By Logan Swinkels – Puch Yeah
The Ice Hockey Classic is coming to New Zealand with three exhibition games featuring USA v Canada to be held in Auckland, Queenstown, and Wellington – the latter being the first outdoor hockey game to be played at a major stadium in the Southern Hemisphere. Now PUCK YEAH can confirm that the New Zealand Ice Hockey League, plus the Ice Blacks, will be part of the festivities come June 2018.
Auckland’s Spark Arena plays host to the first leg of the tour, with the USA and Canada teams touted to feature current NHL players, veterans, and promising young talent. As a curtain raiser to the main event, the Botany Swarm and West Auckland Admirals will play each other in an official NZIHL game that counts towards the league’s standings.
Spark Arena is home to the NZ Breakers of the Australian National Basketball League with a capacity of around 8,500 for their home games. The arena also plays host to international recording artists when they come to Auckland – most recently Canadian RnB superstar The Weekend performed his hits to a sold-out crowd.
Playing at such a venue is a brand new prospect for the cross-town hockey clubs as they get the chance to showcase their fiercely competitive rivalry to a wider audience than what would normally fit within their home rinks at Paradice Avondale and Paradice Botany Downs.
Admirals captain Justin Daigle told PUCK YEAH that he is excited and honoured to be part of the 2018 Classic, “This is a huge deal for the entirety of the sport in New Zealand…For us it’s an opportunity to showcase the game we all love to play and really raise the profile and public awareness of hockey.”
He expects that these games will likely attract a new audience to the NZIHL. “As I often say, I’m yet to introduce the sport to a Kiwi who hasn’t fallen in love with it so hopefully this will serve as a catalyst towards new fans and players,” said Daigle.
Newly appointed Botany Swarm head coach Ian Wannamaker shares the passion of his West Auckland counterpart, “You don’t want to miss out on an amazing opportunity to see the fastest game on the planet in your backyard, seeing some of the best athletes in the world compete, and also see how competitive and exciting the local league is. You simply just have to be there.”
With 19 players from the Admirals and Swarm currently in the national team’s wider training squad, that round of the NZIHL season will be split over two weekends to allow their players who also represent the Ice Blacks to travel to Wellington and compete against a NZIHL All-Star team for the outdoor game at Westpac Stadium on June 23rd.
That All-Star team will be made up of import players from the five NZIHL teams, along with a few Kiwi players added to the lineup if needed. Considering the calibre of talent the league is now attracting in what is typically the off-season for ice hockey in North America, expect the Ice Blacks v NZIHL All-Stars game to be one full of action (and perhaps plenty of goalscoring) prior to the main event.
Ice Blacks head coach Anatoly Khorozov is elated that his team will be part of the historic game in Wellington, saying he sees it as a great experience for the players, “I think a lot of players, if not all, will naturally be nervous but will also be very excited. I’d hope nerves will disappear after a few shifts and they will show the crowd that New Zealand has some ice hockey talent too.”
Khorozov hopes the Ice Hockey Classic will be a way of introducing more fans to the national men’s team that compete in annual IIHF World Championship events, the latest held in Auckland earlier this year. “I also hope this event will help Wellington with their ice arena project as more people will be excited to have the game in their city.”
While the rosters for the American and Canadian teams are yet to be announced, Justin Daigle believes no matter who is coming, the outdoor game at Westpac Stadium will be a special event for New Zealand sports fans, “At the end of the day, the players on the ice are secondary to the atmosphere and environment that hockey provides let alone a venue as amazing as an outdoor rink. There’s something about the outdoor games that makes it feel a little closer to the roots and origins of the sport.”