|The Botany Swarm defeated the Canterbury Red Devils to capture the 2007 New Zealand Ice Hockey League title.
The Botany Swarm of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League recently became either the first champion crowned in this year’s hockey season or the final one from last season — depending on your perspective. Either way, the Swarm won the 2007 NZIHL championship after blowing out the Canterbury Red Devils 7-0 in a sold-out finale at the Alpine Ice Centre in Christchurch.
The South Auckland-based Swarm, who lost the 2006 finals to the Southern Stampede, finished second to Canterbury during the NZIHL regular season. The clubs were tied with 26 points apiece, but Canterbury gained home-ice advantage by earning a win and tie in the two regular-season games between the clubs. The Stampede finished third, with the winless (0-10-0) West Auckland Admirals bringing up the rear.
The Red Devils earned a final-round bye by finishing first, but looked flat in the title game.
“We hit our prime at the end of our last round, so it would have been good to play pretty soon after that,” Canterbury captain Hamish Lewis said to The Press after the championship loss.
On the heels of the New Zealand national team, the Ice Blacks, winning the IIHF Division III World Championships and a promotion to the Division II level, the three-year-old NZIHL enjoyed increased fan support this season. In addition to the sellout for the championship game, overall attendance doubled from previous seasons.
New Zealand doesn’t have a longstanding hockey tradition, but a fan culture is starting to take root. Supporters are setting up fan clubs, showing up to games in costume and cheering for their club with spontaneous chants and opponent-specific taunts.
Even more promisingly, there are signs of increased interest in youth hockey in the NZIHL locales. That’s in part due to youngsters being captivated by the signature haka (Maori dance) the Ice Blacks perform at each national team game and in part due to the same factors — the sport’s speed, skill, competition and camaraderie — that attract young people around the world to the game.
Of course, the progress is modest by the standards of well-established hockey countries. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy. The unbridled passion of hockey players and fans in countries like New Zealand — where even the top native-born stars work regular jobs during the week — would charm even the most jaded cynic.
After the final seconds ticked off the Swarm’s championship victory, the players heaved their sticks in the air and piled on top of one another as though they had captured the Stanley Cup or an Olympic gold medal. A couple players even slid across the ice in swan dive fashion before the Botany players and fans headed off to celebrate deep into the night. But when the next week rolled around, everyone was back at their real-world jobs.
Sixty-six of the 88 players to suit up in the NZIHL this season were native Kiwis. Of the rest, eight were import players from Canada, three from Sweden, two apiece from the Czech Republic, Italy and France, and one each from the U.S., Switzerland, Germany, Hungary and Scotland.
Hungarian import Janos Kaszala, the league MVP, played for Canterbury and led the league in regular-season scoring with 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 10 games. Fellow Red Devils imports Jesper Danielsson (Sweden) and Lukas Kavka (Czech Republic) ranked second and third in the league with 22 and 16 points, respectively. Canterbury’s Hayden Argyle won the NZIHL’s best defenseman award, while Dale Harrop won the rookie of the year award. Swedish goaltender Andreas Ericsson tied for the league lead with seven wins for coach Dmitry Gunchenko’s squad.
|Botany Swarm captain Andrew Hay holds up the 2007 NZIHL Winners Trophy following the 7-0 victory,
For the Botany Swarm, German import Charlie Huber won playoff MVP honors while homegrown Zak Nothling won the league’s top goaltender honors. Nothling posted a league-best 2.89 goals against average and an .898 save percentage. He also earned a 30-save shutout in the championship match against a Red Devils club that had averaged 6.30 goals per game during the regular season, including nine goals in two previous games against his club.
Led by team captain Andrew Hay, the Swarm featured four players from the Ice Blacks team that won the Division III Worlds earlier this year. The others were Josh Hay and alternate captains Mitchell Oak and Nick Curnow. With a lineup that was largely unchanged from last-year’s runner-up roster, Botany had a strong mix of veterans, experienced overseas players and younger New Zealand-born players.
Offensively, the Swarm had a balanced attack; Hay led the team with eight goals and 12 points. In the championship finale, Hay scored once, Curnow and Martin Lee each had two goals and Anthony Nathan and Huber added one. Defensively the Swarm allowed the fewest goals of any club in the league.
The Stampede entered the 2007 season as two-time defending league champions, and with 10 Ice Blacks on the roster, they were favored to complete a championship hat trick. But after looking strong in the preseason, they played inconsistently all season and won only four games. Amadeus Schifferle led the Stampede with 15 points and Brett Speirs was tops on the team with nine goals.
The Admirals were finalists in the NZIHL’s inaugural 2005 season, but underwent major roster changes coming into this season. With a roster containing only two national team players, the bulk of the Kiwi players on the roster were inexperienced youngsters.
While young goaltender Rick Parry, who saw an average of 40 shots per game, often held them close, the Admirals struggled for goals and typically were worn down by the third period. Ice Black player Daniel Smith lead the team with nine goals and 14 points, followed by veteran Darren Blong, who had a club-high nine assists and 13 points.
Most of the Kiwi players plan to return for the 2008 NZIHL season, which starts next fall — spring in North America and Europe. Many of the imports also hope to be back as well, and there will undoubtedly be several first-time players from overseas.