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New Zealander Challis in search of NHL holy grail

by Bill Meltzer /

Botany Swarm forward Jordan Challis celebrates the NZIHL championship. The 16-year-old Challis is in his second season of playing against adults while simultaneously playing for the Australian national team in three different age groups.
Most every young hockey player dreams of playing in the NHL someday. But when you come from a country that plays at the lower levels of international hockey and live nearly 8,000 miles from the heartland of North American hockey, the dream can seem very distant. After all, not too many pro or major junior scouts make it to Auckland, New Zealand.

Time will tell how far 16-year-old New Zealander Jordan Challis journeys into the hockey world that lies beyond the southwestern Pacific. But the teenage prodigy is one of the few Kiwi players that have drawn individual attention from outside the country the IIHF has No. 39 in the current world rankings.

At the senior level, New Zealand’s national team plays at the Division III level (the bottom tier) internationally – although recently it has shown it can hold its own against Division II opposition. At the junior level, the Kiwis were promoted to Division II in the Under-20 level, and play Division III in the U-18 category.

Challis’ skills caught the eye of a Canadian scout who happened to be coaching a team on tour in New Zealand. The scout asked him if he’d be interested in going to play midget AAA hockey in Canada.

Challis, who attends Howick College in Auckland, agreed and joined the Markham Waxers’ AAA squad. The team, from the suburbs of Toronto, lists among its alums top 2008 Entry Draft pick Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay Lightning) and 2008 first-round picks Cody Hodgson (Vancouver Canucks) and Michael Del Zotto (New York Rangers). Current and former NHL players Sean Avery, Adam Oates, Charlie Huddy and Steve Thomas got their starts with Markham.

Challis was supposed to stay for a month, but he played for six months before returning to New Zealand.

Challis has grown used to playing – and excelling – against much older and physically bigger opposition, both within New Zealand and at international tournaments. At age 8 he was skating circles around 10-year-olds in an inline hockey league. By age 12 he earned a spot on New Zealand’s national U-16 ice hockey team.

Within the last year, Challis played for the New Zealand U-16 team, U-18 and U-20 teams, and earned an invitation to train with the senior national team, dubbed the Ice Blacks.

Challis is too young to play for the Ice Blacks (he won’t be eligible until he’s 17), but he’s already a second-season regular in New Zealand’s top adult league, the NZIHL.

Last year, his team, the Botany Swarm, won the league championship.

So far this season, Botany is in first place after 10 games and Challis, in nine games, has three goals and nine points. In his most recent game, he had a goal and two assists as the Swarm blew out the West Auckland Admirals, 9-1.

Apart from giving up experience to his NZIHL opponents, Challis also gives up considerable size. He has been listed anywhere from 5-foot-7 and 154 pounds (at the 2008 U-18 Division III Worlds in March) to 5-9 and 163 pounds (two months earlier at U-20 Division III Worlds). According to Challis, he’s long since become used to being one of the smallest players on the ice, as well as the youngest.

My first year in the Under-16s was the hardest because I was only 12, so I was still quite small. I had to rely on speed to get around and out of the way. - Jordan Challis
“I’ve always played in grades a couple years above me, so becoming fast and smart has always been important,” he told the Howick and Pakuranga Times. “My first year in the Under-16s was the hardest because I was only 12, so I was still quite small. I had to rely on speed to get around and out of the way.”

Even when competing internationally against players three to five years his elder, Challis often dominates offensively. In helping New Zealand win gold at the U-20 Worlds in Serbia, Challis tallied six goals, 14 points and a plus-17 rating in six games. Most notably, he was chosen as player of the game as New Zealand earned its first victory against rival Australia, 7-2. At the Under-18 Worlds in Mexico, he had five goals and 10 points in four games.

Despite their success on the ice, the tournaments in Serbia and Mexico had a darker side for Challis and his teammates.

When the New Zealand defeated Serbia, 5-4, to virtually clinch the gold medal, the home crowd at Pionir Ice Rink turned ugly, throwing anything they could get their hands on at the teenage players, who had to be escorted to safety and remained in the dressing room for over an hour after the match.

Two months later in Mexico, the danger came from a faulty ventilation system at San Jeronimo Arena. In their opening game against Mongolia (a 29-0 romp for the Kiwis), players from both sides complained of nausea and headaches. Later that day, in a game between South Africa and Mexico, players and fans fell sick and South Africa forfeited the game.

The faulty ventilation system in the building had led to a carbon monoxide leak in the arena. Play was suspended for three days until the problem was corrected.

The incidents did nothing to dampen Challis’ enthusiasm for traveling abroad to play hockey. He has said he would like to return to North America to either play major junior or NCAA hockey in an effort to see if he can advance to the professional level, with the NHL being his ultimate goal. The only way to work seriously toward achieving that goal is to leave behind the familiar rinks and friends from home.

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