After four months, 16 games, 12 wins and 89 goals, it all comes down to this weekend for Queenstown’s SkyCity Stampede ice hockey team.
The defending New Zealand Ice Hockey League (NZIHL) champions will host Auckland’s Botany Swarm at the Queenstown Ice Arena tonight and tomorrow nights — and Sunday, if necessary — in the 2023 finals, which has proven the hottest ticket in town.
The first release of tickets, last Friday, were snapped up within an hour.
The second, on Monday night, crashed the Stampede’s website on the way to selling out, ensuring a packed barn for both games.
There’s an air of anticipation in the Stampede camp this week, as the team get their game faces on, singularly focused on getting the job done by tomorrow night, so they can once again lift the Birgel Cup.
‘‘A lot of us have been here a lot,’’ coach Cam Frear says.
‘‘We know how hard the games are, and how much the level steps up, but it’s just more exciting.
‘‘That’s what you play the regular season for and train for, to get to the end and actually play games that mean something.’’
For Stampede forward Axel Ruski-Jones, 18, (pictured) this will be his first experience of finals hockey with the side.
While he suited up last year, he broke the end of his tibia during one of the home games about halfway through the season, requiring surgery to have screws inserted to put it back in place.
He still managed to get to Canada, albeit a few weeks late, for his second year at the Ontario Hockey Academy — he graduated from the private school in May, shortly before bolting back to Queenstown for the NZIHL season.
Ahead of this weekend’s show down, Axel says he’s eager to get among the action with many of the guys he’s looked up to since he
was about 10, who, he says, are the ‘‘all stars of Queenstown’’.
Regardless of the outcome, he’ll have no time to relax, jetting off to Florida, in the US, early next week where he’ll spend the next seven months living in Estero, playing for the Florida Junior Blades in the United States Premier Hockey League.
It’s a huge opportunity for a player the team says moves well, has a ‘‘big frame’’ and ‘‘great vision’’.
Meantime, Frear says Stampede’s back to almost full strength for the weekend, though they’ll be without forward Harrison Macharg tonight.
He’s still got one game of a two-game suspension, for fighting against the Canterbury Red Devils, to go.
‘‘He’ll obviously be ready to go [on Saturday],’’ Frear says.
Bright future for Wild despite finals loss
The Wakatipu Wild may not have lifted the championship cup, but several of the side’s players have etched their names into the annals of the New Zealand Women’s Ice Hockey League.
Coach Colin McIntosh notes the side won the regular season, before a heartbreaking loss in the gold-medal final, in a shootout, against Auckland Steel at Dunedin.
Subsequently, though, Wild forward Kellye Nelson’s been named the league’s leading scorer, on 30 points, followed by teammate and fellow Minnesotan Livia Twohig, on 23.
Nelson’s now fourth in all-time points in the league.
She was named the league’s best forward, while Twohig was named MVP, and Wild tyro Inge Kemp, 16, was named under-18 MVP for the league.
While losing this year’s final was disappointing, ‘‘the future of the Wild is definitely strong,’’ McIntosh says.
He points to next weekend’s ‘Triple Star’, in Dunedin, at which about four players will be trialling for the Ice Fernz, and all the side’s U18s are going for national selection.
‘‘It’s a pretty strong contingent, considering it’s only a 20-player team.’’