This past February, female ice hockey players from New Zealand’s North Island and South Island faced off against each other in the inaugural New Zealand Women’s Ice Hockey League (NZWIHL) Skate of Origin game. Played in Christchurch, the South Island won the game by a score of 6-1.
The Skate of Origin game capped off the third season of the NZWIHL, New Zealand’s elite female ice hockey league which was formed in 2014. As the NZWIHL Skate of Origin game shows, this young league is creating multiple opportunities for developing women’s hockey in New Zealand, a country with 155 registered female hockey players.
“The league is still developing and player numbers are slowly growing,” said Helen Murray, captain of the NZWIHL’s Auckland team and the New Zealand Ice Fernz (the women’s national team). Players and coaches are looking forward to seeing how the league will continue to grow.
“It would be great to have the numbers for a fourth team at some stage,” said Murray. The NZWIHL currently consists of three teams. “Last season we played the first NZWIHL Skate of Origin game, which is an exhibition game that has been a feature of the men’s New Zealand Ice Hockey League (NZIHL) for many years. This was a real highlight and I hope it will continue.”
The NZWIHL’s three teams are Auckland, Canterbury, and Southern (which is based in Dunedin). This past season, Auckland was undefeated and claimed the title of NZWIHL Champion for a second time, having previously won the league in its inaugural season (2014-15). Canterbury was the NZWIHL Champion of the 2015-16 season.
Prior to the formation of the NZWIHL, New Zealand’s best female hockey players competed in a National Championship weekend tournament, in which the three teams played each other to determine the national champion. With the creation of the NZWIHL, elite women’s hockey in New Zealand went from operating over one weekend of the year to being a full league that runs from September to February. Games are still on weekends, and the season finishes just before the Ice Fernz travel to the World Championships.
“After the men’s national league started about 12 years ago, it was always the hope that the women would also go to this format at some point, and as the other age group leagues [changed to the current format], the women followed,” said Angelique Mawson, coach of the Southern team and the National Women’s U18 team.
Girls in New Zealand can play on mixed teams up until a certain age, but as Philippa Kaiser, the manager of the Auckland team, explained, many of the girls desire other options, such as that of the NZWIHL.
“A lot of the older girls felt they were not taken seriously by either the other players or even some coaches, so it was not always satisfactory,” said Kaiser. “So for these girls, they either had to stop playing or just play hobby league, or friendly games, if and when available. It was felt that by creating a league, each region would then have a team of girls who were being taken seriously as ice hockey players and competitors.”
Even with the creation of the NZWIHL, the majority of players also play on other teams. A winter women’s league with two ‘A’ level teams and two ‘B’ level teams exists in Christchurch. A similar league is starting up in Dunedin, and Queenstown has a women’s team called the Ice Maidens which plays in a senior men’s non-checking league. Some girls play on men’s teams in the senior non checking leagues or, if they are of the right age, in the U14 (NZPIHL) and U17 (NZMIHL) leagues.
Besides these leagues and teams, throughout the season there are Learn to Play sessions for beginners, friendly scrimmages, and the Southern Cross tournament. These various different playing opportunities for women somewhat reflect the diverse ways in which female players in New Zealand are introduced to the game of hockey. For some, it began on roller skates or roller blades.
“I figure skated on roller skates … then our rink in Dunedin turned into an ice rink and I began watching ice hockey and asked if I could play. It was all men back then, no other girls in the Southern region. Luckily they let me and I started playing,” said Mawson of how she got introduced to ice hockey. She would eventually go on to play for Auckland and the Ice Fernz.
Murray started out by playing inline hockey at the age of 10 with her brother. “I played for New Zealand from the age of 14 … When I started university, a few of the girls from inline decided to try ice hockey for a new challenge. We adapted to it quickly and were picked up for the Auckland rep team.”
Murray had to take time off of hockey for school, but after starting her PhD rejoined the Auckland ice hockey team and the New Zealand inline team. “For the last five years, I’ve played two world championship tournaments each year - inline and ice - while I’ve been doing my PhD.”
Millicent Smith, who plays for Canterbury and the Ice Fernz, was recruited to play ice hockey at school. “I was eight years old and the Canterbury Minor Ice Hockey League coach of the time came in [to my school] to promote the sport … I went and tried it out and I loved it, so I started playing hockey in a mixed league of guys and girls. When I turned 10 I went to my first women’s only camp … and I started progressing into the women’s league.”
Feedback on the NZWIHL has been positive, and the country has seen a boost in the growth and development of female ice hockey over the past three years because of it. While ice hockey is still a niche sport in New Zealand, the country’s female ice hockey players and this league are ones to watch.
The 2017-18 NZWIHL season is scheduled to begin this November. For more information, please visit https://nzicehockey.co.nz/national-leagues/nzwihl/