back, her experience and years with women’s ice hockey will help the development of women’s hockey and we are looking forward to working alongside her.”  Now, after 2020 seeming like a lifetime, we are all working to move on with the future and work on our goals. For the NZIHF, their primary goals are to grow numbers in the Learn to Play division and to retain players in the sport across all levels and abilities. “We already have a good base established due to our player numbers and we believe that results will happen down the track as we make moves to achieve our goals.” In the next few years, the federation hopes to increase the number of officials, volunteers and players but most of all to grow the game of ice hockey. The overall end goal of the federation is ‘hockey for life’. “From the day you take your first shift to the day you take your last aged 65+, we hold this mindset that hockey is a game for life.”

2020. There were laughs, smiles, tears and growlings for the eccentric amount of online shopping that was done. Yes, it was a tough time for everyone being apart from friends and family yet, in an ironic way, the distance brought everyone together. Whether it be with the people in your household or friends who you were limited to Facetime calls, this experience helped unite everyone. We were forced to use what was available to us and with that we saw the creative side of the players and coaches with creating puck handling obstacle courses or using strange objects to build goals or to stimulate the desire for hockey – it was a great thing to see that despite the circumstances, the love and passion for hockey remained.

Written By Janna Blong