By MATTHEW MCKEW
Queenstown’s most popular sports team will soon be back in action, with a South Island ice hockey series facing off next month.
SkyCity Stampede, the 2019 New Zealand Ice Hockey League champions, regularly pull in crowds in their hundreds but the season was put on ice in March, due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
While the national league still can’t go ahead, due to the cost and reliability of flights to Auckland, there are plans for a North/South All Stars series, alongside a southern round robin, which’ll involve the SkyCity Stampede, Dunedin Thunder and Canterbury Red Devils.
“There’ll be four home games in Queenstown,” says team manager Niel Frear, with exact dates still needing to be confirmed, but the southern season’s likely to be wrapped up in October.
“We are working with the players because they have different commitments now, a lot of guys would be nervous to ask for a Friday and Monday off from work.
“The employment market has changed and our players are all amateurs, everyone has got a job, so it’s about managing players, families’ needs and not having a significant financial burden on these people – because they pay to play.”
He’s grateful to personal sponsors but says that market’s been hit, too.
“This is a good solution – without the significant cost of travelling to Auckland twice – because we can reach those South Island venues by vans.
“Air travel’s not the most reliable at the moment, so we need time for that to get some certainty and then plan for 2021.”
Frear adds that hotels the team normally use in Auckland have been commandeered by the government for returning citizens and residents to quarantine.
The Stampede benefit from one of the largest ice hockey fan bases in the South Island, so Frear’s hopeful of bringing both proposed home fixtures of the North/South series to Queenstown Ice Arena.
Fan favourite Matt Schneider says training’s starting to ramp up – the team’s now on the ice twice a week to get match-fit.
Schneider, who sits top of the individual rankings in the local league, say he’s still a little rusty with such a long off-season for the Stampede.
“It’s going to be different, it’s obviously not ideal and it would be nice to have a full league, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
He says it’ll be great to get out on the ice and be good for the fans, who he says seem to be “itching” to see the Stampede play.
Plans for the North/South series particularly excite Schneider – now a Kiwi citizen – because the last match-up was played under State of Origin rules and he didn’t qualify.
One big name who won’t be playing this year is Liam Stewart, Team GB athlete and son of singer Rod Stewart.
Stewart’s stuck in the UK and is preparing for the start of his domestic season in September – but he could well be back on the Queenstown ice in 2021, Frear says.