Icescapades down under

MATT RICHENS
Last updated 05:00 30/07/2011
Engelage
ICESCAPADES: Engelage, the goalie of the Canada team to play the USA in an ice hockey exhibition match in Christchurch on Saturday.

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It's the ultimate boys' trip.

Members of the touring American and Canadian ice hockey sides are enjoying time away from home and the normal day-to-day "grind" of being a professional "haaarkey" player – plenty of drinks, tourist spots, mountain biking, shooting guns, playing golf and being celebrities in little old New Zealand.

They get to hang out with their mates, ribbing each other and competing over everything and on the surface the worst thing they should have to deal with is the cold and the awful US dollar.

It's not a bad way to spend your off-season.

Amid all the fun are three exhibition hockey games, the second of which is tonight at CBS Canterbury Arena.

But the players aren't all enjoying the experience.

The younger ones are excited at being away from home, partying when possible with the odd hockey game thrown in and enjoying their "once in a lifetime experience".

But some senior members of the tour group aren't as impressed.

On the record they have nothing but nice things to say about New Zealand, its scenery and people, but behind the scenes they're far from happy. Auckland received a bagging. Several members of the group said that with Queenstown's party reputation, they would have preferred to be based there.

"Six days in Auckland was a bit much," Canadian captain Derek Armstrong said.

While Armstrong enjoys days out like yesterday's, when the two teams were guests at Terrace Downs and competed for national pride in golf, archery and clay-target shooting, New Zealand isn't what he thought it would to be.

"I thought it was going to be like Australia," he said.

"Sun, beaches, blonde-haired women and like island life. I know it's your winter, but, I guess it's just not what I expected."

Some bemoaned the cold – odd for ice hockey players – while others said they expected Kiwis to be a happier people. Rugged up in borrowed Terrace Downs jackets still carrying the price tags, the hockey players' demeanour picked up when they began to compete.

It doesn't matter if it's ice hockey, golf, claybird shooting or picking up New Zealand women, everything is a competition. For the record, the Canadians won the first game last week in Auckland, they won yesterday's golf and the shooting, but the Americans have the ladykilling title, or so they claim.

The hockey games themselves are entertainment as much as sport and the players know it. They're here to put on a show and to attempt to promote their sport to a country that, generally, doesn't understand it.

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Miller wasn't sure it would ever catch on here because of the lack of ice, but he wasn't worried. Even if the results are irrelevant in the great scheme of things, bragging rights on the bus and national pride – plus the odd side bet – mean the urge to win is strong.

Accusations of contrived results are scoffed at by US captain Aaron Miller, who has 677 National Hockey League games under his belt. Canada won 4-3 on penalty shots in the game won in Auckland last week, and while Miller called it a "dream result" for spectators – and promoters – he said there was no way a bunch of American hockey players could let a Canadian team win.

"We take it too seriously to fake a result like that," he said. "We're having fun out there, but we still want to win and take that seriously." Miller confirmed the fights were as much fun as anything, but denied they were staged too. He did however, admit the players weren't as rough as they would be in their home leagues when it came to checking each other into the glass or crashing into each other off the puck.

With just 11 players in each squad, they're spending nearly twice as much time on court as they would in a National Hockey League game.

"And these are exhibition games," he said.

"A lot of these guys are in their pre-season ... this is their job, if they get hurt they can't work. We're still rough, but if a guy's not looking we're not going to smash them unsighted, we don't want to be messing with guys' livelihoods," he said. And it's quite a livelihood for some.

Younger members of the touring party will take home about US$50,000-$60,000 (NZ$57,744-$69,191) a year.

At the other end of the scale is Kyle Quincey, a defenceman with NHL team the Colorado Avalanche, who is believed to be on around NZ$4.3m a year.

Their working holiday will end next week and at least one senior player will miss New Zealand. When most return to North America next week and are straight into their respective pre-seasons, two-time Stanley Cup winner Mark Hartigan doesn't even get to go to his Minneapolis home. He heads straight to Switzerland to join his Swiss Premier League team the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers.

When asked what he thought of New Zealand, Hartigan pointed to the Southern Alps and the high-country Terrace Downs landscape and said: "What's not to love."

- The Press

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