The future of women’s hockey is currently at the forefront of discussion in North America – the growing success of the CWHL and NWHL sees the topic of an inevitable merger for a singular national women’s hockey league coming up more and more.
Here in New Zealand, it’s no different – except for the scale of operations of course. A recent Puck Yeah poll suggests that the majority of local hockey fans would support an expanded NZWIHL when the time is right.
The key factor there is developing a deep enough talent pool. One that can eventually become sustainable with the next generation coming through and challenging the current guard for roster spots on the national women’s team, the Ice Fernz.
That is going to require some serious recruiting and promotional efforts by the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation when the sport remains on the outside looking in compared to other female codes in this country.
While the NZWIHL is beneficial in preparing our nation’s best, the season passed by between late January and early March this year with little fanfare – if you blinked, you missed it. The mainstream media coverage was severely lacking, but don’t blame the big four of TVNZ, Mediaworks, Stuff and NZME for that. If the NZIHF isn’t proactive in promoting their product, then what chance does the women’s game have of enjoying a higher profile?
For the women’s league to achieve the level of success seen by their Australian counterparts at the AWIHL, let alone the CWHL or NWHL, there needs to be an all-in attitude from those involved to make the NZWIHL more visible.
Well, proactivity is here. The NZIHF have recently appointed Victoria Buckley as their new Director of Women’s Hockey.
Buckley’s credentials include Canterbury Minor Ice Hockey President and Secretary. During her time as CMIH President, Buckley was instrumental in implementing the NZIHF’s ‘First Shift’ initiative in the region, along with establishing a Mites league (Under-8s) to address the need for those new age-group players to have their own competition.
That ‘can do’ attitude and ability to get things done could be hugely beneficial for New Zealand women’s ice hockey going forward. But for now, the attention turns to the Ice Fernz.
Come April 1 the Fernz begin their World Championship campaign against last year’s silver medalists Chinese Taipei. NZ will also face Iceland, Turkey, Romania and Croatia in their bid to win gold and gain promotion to the IIHF’s Division 2 – Group A.
Today the team departs for a training camp in Austria before proceeding onto Brasov, Romania for the real deal.
Puck Yeah recently interviewed new Ice Fernz head coach Rachel Park for a podcast that will be released next Wednesday. The Ontario native also runs the bench for the Auckland Steel team that features a strong contingent of national representatives for both ice and inline.
One player of note that Park is excited to have on her roster is Jasmine Horner-Pascoe – the Auckland forward finished second in NZWIHL scoring this year with 28 points (15 goals, 13 assists) in 12 games.
The new head coach praised Horner-Pascoe’s puck-handling abilities, “Her hands are just magical. She’s full of surprising dangles and I’d even say she’s probably the best I’ve seen on the ice in terms of a female player (in New Zealand) with those kinds of hands.”
The return of Helen Murray is another highlight of what Park considers to be a very solid roster despite a 25% attrition rate, describing the captain as someone who is ‘consistent on the ice and a great leader.’
New Zealand’s offence is further bolstered by the return of Caitlin Heale.
Heale came out with top scoring honours in last year’s tournament with 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists). Across just five games, those numbers highlight what this side is capable of and can be the difference between a medal placing and relegation. But after a disappointing fourth-place finish in 2018, the Ice Fernz will be out to prove they deserve that elusive IIHF promotion.
The turning point could come from the goal crease. The addition of Grace Harrison to the goalie ranks, alongside Lochlyn Hyde, sees a strong tandem in play with the number one starting role up for grabs at training camp.
Hyde finished the 2019 NZWIHL season with a .914 save percentage and 2.73 goals against average over nine games with the Steel – good enough to finish third in goaltending ranks behind the Southern Storm’s dynamic duo of Jordan Wichman and Danielle Strayer, who is making the switch to defence for the Fernz.
Grace Harrison recently wrapped up her senior season at St. Lawrence University with a 9-7-5 record while enjoying a .922 SV%, 2.18 GAA and two shutouts. That stat line remained relatively consistent throughout her 96-game NCAA Division I career with a GAA reaching as low as 1.62 and a top SV% of .923 – both coming from her sophomore year.
Harrison was exceptionally dominant in net this past January. Amounting a staggering .970 SV% and 0.76 GAA while going undefeated with a 3-0-1 record, her performance was recognised by the Women’s Hockey Commissioners’ Association with the ‘National Goalie of the Month’ award.
Coach Park sees Harrison’s collegiate experience as being invaluable to the team. “As a goaltender you see the entire ice. She’s going to be able to identify what’s breaking down, what’s working and also (bringing) that leadership perspective. The girls really appreciate what she’s been able to accomplish over there,” Park stated.
To be successful in this tournament Park believes the team needs to ‘mesh as a squad and get on the same system’ while also working on being more aggressive on the puck to match the increased intensity of international hockey, plus learning to counter their opponent’s tactics more effectively to create stronger scoring chances.
After my interview with Rachel Park wrapped up I felt like I came away from it having learnt more about the current state of the women’s game and hopefully you will too.
The Ice Fernz are an important part of growing the game in New Zealand, and as a country that loves to back a winner, a gold medal in Romania would go a long way to raising the team’s profile on the nation’s busy sporting landscape.
2019 Ice Fernz Traveling Squad
Harriet Fuller, Kirstin Gerken, Hope Gregory, Abbey Heale, Caitlin Heale, Jasmine Horner-Pascoe, Helen Murray, Caitlin Orr, Jemma Read, Reagyn Shattock, Hannah Shields.
Terryn Bruce, Hannah Cross, Jaime Jones, Rebecca Lilly, Rikki-Lee McLean, Rachael Neville-Lamb, Ashley Richmond, Danielle Strayer, Krystie Woodyear-Smith.
Grace Harrison, Lochlyn Hyde
2019 Ice Fernz Game Schedule
April 1: NZ v Chinese Taipei at 11pm
April 3: NZ v Iceland at 2:30am
April 5: NZ v Turkey at 2:30am
April 6: NZ v Romania at 6am
April 7: NZ v Croatia at 11pm
Depending on the availability of live streams, Puck Yeah will have game highlights available on our YouTube channel.
Main Photo: Elvar Freyr