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by Geoff Watson

Hockey has been played in New Zealand since the second half of the 19th century. The gold medal won by the men’s team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics remains New Zealand’s premier achievement in the sport.

Origins of New Zealand hockey

What is hockey?

Hockey (sometimes called field hockey to distinguish it from ice hockey) is a team sport, with 11 players per team. The distinctive feature of the game is the way the ball is trapped, passed, hit, dribbled and flicked with a curved stick. Teams are awarded one point for each goal scored, and the team that scores the most goals in each game is the winner. Games are generally played in two 35-minute halves, and in the 2000s took place mostly on artificial surfaces. Club hockey is generally played between April and September. Many associations also run summer hockey competitions – typically six-a-side teams playing in a smaller area, often one-third the size of a full-sized field.

Origins of hockey

The modern form of hockey emerged in England during the second half of the 19th century. In 1886 the Hockey Association, which administered men’s hockey, was founded. Its version of the game, including 11 players and a goal-scoring circle, became the standard form of hockey. In 1895 the All England Women’s Hockey Association was formed after women were refused affiliation to the Hockey Association.

Hockey hooligans?

A letter to the New Zealand Times in the early 20th century complained, ‘I have been compelled to ride on several occasions in the same railway carriage with a team of female hockey players journeying to take part in matches in the suburbs and I dread a repetition of the experience. For the time being these girls … apparently consider that armed with a hockey stick and wearing some particular coloured ribbon they are privileged to do as they please and annoy other passengers … Parents would be well advised to insist on a chaperone accompanying teams of which their daughters are members.’1

Beginnings in New Zealand

Informal games of hockey appear to have been played in the early years of European settlement. Nelson newspaper the Colonist referred to a match played in 1861. Hockey was not universally welcomed, and in the 1870s and 1880s newspapers reported hockey-playing larrikins disturbing the peace. Dunedin may be the earliest place hockey was played regularly; the Dunedin Hockey Club was formed in 1876 but appears to have been defunct by the mid-1880s.

Reverend H. Mathias, the Anglican vicar of Kaiapoi, played a leading role in the revival of hockey in Canterbury from the mid-1890s. Clubs were formed in Ashburton and Christchurch and the region’s earliest recorded inter-club match, a 5–0 victory to Kaiapoi Hockey Club over the Papanui Rovers, occurred in 1895. By 1897 Christchurch had a Thursday competition for working-class teams and a Saturday competition for players from the professional classes. The first men’s inter-provincial match occurred in 1898, when Canterbury defeated the home team, Wellington, 3–0 at Athletic Park.

First national association

By the 1900s hockey was played in the main centres and many smaller towns. In 1902 representatives from six provincial associations formed the New Zealand Hockey Association (NZHA), which administered men’s hockey. By 1910, 17 provinces were affiliated to the NZHA. The trophy for men’s provincial supremacy, the Challenge Shield, which was still contested in the 21st century, was first presented to Auckland in 1907.

First women’s hockey teams

Women’s hockey can be traced back to at least the 1880s, when it was played at Sydenham School and the High School of Otago. The Hinemoa club in Kaiapoi, formed in 1896, may have been the first women’s hockey club, reportedly playing the first women’s match in New Zealand when it defeated Christchurch 6–0 in 1897. The earliest women’s inter-provincial match may have been in Christchurch in August 1899 when ‘a hockey match between lady representatives of Wellington and Christchurch was played at Mrs Rhodes’s residence, Elmwood’2. Christchurch won 1–0.

The New Zealand Ladies’ Hockey Association (which became the New Zealand Women’s Hockey Association in 1934) was formed in 1908 during the inaugural national women’s hockey tournament at Days Bay, Wellington. Hawke’s Bay became the first holders of the Izard Cup. The K Cup was first contested in 1924. In 2012 it remained the top prize in women’s provincial hockey.

    • Quoted in Geoff Watson with Wilf Haskell, Seasons of honour: a centenary history of New Zealand hockey 1902–2002. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press in association with the New Zealand Hockey Federation Inc., 2002, pp. 25–26. Back
    • Star, 11 August 1899, p. 4. Back

Participation in hockey

Women, men and hockey

Before the First World War hockey was the leading team sport for women, with 21 provincial associations in 1914. However, by the 1930s netball was the most popular women’s sport. It was seen as ideal for urban women because it was a non-contact sport and required comparatively little space. Hockey, by contrast, was a more vigorous game with a higher risk of injury to players. Women’s hockey retained a presence in the main centres. It was particularly strong in some country areas, and Eastern Southland (based at Gore) won the K Cup five times in a row between 1934 and 1938.

