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Hockey still going Down Under

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

"I am confident the Winter Games Committee and fans are in for two exciting and action-packed contests, which will surely be the platform for many future contests at all levels between our two great Trans-Tasman rival ice hockey organizations in future."
-- IHA President Don Rurak

There is no such thing as an offseason in the world of ice hockey. No matter the month of the year, there's organized ice hockey taking place somewhere in the world. Case in point: the upcoming New Zealand Winter Games, which will feature a two-game contest between an Australian squad and the New Zealand national team, better known as the Ice Blacks. The games will take place Aug. 22-23 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, so both the New Zealanders and Australians play during what is their fall and winter.

The Aussies and Kiwis are traditional arch-rivals, although the Aussie hockey program has deeper roots. The Australians are currently ranked 33rd in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, while the New Zealanders rank 39th. The 2009 New Zealand Winter Games is the inaugural event of a competition that will be held every two years.

All of the events run over a 10-day period at various locations throughout Otago and the Southern Lakes District in New Zealand's South Island. All events, including the hockey games, will be televised in their entirety by Sky TV and on local live telecasts.

The upcoming hockey series came about as a result of negotiations between the New Zealand Winter Games Committee, New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation (NZIHF), Ice Hockey Australia (IHA) and the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL). An agreement was reached for two teams in the AIHL, the defending champion Newcastle Northstars and the Sydney Bears, to form a single team representing Australia.

Typically, the Aussie national team, nicknamed the Mighty Roos, features players from all seven teams in the semi-professional AIHL. But with both the AIHL and New Zealand Ice Hockey League (NZIHL) seasons under way, alternative arrangements had to be made for the Aussies. Without the agreement of the Northstars and Bears to move Newcastle's final scheduled regular season home game to the weekend prior, the event was in jeopardy. All of the remaining AIHL teams are involved in their final games prior to the AIHL Finals, which will be held the following weekend.

In a statement, IHA President Don Rurak said, "This has been a long ongoing decision for Australia, as IHA is keenly aware of the importance of the final weekend of games for the AIHL teams and the inclusion of ice hockey in New Zealand's Winter Games. I also extend my thanks to Graeme Glass, Grant Hay and the Winter Games Committee for their patience in this decision. I am confident the Winter Games Committee and fans are in for two exciting and action-packed contests, which will surely be the platform for many future contests at all levels between our two great Trans-Tasman rival ice hockey organizations in future."

Of the two nations, Australian hockey has traditionally been a full notch above the Kiwi game. In official head-to-head competitions, the Aussies enjoy a perfect 10-0-0 mark, with an eye-popping goal differential of 146-10. Much of the damage was inflicted in a single game in Perth, Australia. On March 14, 1987, the Aussies humiliated a team representing New Zealand by one of the most lopsided margins in organized international hockey history, 58-0.

In the 22 years since, the New Zealanders have made enormous strides in both the organization and quality of their hockey and now have a viable program. Typically, many Australian national team players are expatriates of Canada and other hockey-playing nations, who have since become outright citizens of Australia or who hold dual citizenship. The Ice Blacks team is comprised entirely of native Kiwis.

One year ago, the Aussies hosted the IIHF-sanctioned Division II World Championships and captured the gold medal on home ice in Newcastle. Promoted to the Division I level (one step down from the elite level) for the first time in its history, the Australians were in over their heads. The Mighty Roos finished last in the six-team Group A tournament and will return to Division II in 2010.

Meanwhile, the Ice Blacks recently won the gold medal at the 2009 Division III World Ice Hockey Championship, held in Dunedin from April 10-16. New Zealand went undefeated in the tournament and dominated the opposition, defeating Luxembourg (6-2), Turkey (8-2), Greece (4-3 in overtime), and Ireland 9-0 in the final game. In addition to winning the tournament, the Ice Blacks have been elevated to Division II for the 2010 World Championships.

The AIHL features seven teams. In addition to Newcastle and Sidney, the circuit includes the Adelaide Adrenaline, the Canberra Knights, Gold Coast Blue Tongues, and the Melbourne Ice. The NZIHL has five teams, representing the three national regions affiliated to the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation. Two teams come from the Auckland and Southern regions and one from the Canterbury region: the defending champion Botany Storm, Dunedin Thunder, Souther Stampede, West Auckland Admirals and Canterbury Red Devils.


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