NZIHL

Why an Auckland team must win the Birgel Cup this season

For the past six seasons the Birgel Cup has remained in the South Island, first spending three summers with the Canterbury Red Devils, followed by a further three at Queenstown’s Ice Arena where the Skycity Stampede proudly display their recent dominance of the competition.

But it’s time to make a change, the Birgel must travel further in 2018, finding a new home north of the Cook Strait.

Until the inevitable happens and the league expands to include Wellington, that summer home would be Auckland – either with the West Auckland Admirals based out of Avondale or the Botany Swarm.

With both sides together on the favourable end of the standings for the first time in a long time, I’ll make a case for each.

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Botany Swarm

The Swarm were the NZIHL’s original dynasty team having won back-to-back in 2007 & 2008, and again in 2010 & 2011 – but the four championship banners currently hanging from the rafters at Paradice Botany Downs, more affectionately known as The Hive, are starting to look a little lonely.

Since those glory days the proud club had seemingly lost their way under the pressure of ill discipline and inconsistent performances, finishing no better than third since their last title season. Here’s how those seasons break down for the Swarm.

2017: 4th place, 5-9-2 record for 16 points, -42 goal differential
2016: 4th place, 7-9-0, 20 points, -10
2015: 3rd place, 5-9-2, 16 points, -20
2014: 4th place, 7-7-2, 21 points, -1
2013: 3rd place, 9-3-4, 30 points, 33 (missed the Finals by 2 points)
2012: 5th place, 3-11-2, 11 points, -37

It’s been a long run of mediocrity but with a refresh from the top down, including new head coach Ian Wannamaker (whom won titles with the team as a player) and assistant coach Travis Crickard who has come for the season from the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, the Swarm look rejuvenated. The new coaching staff is making the players be more accountable while playing a style of hockey that is not only productive, but also appears to be finally steering the team in the right direction.

Even if they are hit with injuries down the line, they have the depth to make a run for the Birgel this year.

Starting from their own crease, Botany picked up import goaltender Colin Langham who has already shown glimpses of brilliance in four games so far, including this past round where he pulled off a highlight reel save in the dying seconds of the second period against the West Auckland Admirals to deny what would’ve been a 4-3 lead to the cross-town rivals and a sure goal for Nick Henderson.

Perhaps even better than Langham has been the play of Kiwi goalie Michael Hopkinson – only allowing six goals in his three games with a save percentage of .913. Together they create an effective tandem with their second import goalie Joel Rindelaub ready to jump in when called upon.

The Swarm’s blue line features the experience and skill of Ice Black brothers Andrew and Ollie Hay, the grit of Stephen Mawson, the recently acquired Remy Sandoy and youngster Logan Fraser. Together the Swarm defence has been stingy in 2018, only allowing 25 goals so far in what has been a high-scoring season to date. There is room for improvement however in the penalty kill with a 72.41% efficiency rate – but with Crickard’s expertise in video analysis, don’t be surprised if that creeps up.

As for the attack, imports Lucas Bombardier and Harry Ferguson are providing some thrilling firepower, backed up with regular contributions by Kiwi playmaker Jordan Challis, who notched up 5 assists alone in the team’s fourth round matchup with the Admirals, plus the third member of the Hay clan, Josh, is adding an extra touch of scoring in a welcome return to the NZIHL.

Remarkably, in a season that has seen it’s share of games with packed out penalty boxes, the team have given up the third lowest amount of powerplay chances this season with 29 – Canterbury lead with 24, while West Auckland are second with 27. Last year Botany topped the NZIHL with 79, equal with the champion Skycity Stampede – although they gave up more powerplay goals with 30 to their 16.

Wannamaker and Crickard have plenty of options in their arsenal and as they currently sit second in the league, the team are re-establishing the winning culture of yesteryear and looking to make the most of it – but will that include a championship run so early in the tenure of the new regime?

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Jordan Challis is enjoying a strong 2018 season with 12 points in 6 games.

West Auckland Admirals

Last year’s Birgel Cup runner-up might have something to say about that. Coming off their most impressive season in a very long time, the once suffering Admirals fanbase is full of life and there’s plenty of room left on the bandwagon.

The West Auckland Admirals have never won the NZIHL championship, although they have come close, all up they have donned that ‘runner-up’ tag three times in the team’s thirteen year history. But prior to their recent upsurge, there’s been hard times had at their home rink in Avondale. Here’s how it breaks down for them…

2017: 2nd place, 10-4-2 record for 32 points, +59 goal differential
2016: 3rd place, 9-6-1, 27 points, +13 (missed the Finals by 3 points)
2015: 5th place, 5-11-0, 14 points, -29
2014: 5th place, 4-12-0, 9 points, -24
2013: 5th place, 1-15-0, 3 points, -83
2012: 4th place, 7-8-1, 20 points, -7

While those three consecutive wooden spoon finishes do stick out, at this stage they feel like a distant memory so let’s treat it that way.

What could be a contributing factor to the rise in the Admirals play is the excellent leadership of both head coach Csaba Kercso-Magos Snr and captain Justin Daigle.

Together they have instilled a healthier team culture, laying down a solid foundation of support for the Admirals to potentially go on a long successful championship run much like the Red Devils or Stampede. West Auckland has already seen a dramatic improvement since 2016, now is the time for them to capitalise.

The Admirals continue to attract impressive imports that compliment their formidable lineup of past and present Ice Blacks.

Last year it was Adrian Toth, T.J. Battani and Henric Andersen lighting the lamp. This year, the West Aucklanders have Craig Peacock and Kevin Phillips from the UK’s elite league, plus Mike Verschuren from the Dutch league. Verschuren has quickly proven to be a pivotal player, already racking up 15 points in 6 games, while Phillips is dishing out the assists and Peacock stands second in team scoring with 12 points.

The scoring production of the Admirals imports is backed up by Ellis, one of their younger Ice Blacks, with 6 goals and 4 assists.

But the real standout of the 2018 Admirals could be their ability to shut down their opponents. Backstopped by Kercso-Magos Jnr and stalwart Rick Parry, they have allowed the fewest goals to date with 21. Their experienced blueline led by Daigle features some of New Zealand’s finest to wear the black jersey with Nick Craig and Gareth McLeish holding the fort, plus veteran Andrew Spiller also knows how to set up the pretty plays.

Unfortunately for the Admirals, Craig broke his ankle in the June 16th game against the Swarm. With a recovery window of 3-6 months he will be ruled out for the rest of the short season, leaving a sizeable hole in their leadership ranks. But to find a positive in all of this, it does provide an opportunity for the likes of George Costlett and Alex Regan to prove this organisation has depth on the backend.

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This could be the last we see of Nick Craig in 2018 after sustaining a broken ankle in round 4. Photo: Mike Froger

Approaching the fifth round (and the halfway point) of the competition, the Admirals sit at the top of the standings, while the Swarm trail by 5 points in second place.

We could very well see an all-Auckland Finals series for the first time since 2010 when Paradice was packed to the rafters. Considering the success of the recent Ice Hockey Classic at Spark Arena where it felt like all of the city’s hockey fans came out of hiding, this is a golden opportunity to create a foothold on Auckland’s crowded sporting landscape.

From where I’m standing in the bleachers, both the Swarm and Admirals have been playing exciting brands of hockey that are well worth watching – seeing these rivals go head-to-head for the Birgel Cup is exactly what this sport needs right now.

All photos by Mike Froger.

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