The introduction of artificial surfaces to hockey overseas in the 1970s revolutionised the game. While some people missed the epic encounters on muddied fields of yesteryear, artificial turf has irrevocably changed the character of hockey. The game is much faster on artificial surfaces, demanding high levels of fitness and placing a premium on accurate passing. New Zealand’s first artificial surface, eventually known as the National Hockey Stadium, was constructed in Wellington in 1984 and in 2012 there were 72 throughout the country.
Artificial surfaces were much costlier to install than grass fields, and associations sought to recoup the cost by playing as many games as possible on the new surfaces. This meant the advent of mid-week and night-time games, preparing a new generation of players. Previously most grades had played on weekends, and many clubs had ‘home’ grounds with post-match functions at their clubrooms. Hockey became concentrated in a smaller number of grounds whose facilities were the communal venue for all teams. Subscription fees for players also increased because clubs needed to pay turf fees. Many clubs have since become reliant on sponsorship and grant money to pay for both turf fees and equipment.
Keeping it in the family
Played by males and females of all ages, hockey is a family sport in which children and parents sometimes play in the same team. New Zealand has many famous hockey families. Havilah Down was secretary of the New Zealand Hockey Association from 1924 to 1959, and was also an international umpire. Four of his grandchildren – Barry and Selwyn Maister and Peter and Brent Miskimmin – represented New Zealand.
As the sport evolved, hockey equipment became more specialised. It was first played with rough-hewn, wide-hooked wooden sticks and a cricket ball; in the 2000s sticks are made of composite materials with a much shorter hook. These greatly reduce the jarring impact of a mistimed hit and generate considerable power but are much more expensive than earlier sticks.
Goalkeeping equipment, which initially comprised little more than cricket pads and leather ‘kickers’ (protective gear covering the shoe and ankle), now consists of full body protection and helmets made out of synthetic materials. A complete set of goalkeeping equipment costs several thousand dollars. OBO, a Palmerston North-based company producing hockey goalkeeping equipment, has earned an international reputation. In 2012 it exported $4 million worth of products to 62 countries.
Until the 1980s hockey was administered by separate men’s and women’s associations. This changed in 1989 when the two amalgamated to become the New Zealand Hockey Federation (later Hockey New Zealand). Hockey New Zealand oversees international and domestic competitions and the 34 provincial associations in existence in 2012.
The National Hockey League (NHL) is the highest level of the domestic game, comprising eight men’s and eight women’s teams. Although based in designated areas, NHL teams are allowed to include guest players from outside their boundaries. The senior tournament for provincial teams is the next level down, and there are many school and age-group tournaments. New Zealand hockey remains an essentially amateur game, and even international players have regular jobs.
Aucklander Pearl Dawson, a veterinarian by profession, developed strong shoulders from delivering calves. She was a powerful player at left wing for the Mt Eden Ladies’ Hockey Club, and an Auckland representative. Dawson was also one of New Zealand’s first women hockey umpires. She and two colleagues purchased the Remuera Hockey Ground in 1928 so women would have their own grounds. Later, assisted by Auckland city councillor Ellen Melville, she played a leading role in securing Melville Park (named after Ellen Melville) for women’s sport in 1939. Dawson attended hockey-season opening days there until her 90s.
As Canterbury coach, Cyril Walter trained many of the players who won the 1976 Olympic gold medal. In addition, he was a forthright advocate of skilful hockey and an internationally renowned commentator on the game. Ramesh Patel, a member of the 1976 gold medal team and one of New Zealand’s greatest players, was chief executive of Hockey New Zealand between 1989 and 2010, steering New Zealand hockey through the transition from grass hockey to artificial turf, and the amalgamation of men’s and women’s hockey.
In women’s hockey Hilda Poulter ranked among the most prominent administrators. Her contribution spanned 36 years, in which she served on the management committee and as a selector and manager of New Zealand teams. Jenny McDonald, who scored 200 goals in her 94 tests for New Zealand between 1971 and 1985, was probably New Zealand’s best woman hockey player.