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Ice sports

by Nancy Swarbrick

Ice sport enthusiasts tend to cluster in the colder southern parts of New Zealand. Outdoor ice sports such as traditional curling and ice skating and ice hockey have been popular in these regions since the 19th century. In the 2000s there are indoor facilities for some ice sports in Southland, Otago, Canterbury and Auckland, while participants in sports such as luge, skeleton and bobsleigh train overseas.


The game

In curling two teams of four players take turns to slide heavy granite stones (or ‘rocks’) across a textured ice sheet towards a circular target known as the ‘house’. Points are scored depending on how close to the centre of the house the stones come to rest. Each team has eight stones with handles, each weighing around 20 kilograms, and once they have all been thrown the ‘end’ is complete.

While similar to bowls, curling depends on teamwork and tactics. After a player has delivered a stone, other members of the team, armed with brooms, will sweep the ice in front of it to reduce friction and alter its speed and trajectory (or ‘curl’).

Roaring rocks

Curling is traditionally known as ‘the roaring game’ because of the sound the stones make when travelling over the ice sheet.

Crampit curling

New Zealand is one of the last places in the world to maintain the old-style outdoor form of curling. The thrower stands upright on a metal platform called a crampit and throws the stone using a pendulum motion. Crampit games consist of 21 ends, and are played on frozen lakes and dams when the ice is thick enough. Since 1932 a regular bonspiel (a tournament for curling clubs) has been held at Idaburn Dam, Ōtūrehua, Central Otago. Fair play, fellowship and tradition are important aspects of crampit curling.

Indoor curling

From 1992, when New Zealand joined the World Curling Federation, Olympic ‘hack’ style curling was introduced. Olympic games, which consist of eight or 10 ends, are played indoors on a curling sheet up to 46 metres long and 5 metres wide, with a circular house marked at each end. Lines are drawn to indicate the throwing and scoring zones. Rubber-lined holes, called hacks, at each end of the sheet give the thrower something to push against. The ice playing area is sprinkled with water which freezes to create a ‘pebbled’ surface.

The Baxter Cup

Rival curling teams first played for the Baxter Cup in 1884. It is now awarded to the winner of the Naseby Curling Council’s one-day bonspiel.


Curling originated in Scotland in the 16th century. In the 19th century it became established in British colonies, the United States and European countries, and it later spread to Asia. Scottish immigrants introduced the sport to the south of New Zealand in the 1860s.


In 1873 curling clubs were formed at Haldon Station in the Mackenzie Basin (South Canterbury) and at Dunedin, and the sport soon spread throughout Otago. In 1886 the New Zealand Curling Association was formed and by 1900 there were nine clubs. Though it was a male-dominated sport, there were women’s teams by the 1890s. Auckland became the first North Island club, playing indoors, in 1996. In 2013 most clubs were in Otago and Southland, with rinks at Dunedin, Naseby and Gore.

International competition

The first international competition took place against Australia in 1934. New Zealand sent a team to the Pacific championships in 1991, winning for the first time in 1998.

Although it was demonstration sport at the Winter Olympics in 1924, curling was not an official Olympic sport until 1998. The New Zealand men’s team first qualified for the Winter Olympics in 2006.

Ice skating

As a recreation, ice skating has been popular in New Zealand since the 19th century. Competitive ice skating events have their origins in the 1930s. The New Zealand Ice Skating Association (NZISA) was established in 1937 to govern speed skating, figure skating and ice hockey. Skaters initially gathered to practise their skills at outdoor venues such as Mt Harper, Lake Tekapo, Lake Lyndon and Lake Ida in Canterbury, and Manorburn Dam in Otago. Indoor rinks were first established in the 1950s at Timaru and Christchurch, and later other places.

Get your skates on

An ice skate is a boot to which a slightly curved blade is fastened with screws. The blade has a groove down the centre, creating two edges – inside and outside. Figure skating involves shifting the weight from one edge of the blade to the other to generate speed on the ice and execute a variety of moves. Unlike speed or hockey skates, figure skates have a set of jagged teeth known as toe picks at the front of the blades, which enable the skater to perform jumps.

Speed skating

In speed-skating events competitors race against each other or the clock on tracks of various lengths.

Long-track races are held on a 400-metre-long track. Typically, only two skaters race simultaneously, and the result is decided according to time.

Short-track races are held on tracks of 111 metres and involve mass starts, with the first person to cross the line being the winner. Skaters often compete in heats to reach a final.

Other speed-skating events include team pursuit and relay races. For inline races, up to four skaters start simultaneously and are timed, while for marathon races there are mass starts and the first person to cross the line is the winner.


In New Zealand the first national championships were held on 220-yard (201-metre) outdoor tracks, with mass starts. Early races were 220 yards, 880 yards (805 metres) and 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometres). From the mid-1950s Dutch immigrants introduced the concept of racing pairs on a 400-metre track. This internationally recognised form of long-track racing was adopted in 1961, but in New Zealand such events were (and, in the 2000s, still are) held outside because no indoor track was long enough. In 1962 marathon racing began.

Organisational changes

The NZISA affiliated with the International Skating Union in 1964, adopting its rules and standards. In 1982 speed skating formed its own national association, which became known as Ice Speed Skating New Zealand. In 2013 there were speed-skating clubs in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin.

Skating and cycling

Chris Nicholson, who represented New Zealand in short-track skating at both the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics, has the rare distinction of also being selected for the 1992 Summer Olympics where he was part of the team that finished 10th in the men’s road cycling team time trial.

