Five skaters and a goalie

It was bedlam, plain and simple. North Korean military police had stormed the ice and were trying to wrangle a team of South Africans. They were slipping and sliding as they chased the hockey players around the rink in front of a crowd of thousands. In the stands was 17-year-old Simon Glass. His home in Canterbury was a long, long way away.

Location, location, location

The sport of ice hockey first took hold in Aotearoa in the frosty shadows of rural Canterbury. The pastime had caught the attention of one Wyndham Barker (as in the jam-making Barkers) during his travels around Europe in the early 1900s. He returned from this sojourn with a family and an obsession. He would build an ice rink in Canterbury. Not just any ice rink: he would build the perfect ice rink.

The Rangitata River churns an icy blue. It snakes up past Peel Forest, lending its braided plains to fishermen and film crews alike. Inland of Montalto, the Rangitata emerges from a gorge. Beyond that gorge, in the shadow of Mount Harper, remain the still-visible outlines of Wyndham Barker’s rinks. 

Katharine Watson is the Director of the Christchurch Archaeology Project, and this is one of her favourite places. “It’s very remote,” she says, “almost as remote now as it was then. Possibly even more so now … it’s one of those quirky things about history and how things do and don’t change, I suppose.” In the early 1930s, it was here that Wyndham decided to lay his ice. The long shadow of the mountain cast a thermal blanket over the plains for much of the day, and nearby streams provided water for freezing. Ease of access be damned. This was all or nothing.

Katharine has visited at least twice. She stayed in Wyndham’s old stone house, which still stands and is usually occupied by possums. “Adds to the atmosphere!” she quips. They were cold nights for Katharine, colder than it would’ve been for Wyndham. Back when he lived there, the place was warmed by central heating, a luxury still not guaranteed in modern Kiwi homes. Wyndham built and designed the apparatus himself. “Pretty darn awesome,” Katharine says.

Wyndham was quite the tinkerer. His first rink was a sprawling, triangular effort that ultimately proved unfruitful. He’d misjudged the angle of winds coming off the mountain, which rippled the ice overnight and rendered the whole thing a bust. He had to wait a full year to try again. But his patience paid off, and in 1933 Wyndham opened the rink to the public. It was an immediate hit. 

By 1936 Wyndham had opened a second rink, and in 1939 he reported catering to 3000 skaters in a single day, including 12 busloads all the way from Christchurch. To get to the rinks, visitors originally had to cross the Rangitata on a punt, which was later replaced by a pontoon bridge and, finally, a swing bridge. At some point, Wyndham added his own hydroelectric station to power flood lights so people could skate 24/7. It was romantic, in a way. “I found Mount Harper, [to be] almost a young person’s story,” Katharine explains. In a society where much was taboo, skating was a place where people could safely mix. “It’s a story of the discovery of independence at that age.” 

Things moved quickly, and other rinks started popping up around Canterbury. People began to think about all the possibilities a good sheet of ice had to offer, and ice hockey started seeing some popularity with high country farmers. Wyndham’s perseverance had paid off: his rinks were packed, the trend was spreading, and ice hockey had officially taken root in Aotearoa.

And so it came to be that in 1937, Wyndham Barker found himself at Opawa, watching two teams duke it out for the very first Erewhon Cup. 

Ice skating [ice hockey?], Lake Tekapo. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-10717-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22809367

Giants: gentle and otherwise

The Erewhon Cup is still hoisted today, making it one of New Zealand’s oldest trophies. Back in those early days, the tournament was hosted at Opawa, in Albury, on a farm owned by Matthew Wills. A gentle giant who stood over six feet tall, he played goalie, which is pretty impressive, as he was both mute and deaf. He was also brother-in-law to Bill Hamilton, the inventor of the modern jetboat. The two apparently liked to go motor racing together. Bill would go on to build Bluebell, a proto-Zamboni that still sits at the Tekapo rink. 

After 16 years of hosting, Matthew sold the farm at Opawa to Ben Glass, grandfather to Simon. Ben was a keen player, and in 1952 he fathered Graeme Glass, who I call one windy afternoon. Graeme’s brain is a vault of ice hockey history, and when his granddaughters Coco (9) and Willa (8) began the Learn to Play programme in Queenstown, they represented the fourth generation of Glass skaters, making them part of the longest possible lineage of Kiwi ice hockey players. 

The first real game of ice hockey Graeme remembers was in 1959. Or maybe 1958, it’s tough to say. But the game stands out clearly; it was Opawa versus Christchurch International. Opawa, like most other teams in the early days, was made up of high country farmers, rough types who played protected by little more than a bit of felt around their hips and knees. Pucks were rare and skates were dull. Dressed in their everyday farm clothes, they took the ice to meet the behemoth Christchurch International.

At this point, you might want a refresher on the rules of ice hockey. Simply put, it’s a game of three 20-minute periods, played by teams of six (five skaters and a goalie). Extra players sit on the bench, and rotate out when the skaters tire. These days, shifts rarely exceed 45 seconds. It’s a breakneck game  ̶  the fastest sport on Earth. The two centre players face off in the middle of the rink, flanked by two wingers and supported by two defensemen. The ice is split into three zones of equal size: neutral ground in the middle, with each team’s zone on either end. The solid rubber puck has to be carried into an enemy zone by the attacking team before any of their skaters can enter, sort of like netball. And when someone gets in the way, you can plough right through them. Highest score wins.

