For the love of hockey

Last updated 08:37 28/11/2012
june leslie
MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE/ Fairfax NZ
HOCKEY HISTORY: June Leslie holds two hockey sticks that show the significant change in style over the years. Her mother's stick is on top, June's is underneath.
june leslie
SUPPLIED
GAME ON: A young June Leslie representing New Zealand in the new hockey uniform, featuring a "divided skirt and three-quarter hose".

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When Timaru teenager Cass Reid was selected as a member of the New Zealand Women's Hockey team last week, it brought back memories for June Leslie, who represented her country nearly 60 years ago. She spoke to features editor Claire Allison.

Hockey has lived large in June Leslie's life.

A New Zealand representative hockey player, June followed in her mother's footsteps to gain national selection; since then, her children and grandchildren have also made their mark on the sport.

Family photos fill the walls; one shows the extended family at one of their occasional hockey days, where everyone is given a stick and gets out there to play. It reflects June's childhood, when they used to run around the yard and the garden with hockey sticks and gorse sticks.

But June's memorabilia is more extensive than that. She still has the brown tunic top her mother wore when she played against England in Christchurch in 1914; the ball used in that game; the black blazer with the silver fern that June wore in 1953 when she played for New Zealand in an international tournament; and scrapbooks full of clippings that trace her mother's and her own hockey careers.

Two hockey sticks show the extent of the sport's development - her mother's long curved model and June's own stick, looking much more like today's models.

Hockey gave June opportunities that might otherwise not have been possible.

The New Zealand team that travelled to England in 1953 was just the second women's hockey team to tour overseas - the first, in 1935, was to Australia.

June's parents farmed at Mawaro, Cave.

She attended Mona Vale School and then spent the last three years of her schooling as a boarder at Timaru Girls High School.

At Girls High, she made the sporting choice that would see her reach national level.

"I played both netball and hockey in the third form at school and in the fourth form, I was offered a place on the B hockey and the B netball team. I thought, mother played hockey, so I will too. And netball was too limiting. With hockey, you've got the whole 100 metres."

June soon progressed to the school's A team, and played in the club competition in South Canterbury.

She left school to work on the family farm, but continued to play in Timaru.

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"The only way to get to town, I'd ride my horse four miles to the railway station. The train left at 9am, and I'd get to town at 10.30am.

"I'd play my game of hockey, then later, I'd catch my train home. I'd get back to the station at 6pm, then I'd have to catch my pony and ride home, and it was dark by then."

If she had the offer of a ride home in the afternoon, she'd turn her horse loose at the end of the road to find his own way home.

In 1946, June began playing for South Canterbury. She remembers tournaments in Wellington and Gore; the latter resulted in the New Zealand team being chosen and June's name being on that list. But it was a circuitous way to find out.

"Mother had a telegram, and it said, ‘congratulations, we told you you could do it'. She said, ‘what's all this about?', then she started ringing around. I didn't know at that point, I was around the farm. Dad and I came in and had lunch, but Mother didn't say anything to me. I guess she told Dad, but it was later in the afternoon that she told me."

While June's parents were pleased, others weren't quite so supportive.

"There were so many there that could have been chosen . . . until quite recently I was still having people saying, ‘You took my place, I should have been there'. I was a bit taken aback the first time I was told that.

"But I was fit. I had a horse and used to go around the farm on it, but often I'd say to Dad, ‘I'm walking today', and I'd take my hockey stick and a ball and away I'd go. I'd hear him yelling from the top of one hill to the next, ‘Don't run girl, walk!'."

The trip overseas with the national team would be June's second. Three years earlier, she and a friend had put their names forward to play in an international tournament in Africa. Away for 10 months, they travelled by boat, plane and bus, and were able to see much of the continent.

June's friend travelled on to England, but she returned home to help her father on the farm.

But it wasn't long before June knew she would be travelling overseas again, and putting wedding plans on hold to accommodate her selection.

"We knew I was picked for nearly a year before we went - we were engaged to be married, but we then thought, we'd be stupid to be married for six months and not be together. So we put it off and I think that was the best thing."

In sporting terms, June made it easy for people to continue to track her progress; Miss June Leslie married Mr Bill Leslie, so her surname remained the same - much to the confusion of many over the years.

June did not know any of her fellow team-mates. She was the only South Canterbury player selected and says there was little time together before they left the country.

"I hadn't played against any of the others, except for maybe a north-south exchange, and we didn't have much time together before the trip. I think we had two nights in Wellington, and maybe played one game, and then flew to Sydney to catch our ship."

The uniforms were waiting in Wellington, and the 14 women were the first to wear the new national uniform; black divided skirts, tunic blouses and three-quarter hose. The dress uniform was a grey skirt, white nylon blouse, black blazer and a grey beret.

The travelling was the biggest time component of the event. The journey from Australia to England took about six weeks.

Did they practise hockey drills on the deck?

"I did some embroidery, we played games a lot and practised Maori stick games and songs. No, I don't remember us practising on the boat."

The team played 21 international and district matches during the tour, and won 16 of their games.

The tournament proper was held at Folkestone, but the team travelled around for other games. Other countries taking part were Australia, Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Holland, Ireland, South Africa, Germany, India, Wales, the USA, Austria, Switzerland and Scotland.

June remembers getting herself in the dog box in South Africa. Calling on her earlier experience in the country, she offered to take a group of team-mates up Table Mountain.

"But when we got back to the cable station, there were the South African members who had been in England and the rest of our girls, waiting so we could all go up in the cable car.

"I think they forgave me in the end."

June's group of girls did, however, get to meet some fellow national sporting representatives on the mountain; members of New Zealand's cricket team.

They sailed from Southampton on December 10 to return home, arriving in Wellington on January 24.

June married Bill a month later and the couple moved to the North Island.

"But we didn't like that much, so we came back after about 18 months and went to St Andrews as a married couple on a farm there.

"There were still draws coming up for blocks of land and we applied for a block in Clandeboye and got it, and we were out at Clandeboye dairy farming, for 20 years.

"It was a terribly rough farm. Bill would go out on the tractor and I couldn't see him for the rushes."

The couple got the place in order, brought up a family of five, and milked up to 150 cows.

Bill and June retired to Levels, and then to Geraldine, finally settling in Timaru. She has been widowed for nearly six years.

The scrapbooks are continuing; with children and grandchildren now finding their place in the family hockey history.

June agrees hockey has provided her with many opportunities.

"If I hadn't had hockey, I think I would have been a little, shy country mouse."

June is considered the first South Canterbury hockey player to be selected to play for New Zealand's women's team, and Cass Reid the second. However, June refers to Rex Bowden's Hockey South Canterbury History to name former South Canterbury players who achieved New Zealand honours after leaving the district. They are: Helen Black (1949), Monica Donnelly (1961), Marie Donnelly (1963), Robyn McLean (1963) and Ann Dobson (1963).

- © Fairfax NZ News

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