I managed to get some one on one time with Alex Ashwell, more affectionately known as Big Al, before the second game against the Dunedin Thunder at the Alpine Ice Sports Centre in Christchurch on Sunday.
Al has made enduring contributions to Canterbury and New Zealand ice hockey over the past twenty years both as a player and a coach, but he was at pains to emphasise that his story “is more about the people who have supported me from when I was young rather than about me.”
Hockey really got started for Al when his family moved to Canada in 1988. Al was 10 years old and he remembers how influential his grandfather was at that time. A terrific athlete in his own right competing in long distance running, cycling and skiing events, he would build an ice hockey rink in the back yard of his Manitoba home every year where Al and his older brother Harley, and later his younger brother Joe, spent winters taking turns in and out of goal, competing until the sun went down.
His first year of organised hockey came at school in Niverville, just outside of Winnipeg, where he played in the Bantam grade. From there he progressed to Midgets and Junior C hockey and remembers enjoying the times his teams travelled to other parts of Canada and the USA, mentioning the best hockey he played was when he tried out for the Waywayseecappo Wolverines a junior A team in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League where a lot of NHL players start out.
A major turning point in Al’s hockey career (and his life) was meeting and working for his friend Larry Bumstead, whom is the director of North Western Hockey, a development program for young players now owned by the Winnipeg Jets organisation. Larry had played exhibition games with the Jets before setting up the camp.
Today Al is still involved with the Jets, “I pick up summer contracts with them every two years or so when I go back, and have been on the road with them all over the States and Canada. So when I go back I work for the Winnipeg Jets organisation,” said Ashwell.
When Al graduated in 1997, he decided to follow his brother Harley back to Canterbury and the next episode in his career came with a chance meeting in Queenstown. When he and Harley were at the Queenstown skate rink they asked a local about ice hockey in New Zealand – that local was none other than Graham Glass.
Two months later they were both on the Canterbury Junior team heading for Auckland where they would make their mark as hard-hitters on what they called the ‘havoc’ line with Hamish McCormack. Al’s fondest memories are of Harley ‘putting two guys over the boards’ and both Harley and he combining to pacify Auckland’s star player Eugene Nesterov with successive checks. Needless to say, Canterbury won the tournament.
This was the beginning of a long association with Canterbury ice hockey. It has not only been as a player that he has excelled, but also as a coach and mentor. In 2003 and 2004 he was the head coach of the Canterbury junior rep team that won successive gold medals at national tournaments.
Al appointed a young Hayden Argyle as captain of that team and still maintains Hayden is the best New Zealand-born player he has met. His young brother Joe was in that team and Al also remembers many of the other fine young players including Adam Soffer and Gareth Livingstone, along with team manager Alan Curnow (father of Nick and Ollie) who gave him great support and advice.
In 2005 and 2006, the first two seasons of the NZIHL, Al played for the fledging Red Devils and in those same years he was selected for the Ice Blacks. “I have a lot of respect for Dave Lecomte who took a chance on me in representing NZ for those two years,” said Ashwell.
Between 2007 and 2016 Al took a lower profile in the NZ ice hockey world while completing a degree in journalism at Canterbury University, plus a teaching degree. He also played rugby with brother Harley for the Darfield Club in Mid-Canterbury, notching up 120 games, but somewhere during that decade he still found time to coach the St Andrews High School and senior non-checking hockey teams.
Last year Big Al once again became a member of the Canterbury Red Devils and at age 39 standing 6-feet-4 tall, he is still a formidable figure on the ice. This year he has switched to a more defensive role and is more than content to use the depth of his experience and game savvy to contribute to the team, putting everything into each game.
Al believes the current Red Devils management is as good as any team he has been involved with and expresses optimism about the team’s prospects this year.
Before Al had to leave for his team meeting he wanted to reiterate how important certain people have been in his career. He mentioned Canterbury stalwart organiser Allison Reid as ‘one of the best ice hockey people I’ve met’. He also acknowledged long-serving senior referee and former CIHA president Jerome Raateland as a great guy and mentor. There were many others, but by this time team leader Dave Fraser was in the café rounding up his players and the big man had to go.
Main photo: Josh Fraser