When men’s hockey was revived in the mid-1890s, rugby was well established as the leading men’s winter team sport. Hockey, by contrast, has remained a minor sport, albeit one with a nationwide following. In 2010, 44,000 people played winter hockey (with almost equal numbers of males and females) and almost 17,000 played summer hockey. The 2007–8 Active NZ survey found that over 68,000 adults had played some form of hockey in the preceding 12 months.

Hotbed of hockey

The Karori Hockey Club in Wellington, formed in 1899, produced a string of national championship-winning teams. Fifteen active club members, including four future national representatives, lived in the suburb’s Chamberlain Road alone. In the early 20th century few private houses had telephones. To find out where their team was playing on Saturday, club members knew to go to Karori village the previous Thursday and check the window of Knighton’s fruit and lolly shop, where a notice announcing the team lists and fixtures was displayed.

Ethnic participation

Hockey is played by all ethnicities and has a long tradition of Māori and Indian participation. Māori tournaments can be dated back at least to the 1930s. Margaret Hiha, one of New Zealand’s finest players, took a leading role in establishing the National Maori Hockey Tournament in 1992. The National Maori Hockey Council – Te Kaunihera Haupoi Maori o Aotearoa oversees Māori hockey in New Zealand. In 2012 New Zealand Maori Hockey applied to the Federation of International Hockey for the right to enter Māori teams in international tournaments, including those involving New Zealand national teams.

Indian sports clubs with hockey teams were established in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch between 1935 and 1937, following the tour of New Zealand by All-India. Many players of Indian descent have represented New Zealand since Ramesh Patel’s selection in 1972. In 1981 the New Zealand men’s team at the Inter-continental Cup included four players of Indian descent. The National Indian Tournament is contested at Queen’s Birthday Weekend.

Beginnings of international hockey

When the England women’s hockey team toured New Zealand in 1914, drawing the series 1–1, with one match drawn, hockey became the first team sport played at international level by New Zealand women. (The first women’s cricket and netball internationals took place in 1935 and 1938 respectively.) However, the next women’s hockey international was not until 1935, when a New Zealand women’s team competed at the All-Australia Hockey Carnival in Melbourne, defeating Australia 2–1.

Feeding the team

The 1926 New Zealand tour by the Indian army hockey team attracted unprecedented numbers of spectators. The team included players of varying religious affiliations and castes, and their diets posed catering problems for their hosts. The national Hockey Association advised that ‘the five Sikhs in the team eat only the male of animals, such as sheep and fowls … The other Indians eat either male or female sheep and fowls, but they will not eat what the Sikhs kill … Some place where they can light fires and cook their meals will be necessary.’1

Men’s international hockey began in 1922, when New Zealand defeated Australia 5–4 at the Palmerston North sports ground. Tours by the Indian army team in 1926, the All-India team in 1935 and the Prince of Manavadar’s team in 1938 were the highlights of interwar hockey. Many thousands of spectators watched these teams which, in 1926 and 1935, included Dhyan Chand, widely regarded as the world’s best hockey player.

Outstanding international performances

Since the Second World War both the New Zealand men’s and women’s hockey teams have generally been competitive at international level. The men’s team performed respectably at most Olympic Games between 1956 and 1972 before winning the gold medal in 1976, beating Australia 1–0 in the final. Women’s hockey was not played at the Olympics until 1980 but the New Zealand women’s team performed creditably at International Federation of Women’s Hockey Association (IFWHA) tournaments. They were the best-performing team at the 1963 tournament, where they won all their games, and remained consistently successful during the 1970s.

Both the men’s and women’s teams struggled in the late 1980s and 1990s but recovered in the 2000s, performing creditably at international level. The New Zealand women’s team won an Olympic qualifying tournament in 2000 and finished seventh at the Sydney Olympics. The men were silver medallists at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, a feat matched by the women in 2010. 

In 2011 the men finished fourth at the Champions Trophy (hosted by New Zealand for the first time), and they won the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia in June 2012. They performed below expectations at the 2012 London Olympic Games, finishing ninth. The women took the bronze medal at the 2011 Champions Trophy and finished a creditable fourth at the 2012 Olympics, narrowly missing out on the final when they were defeated in a penalty shoot-out by eventual gold medallists the Netherlands. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the women's team won gold and the men silver.

    • Quoted in Geoff Watson with Wilf Haskell, Seasons of honour: a centenary history of New Zealand hockey 1902–2002. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press in association with the New Zealand Hockey Federation Inc., 2002, p. 48. Back

Recent developments in hockey

Artificial surfaces

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.

Equipment changes

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.

National administration

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.

Pearl power

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.

Prominent individuals

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Geoff Watson, 'Hockey', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 August 2022)

Story by Geoff Watson, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Jan 2015