Words by Gwen Sparks | Photos courtesy of Cape Town ice rink, The Ice Station
Ice hockey is a sport that many South African’s aren’t very familiar with because it’s not as well recognised as some of our other mainstream sports. However, that doesn’t make it any less thrilling to watch or support. With more than 800 players from U10 to seniors across the country playing in teams at ice rinks in Gauteng, KZN and the Western Cape, South African ice hockey is growing, especially amongst the youth.
Ice hockey is a team sport played on ice, in which skaters use wooden sticks, or nowadays composite sticks, to shoot a hard rubber puck into the opponent’s net. The game is played between two teams of six players each. The objective is to take the puck and score a goal against the opposing team. A fast paced, physical sport, it is most popular in areas that are cold enough for natural and reliable seasonal ice cover, such as Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Norway, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and northern United States. But it’s fast becoming more popular in warmer countries like South Africa.
Since 1937, the South African Ice Hockey Association (SAIHA) has been a full member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), and our teams started participating in World Championship events in 1996. The game was first played in Johannesburg, while Cape Town only saw its first game played in 1972.
Teams play in provincial leagues of which Gauteng has five senior men’s teams in their Premier Division and Cape Town and KZN has two each. Each province also have U14, U16, U18, ladies and men’s teams competing in their respective provincial leagues. South Africa has its own national team that competes annually at the World Championships and young South African hopefuls spend years training and competing for a place in this side. The SAIHA organises a provincial tournament for U14, U16, U18, ladies and men’s provincial teams annually, and the national U18, ladies and men’s squads are chosen from the best players at these tournaments.
What makes ice hockey so popular is its reputation for being fast and vibrant, which appeals to youngsters for various reasons. Most start playing after coming to public skating sessions and learn that there is more on offer than just recreational skating. Games are competitive, and girls and boys play in the same teams up to U16. Currently the ladies team competes in the U16 leagues, as there are insufficient players to have a separate ladies league. However, more and more girls are joining every day.
Thus far, the future of SA ice hockey looks bright. The facilities around the country are top class and Cape Town’s ice rink, The Ice Station, boasts Africa’s only Olympic-sized ice skating rink. SAIHA’s focus from now until 2014 is to develop age-specific coaching and partner with USA hockey to implement a coaching development model for South Africa. The more qualified coaches we have, the more we can expand the sport.
In 2011, Cape Town hosted a very successful Div III International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship. The South African men’s team won promotion to Div II and will compete in this event in Sofia, Bulgaria in April. The U18 team will also travel to Bulgaria, whilst the ladies team competed in Seoul, South Korea World Championships in March 2012.
South Africa has a number of great players coming through the ranks. Luke Carelse, Uthman Samaai and Cai Nebe are three teenagers in the men’s senior national squad, and Luke Stringer, Jack Nebe, Wesley Krotz and Alex Obery are definitely players to watch out for in the future. A player that is a force to be reckoned with is 18-year-old Uthman Samaai, who plays centre for South Africa’s National Ice Hockey team. He has been playing ice hockey since the age of 12, having previously played roller hockey. Ice hockey is the fastest team sport in the world and it was this that motivated him to take part, and he’s never looked back. It’s the type of sport that stimulates you as a player and grips you as a spectator.
Fitness is key and ice hockey is definitely the ultimate alternative for guys and girls who love to be active and enjoy an adrenaline rush. “I play many sports, but the fitness we do in ice hockey is really hard as you need short bursts of quick energy,” says Uthman. In addition to doing plenty of on-ice training the players also do lots of off-ice training, which involves sprinting and gym work.
So even though the future of SA ice hockey looks bright it still has a long way to go in terms of support from spectators and sponsors. Due to the lack of awareness about the sport, games are not well supported and this in turn affects the interest shown by potential sponsors. Ice hockey equipment is also very expensive and because there are no sponsorships for individual players, teams are at the mercy of their financial position when it comes to competing internationally. Time is also a major factor and requires a player’s full commitment to attend all practises and games.
The sport welcomes new recruits all the time, so if you’re up for something different that’s fun and exciting, then why not give the coolest sport around a try?
• The SA Ice Hockey Association website www.saicehockey.org.za provides news and information about ice hockey clubs in Gauteng and Pretoria.
• The Western Province Ice Skating Association is looking for U10 and U12 players, and all interested parties can try out at The Ice Station in Cape Town on Sunday mornings at 08h00.
• For more information about Cape Town’s ice rink, game schedules, league games and results, go to www.icerink.co.za. Spectators are welcome at a nominal fee and seats are unreserved.
• To join one of South Africa’s ice hockey clubs, go to www.saicehockey.org.za
• To join the Western Province ice hockey club, go to www.icehockey.co.za