For the past twelve days the New Zealand Ice Fernz have been participating in an intensive training camp within what many consider to be the centre of the hockey universe, Toronto.
During that time, the Ice Fernz focused on coming together as a team with practices at York University. There they worked on their systems before challenging themselves against tough local competition in preparation for the upcoming IIHF Division II Group B Women’s World Championship in Spain.
Their desire to test themselves saw the Ice Fernz competing in the 39th annual Leaside Wildcats March Break Madness tournament, one of the city’s largest competitions for women’s hockey. Entered into the Senior A division, New Zealand did not win a game but captain Helen Murray believes the experience was influential on the team. “It’s been incredibly valuable to play against high level women’s teams in the lead up to Spain…we just don’t have access to this level of women’s hockey in New Zealand so that’s been important for our development as a team,” said Murray.
Aside from the six games of hockey played during training camp, the Ice Fernz were also de facto ambassadors of New Zealand and it’s hockey program. Taking in games from the CWHL, the Ontario Hockey League, the AHL and NHL – plus a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame – it’s the kind of trip that many hockey mad Kiwis would be envious of.
Their first stop was Markham, Ontario where the Fernz took in the spectacle of the traveling hockey festival known as Hometown Hockey, a show hosted by legendary broadcaster Ron MacLean that airs on Sportsnet.
The city, 45-minutes north of downtown Toronto, is known for producing NHL talent such as Steven Stamkos, Jeff Skinner and Mitch Marner, but it’s also home to the CWHL’s Markham Thunder.
Two of their players, Laura Fortino and Laura Stacey represented Canada at the recent PyeongChang Winter Olympics where they lost in the gold medal game to Team USA. With those silver medals in hand, Helen and the rest of the Ice Fernz had the opportunity to meet with the Olympians while taking in the CWHL game between the Thunder and the Calgary Inferno.
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League is a competitive league that is going from strength to strength, featuring teams from Montreal, Toronto, Markham, Calgary, and Boston, plus two from China.
For the first time this season, the CWHL began paying its players – providing a potential pathway for young women who are lacing up their skates and wanting to pursue a playing career in hockey like their male counterparts. When asked if she thought it were possible for Kiwi girls to make it in the CWHL, Murray stated “I don’t think we could currently compete with the speed at that level, but it’s something to aspire to.”
The Ice Fernz’s ambassador duties didn’t end there that night. Standing beside alternate captain Anjali Mulari, Murray appeared on the CWHL’s broadcast of the Thunder/Inferno game where they talked about the state of New Zealand’s game and their inline hockey origins during a second intermission interview.
That wasn’t the only media attention they received during their stay. They were also interviewed by The Globe And Mail’s Rachel Brady where they described Toronto as ‘hockey heaven.’
While speaking to Puck Yeah before the Ice Fernz departed for Spain, Murray added “It’s awesome that the media over here are so interested in our program. Everyone we’ve talked to loves New Zealand and is excited that we are developing the women’s game.”
Along with the CWHL game, the Ice Fernz captain says a personal highlight of her time in Canada would have to be witnessing her first NHL game.
That game was last Saturday’s controversial clash between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The controversy came from Brian Dumoulin’s disallowed goal where he was given a penalty for goaltender interference instead of being rewarded with what would have been a career highlight goal that cut the Leafs’ lead down to two. Toronto scored on the ensuing 4-on-3 powerplay before winning 5-2, their first after a four game losing skid.
Drama aside, the real takeaway from that night was the fact that in front of a sold-out crowd at the Air Canada Centre, the Toronto Maple Leafs gave a special shout out to the Ice Fernz during a break in play. Now 18,000 more people know that New Zealand plays hockey and we have a national women’s team to be proud of, just as the Canadians do.
A true testament to how important the Ice Fernz hockey program is to these girls is seeing players who have previously worn the black jersey visit the team to reconnect and show their support. Two such players who did so during their camp in Toronto were goaltender Grace Harrison, whom recently wrapped up her third season with the St. Lawrence University Saints, and Renata Gottgtroy, whom lives and trains in nearby York, ON.
Another former Ice Fern that has come back to the program is Kiri Langford. She currently works in Scarborough, ON as a strength and conditioning coach for the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario and is applying her expertise to the Fernz’s 2018 campaign as an assistant coach. Murray spoke highly of Langford’s involvement with the team, “She inspires her teammates to challenge themselves and improve as an all-round athlete, and that has always had an impact on me.”
After a robust training camp and awareness campaign for New Zealand hockey, the Ice Fernz have now landed in Valdemoro, Spain where they will begin their World Championship campaign this Sunday (NZ time).
Taking home the bronze medal last year, the team are now ranked second but they have their sights firmly set on gold. Standing in their way will be top ranked hosts Spain, third seed Iceland, plus Romania, Chinese Taipei and Turkey.
The captain believes the team’s biggest asset is their passion and that their determination on the ice has made all the difference in the past when playing tight games against highly-skilled opposition.
However, that doesn’t mean the Ice Fernz will be taking this tournament lightly. “We know Spain and Iceland will be tough opponents. We had an overtime loss to Spain and a gutsy 4-3 win over Iceland last year so we have a lot to prove against both of those teams,” Murray said before adding “We had convincing wins over Turkey and Romania but they are both hard-working teams that we never underestimate, and Chinese Taipei dominated the qualification division last year so we are expecting them to be formidable as well.”
Murray believes what motivates her to lead the Fernz are those very same teammates, both past and present, who have to pay their own way (around $5,000 NZ dollars) to play for their country. “Everyone that plays for the Fernz is juggling full-time work or study…It’s pure passion for the game and for New Zealand that gets us here and that always inspires me,” said the captain. But one player who influenced Murray in particular is her predecessor Sheree Haslemore. “She was a fantastic captain during my first years with the team. Her work ethic and composure are qualities I try to emulate.”
With five other teams in the week-long tournament, the schedule is compact. The penultimate game of the World Championship will be a battle of the top two seeds, as the Ice Fernz take on Spain. With the results being decided on points, that matchup could very well determine the exact medal placings for the teams.
Schedule for the 2018 IIHF Division II Group B Women’s World Championship:
March 18 @ 1:00am – NZ vs Romania
March 19 @ 4:30am – NZ vs Iceland
March 21 @ 4:30am – NZ vs Chinese Taipei
March 22 @ 1:00am – NZ vs Turkey
March 24 @ 4:30am – NZ vs Spain