International competition

Competition with Australia began in 1973, and from the early 1980s New Zealand speed skaters attended world championships. In 1993 the New Zealand men’s team won the 5,000-metre relay in world-record time. Skaters also represented the country in short-track skating at the 1992, 1994, 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics and in long-track in 1998 and 2010. In both 1992 and 1994 men’s teams were placed in the 5,000-metre relay, and in 1992 Chris McMillen came fourth in the 1,000-metre men’s race.

Figure skating

In figure skating, individuals, pairs or groups perform jumps, spins, lifts, turns and steps to music. They are judged on the technical competence of specific elements of their skating and the overall performance, including choreography and interpretation. The four Olympic disciplines are men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pair skating and ice dancing.

Development in New Zealand

As well as organising national figure-skating championships from 1939, the New Zealand Ice Skating Association ran a system of tests so that skaters could gain qualifications according to skill. In 2011 the association changed its name to the New Zealand Ice Figure Skating Association.

Clubs and competitions

In 2013 there were figure skating clubs in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Gore, Alexandra and Queenstown. Although they have not yet participated in the Olympics, New Zealand skaters have competed with success at international competitions since 1976.

Ice hockey

The game

Ice hockey is played by two opposing teams, each fielding six players (five skaters and a goaltender). Each team’s skaters include three forwards and two defence players. The skaters, using hockey sticks, attempt to gain possession of a rubber puck. The aim is to shoot it into the opposition’s net to score a goal. The goaltender tries to stop the puck from going into the goal.

Teams usually have 20 players in total, though only six are allowed on the ice at any one time. The game is now played on an ice hockey rink, and top-level games are divided into three periods of 20 minutes each.


Modern ice hockey originated in Canada in the 19th century, spreading to other countries. In 1908 delegates from France, England, Belgium and Switzerland established the International Ice Hockey Federation to govern international competition. Ice hockey became an Olympic sport in 1920.

The Erewhon Cup

The Erewhon Cup is named after a mid-Canterbury sheep station whose owner, Wyndham Barker, gave the trophy to the Mt Harper Ice Skating Club. The club presented it to the newly formed New Zealand Ice Skating Association in 1937 as a challenge cup. In 1992 the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation returned the cup to the Southern League, whose teams compete for the prized trophy every year.

In New Zealand ice hockey was played on frozen ponds and lakes from the 1900s, or possibly even earlier, by South Island high-country farmers and farm workers. In 1937 at a tournament at Ōpawa, South Canterbury, teams competed for the Erewhon Cup. On the same occasion the New Zealand Ice Skating Association (NZISA) was formed. After previous attempts to break away from the NZISA, supporters of ice hockey formed the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation in 1986.

International competition

In 1963 New Zealand had its first taste of international competition when a visiting Australian team played a New Zealand side. Senior men’s and women’s teams (the Ice Blacks and the Ice Ferns) have participated in world championships since 1995, and junior teams (under 20 and under 18) since 1998, with some success. However, by 2013 New Zealand had not yet sent an ice hockey team to the Winter Olympics.

National competitions

Ice hockey is played in the Auckland, Canterbury, and Southern (Otago and Southland) regions. Men’s teams from these regions make up the New Zealand Ice Hockey League. There is also a junior elite league.

In 2012 the inaugural Trans-Tasman Challenge League was held.

In addition, there are annual club and national championships, and a ‘Skate of Origin’ competition featuring star players in two teams – one from the North Island and one from the South Island.

Luge, skeleton and bobsleigh

Luge, skeleton and bobsleigh (or bobsled) are all ice sports that derive from sled racing, one of the oldest of winter sports, which has its origins in Switzerland. As competitive sports they have been late to develop in New Zealand because of the lack of suitable venues. In 2008 the southern hemisphere’s first snow-and-ice luge track opened at Naseby, Central Otago, creating opportunities for New Zealanders to gain skills locally.


In luge, competitors slide down a twisting track on a light one- or two-person sled, lying face up and with their feet in front of them. They steer the sled by shifting their weight and flexing the sled’s runners with their calves. The sport is extremely fast – lugers can reach speeds of over 150 kilometres per hour. Lugers compete against the clock and are timed to a thousandth of a second. Luge events were first included in the Winter Olympics in 1964.

New Zealanders who trained overseas began participating in international luge events in 1987. Angela Paul, who reached the top 10 in world championship events, competed in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. Because New Zealand’s luge track is not constructed to Olympic standards, the New Zealand Olympic Luge Association is working with the International Luge Federation to ensure that New Zealand lugers regularly train and compete overseas. In 2012 Matheson Hill competed at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in Austria.

Thrilling and addictive

Louise Corcoran, 2013 New Zealand representative skeleton racer, described her first international race: ‘I finished last and had two black eyes and a body of bumps and bruises, but the rush of race day nerves and the desire to get from the top of the track to the bottom faster than my previous run was thrilling and addictive’.1


In skeleton, an individual rides a small sled down a track, lying face down, head first. The sport is named after the small, stripped-down sled which resembles a human skeleton. It is steered using torque provided by the head and shoulders, and competitors reach speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour. Like lugers, skeleton racers compete against the clock. Skeleton was officially added to the Winter Olympics in 2002, and male and female New Zealand skeleton racers competed in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Bruce Sandford was world champion in 1992, and 20 years later his nephew Ben Sandford won the bronze medal at the 2012 championships.


In bobsleigh events, a team of two or four people make timed runs down a track on an enclosed sled, which weighs several hundred kilograms. Teams consist of a pilot, a brakeman and (in four-man teams) two pushers. Athletes need considerable strength to push the sled at the beginning of the race. The bobsleds can reach speeds of 150 kilometres per hour. Bobsleigh was included in the first Winter Olympics in 1924. New Zealand two- and four-man teams participated in 1988, 2002 and 2006, and a two-man team in 1998.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Ice sports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 September 2013, updated 1 January 2016