LATEST: Watch the Red Devils v Stampede live in the opening weekend of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League:
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The New Zealand Ice Hockey League (NZIHL) begins its 10th season this week and it's shaping up as the closest one yet.
For the first time, Stuff will be live streaming one game every Sunday (save this story link for the first stream; 4.45pm, tomorrow).
While it may come as a surprise that New Zealand has an ice hockey league, NZIHL media and marketing director Jez Brown said the sport's popularity was growing all the time.
The five teams - Canterbury Red Devils, Dunedin Thunder, Southern Stampede (Queenstown), Botany Swarm (Auckland) and West Auckland Admirals - play each other four times over the next three months.
The top two will then face off in a three game playoff series to decide the Birgel Cup champions.
The Canterbury Red Devils were the two-time defending champions, but Brown said the competition was tight this year.
"It's very hard to pick a favourite ever. This season will be one of the closest we've had.
"For instance, the Admirals, the team that finished last last year, have a new coach and will be extremely competitive."
The short length (16 games) and the high level of play in the league meant every team needed to be on their game from when the first puck dropped, Brown said.
"I like to say that the finals start in week one. It's amazing how tight the competition is and the quality across the league is very even.
"It's generally agreed that the quality we play here in New Zealand is the same as a minor professional league in the United States."
Each team was allowed four import players as well as two assimilated players (have to have played in New Zealand for two seasons straight and have a view to live here long-term or go on to play for the Ice Blacks).
None of the players were paid, but the imports were generally professionals who came here in their off season to stay match fit for professional trials or upcoming northern hemisphere seasons.
The big difference between the games people might see on TV in the NHL and here was fighting was outlawed in accordance with international rules.
"If you fight - which includes dropping the gloves - then you're going to get a one-match suspension and a one-match suspension, in this tight league, is huge," Brown said.
The league also has the equivalent of rugby league's State of Origin - dubbed the Skate of Origin - at the end of the season, as well as its own version of rugby's Ranfurly Shield called the Toa Kauhanga Riri Tio challenge trophy.
The Red Devils currently hold the challenge trophy, which is only defended during Sunday home games so is on the line when they take on the Stampede on Sunday; the first streamed match for Stuff.
The first game of the season is today between the Red Devils and the Stampede at 4.45pm, before they meet again on Sunday for the Stuff feature game, again at 4.45pm.
BASIC ICE HOCKEY RULES:
- Each team has six players on the ice, including a goalie.
- Three 20-minute periods, if the scores are tied at the end, the game goes to sudden death overtime.
- No fighting (international rules)
- Icing: You can't pass the puck from behind halfway to across the corresponding red line running across the face of the goal without it being touched.
- Offside: Each team has a zone which is shown by a thick blue line (think of it like the area from the 22 to the try line in rugby). When moving into the attacking zone, the puck has to travel across the blue line before any players can. If any players are beyond the blue line when the puck enters the zone, then they are offside.
Canterbury Red Devils
Rink (Capacity): Alpine Ice Arena in Christchurch (800)
Coach: Stacey Rout (New Zealand)
Captain: Hayden Argyle
Player to watch: The Devils have an unrivalled combination of scorers in former Ice Blacks Brett Speirs (113 goals in 121 games) and Chris Eaden (137 goals in 96 games), both put up phenomenal numbers and know their way to the net. Star import: Vladimir Kútny (Slovakia) has played in a number of professional leagues around the world and was once drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL.
Last season: The Red Devils won their second Birgel Cup in a row in 2013 and will be looking for the trifecta in 2014. They are also the current Toa Kauhanga Riri Tio challenge trophy holders and will be defending it in Sunday's match against the Southern Stampede.
Rink (Capacity): Queenstown Ice Arena (650)
Coach: Heikki Grohn (Finland)
Captain: Berton Haines
Player to watch: Winner of 2012 best goaltender, Aston Brookes is returning to the Stampede after a stint with the Thunder.
Star import: Matt Schnieder (Canada) was once drafted by the Calgary Flames in the NHL.
Last season: After losing some of its favourite sons to South Island rivals the Thunder and Devils last year, the Stampede couldn't quite string together the wins they needed at the end of the season. The fact they've been able to retain their core imports from last year will be a big advantage.
Rink (Capacity): Paradise Ice Arena - Botany (1000)
Coach: Andreas Kaisser (Germany)
Captain: Andrew Hay
Player to watch: Aaron Henderson is a young player, just back from North America, who moves the puck well and is always involved in the play.
Star import: Brandon Contratto (USA) plays professionally in Europe and scored 25 goals in 16 games for the Swarm last season.
Last season: The Swarm narrowly missed the final by one point last season. They've lost some key players in Ice Blacks Josh Hay, Ian Wannamaker and Richard Idoine, but aren't the most successful NZIHL team for no reason.
West Auckland Admirals
Rink (Capacity): Paradise Ice Arena - Avondale (800)
Coach: Chris Belanger (Canada)
Captain: Robert Chamberlain
Player to watch: Former Ice Black goalie Rick Parry is returning to the Admirals after two seasons in France and Australia. Having a class player between the pipes will completely change the Admirals game.
Star import: Justin Daigle (Canada) signed a full scholarship with the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2009. In his freshman season he had the honour of playing in the prestigious NCAA national tournament.
Last season: Last year was a very disappointing season picking up the one win and suffering some very heavy losses as heads dropped, but there have been an avalanche of changes in the off-season with former NHL draftee Belanger at the helm and the Admirals remain unbeaten in the pre-season.
Rink (Capacity): Dunedin Ice Stadium (1000)
Coach: Janos Kaszala (Hungary)
Captain: Andre Robichaud
Player to watch: The Thunder boast Ice Blacks Connor Harrison and Paris Heyd, big guys with a lot of pace and a nose for the back of the net. These two are exciting to watch and will never give up without a fight.
Star import: Matt Canaday (Canada) was the leading goalie last season. Sharp in net and a personality off the ice.
Last season: The Thunder finished as minor premiers and made their first final with a very youthful squad. They fell short to a very experienced Red Devils team, but will have no doubt learned a lot from that. Having retained the bulk of their squad, including all but one of their imports, there is obviously a hunger to go one better this season.
Of these accolades, which would you like to win most?