If the Wakatipu Wild women’s ice hockey team were to have the equivalent of a sister city, Minnesota would probably be a no-brainer.
Team founder Kellye Nelson’s originally from Minnesota, where she played college hockey for University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, before transferring to University of Minnesota where she played a year in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA).
She came to New Zealand on a working holiday about seven years ago, starting in Ahipara, in the Far North, working at a surf camp.
‘‘Then this guy I knew from back home said his sister was living in Queenstown and I should reach out to her.’’
Also from Minnesota, she was working at the Queenstown Ice Arena and Nelson played against her at college.
‘‘I reached out to her, she got me an interview here … and I’ve been here ever since.’’
Nelson, 35, played for the Southern Storm before spending a year in Germany and formed the Wild on her return four years ago.
Last year, the Wild clinched the New Zealand Women’s Ice Hockey League title for the first time — they’re hoping to go back-to-back this weekend in Dunedin.
They’ll be bolstered by another Minnesotan, forward Livia Twohig, who didn’t expect to be playing hockey when she arrived in NZ for her working holiday last October.
After spending the first five months walking the Te Araroa Trail, Twohig, 25, was working on a kumara farm in the North Island when she wondered ‘‘if hockey exists in this country’’.
‘‘I shot an email over to the Queenstown social league and asked if there was some sort of league I could join if I end up in Queenstown for the winter.’’
That was all it took for Nelson and coach Colin McIntosh — who lived in Wisconsin — to start the recruitment drive.
Twohig played for the same team as Nelson in the ACHA, albeit 10 years after her, but the two had the same coach for one season.
Arriving in Queenstown in June, Twohig says she’s stoked the unexpected ‘‘hockey chapter’’ of her year fell into place.
‘‘I was surprised with how competitive it is here.
‘‘Pretty much, women’s hockey seriously started only a few years ago, and I was thinking, ‘oh, fun, I’ll just join and skate around a little bit’, but it’s actually pretty good, especially because of the international presence.’’
Twohig says it’s also been cool to see the evolution of hockey in NZ, particularly in Queenstown.
‘‘I’d come from the rest of the country that calls it ‘ice hockey’, because you have to, because field hockey’s the predominant sport.
“In Queenstown, it’s the only place in the country where people call it ‘hockey’.’’
The international connections, which also include Bobbie Weeks and Madi Kerr, both from Canada, and Kimberly Pfeifle (US) also reap dividends for the local players, who are learning about what it’s like to be part of a top-level team, and making overseas connections.
Nelson says regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s games, she’s proud to have been part of the women’s ice hockey movement here, which will reap benefits for years to come.
‘‘Now we have a community — the younger girls, the under- 12s and the U8s, they have somewhere to look.’’
Huge weekend for Q’town hockey
It all comes down to two games.
Queenstown’s Wakatipu Wild women’s ice hockey team will this weekend travel to Dunedin for the finals’ series — to make it into the gold medal match, this Sunday, they first must beat Canterbury in a knock-out game tomorrow.
Unlike in the men’s league, where the top-placed qualifier secures a home final, and the second- and third-placed teams play a semi-finals series, the season to date counts for diddly-squat for the women.
Nelson says it’s a nerve-racking position to be in, particularly given they lost in a shootout in their last home game.
‘‘That’s the time you want to lose … but you always get those nerves. It puts a lot more pressure on, and it doesn’t show what actually happened through the full season.’’
It’s go time: Wakatipu Wild forward Kellye Nelson in action during an earlier game against Auckland Steel. PICTURE: JAMES ALLAN PHOTOGRAPHY
But it’s still a step-up from previous years, where the women’s league was played over two weekends in Dunedin, during which the
four teams each played four games.
Rattling the nerves even more is the possibility they’ll be without McIntosh for tomorrow’s do-or-die game.
That’s because he may be needed to suit up for the SkyCity Stampede in Queenstown in the second of their two must-win games against the Canterbury Red Devils, to book a home final slot — something within reach after they held West Auckland Admirals off in Auckland last weekend with 6-1, 4-1 wins.
Stampede’s last games of the regular season are at the Queenstown Ice Arena tonight and tomorrow nights — puck drop’s 7pm.
Meantime, to watch the Wild’s semi-final against Canterbury, from 3.30pm, click here