Back to Erewhon, where Opawa faced Christchurch International (which is a bit of a misnomer, although they did have some “Dutchmen and an Englishman and a Czech guy,” according to Graeme). Like any kid, Graeme was captivated by watching his dad play, skating around in his rough pants and felt padding. What could be cooler than that? “And then the International guys turned up,” Graeme recalls. Sporting the latest gear, they were “formidable.” Graeme was hooked. “I thought they were just incredible.” It was a dominant era for International: “Yeah, they won the cup that day. They won the cup quite a few times, six or seven times in the late fifties and early sixties.”

But they weren’t invulnerable. In 1959 they chalked up a loss. “I remember Tekapo beating them up in Tekapo, and that was pretty huge,” Graeme says. How’d a team of ragtag farmers take on the proverbial Goliath? “When you think back about it, the Tekapo rink there’s probably about 750 metres above sea level, so it’s quite a bit of an altitude change. So those guys came down from Christchurch to Tekapo, they’re playing against all these high country farmers and musterers and guys who are fit as hell … [they] basically just ran them ragged.”

Graeme Glass with the Erewhon Cup, which Albury won, in 1987. PHOTO: Supplied by Graeme Glass

A world record to forget

These days, the original Tekapo rink is beneath the waves, visible only when the lake level drops. But the phenomenon of a dominant “international” team persists. It’s no longer Christchurch though.

Queenstown’s team, the SkyCity Stampede, which is home to many “import” players, has seen a strong few years in the NZIHL (New Zealand Ice Hockey League). When I bring this up, Graeme chuckles. When he first moved down to Queenstown in 1993, Dunedin held the International’s legacy, their team stacked with foreigners who spent their days lecturing at the University of Otago. But as more winter sport aficionados moved to Queenstown, the pool of imported talent grew. After one random run-in, Graeme coaxed a former Canadian semi-pro player to join the Stampede. He was soon a star player. “He’d been there all season, and we didn’t even know,” Graeme laughs.

The league has expanded and contracted quite a bit since 1937. Nowadays there are five teams: two in Auckland, and one apiece for Queenstown, Dunedin and Christchurch. Women’s teams are taking off, alongside a plethora of lower-level mixed teams, and a national squad, the Ice Blacks. But despite the growth, there have been setbacks. Gone are the days of ubiquitous outdoor rinks, it’s just not cold enough anymore (though Tekapo and Alexandra have seasonal ones). Back when Graeme was a kid, there was enough zeal for skating that the Albury district boasted two rinks, and Graeme played against the other Albury kids in his primary school days. Nearly 70 years later, young people no longer have that sort of opportunity.

The expansions have come with growing pains, too. Long cut off from the world of high-quality gear and opposition, the early days of overseas competition were rough for Kiwi players. In 1987, a team went over to compete in the international championships in Perth, with Graeme in tow. He’d go on to tell the Otago Daily Times about how it went. “We went over there thinking, ‘we’ll show these guys how to play ice hockey’. But it was a bit of a different world out there.” 

They played South Korea first. It was a 35-2 loss. Things got worse in the next game, when they faced the “Aussies” (a team of mostly Canadian players). Five or six goals went in in the first few minutes. At some point during the bloodletting, the Aussie manager got in touch with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) with an important question: “What’s the record for most goals in a game?” 47, he was told. Invigorated, the team went on to finish 58-0. That’s a goal nearly every 60 seconds, a record that stands to this day. The IIHF changed the team eligibility criteria after that  ̶  no more secret Canadians.

“Incidentally,” Graeme adds, “last Saturday [March 16, 2024] the Ice Blacks played in the Trans-Tasman Series in Melbourne and recorded our first win against Australia on their ice. We still haven’t beaten them at a World Champs. But it’s coming!”

Not too long after the notorious Aussie game, Graeme moved off the ice and into admin. Working for the New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation, the sport’s governing body, he helped facilitate international competition. And this, finally, is how we get to North Korea. 

A brawl in North Korea

Graeme has had more interactions with North Korea than your average Alburian. He remembers sitting in a conference in Vienna and meeting the North Korean delegates; weirdly, they had two. It turned out that only one was a delegate, and the other was there to make sure the first guy didn’t gap it into the Austrian countryside.

In 2006, the two Koreas were set to face off at Botany Rink in Auckland for a championship. Graeme was working for the NZIHF. “I said, ‘look, what’s gonna happen, are we gonna need more security?’ and [the officials] were like nah, nah, should be fine.” That was “one of the first times, I think, that the two countries had actually played sport against each other. We didn’t realise it at the time, but that was probably pretty significant.” 

Thanks to Auckland’s significant Asian population, Graeme says there was a big crowd keen to see the national teams play. “Whenever we had China, Korea, [or] North Korea playing … whoever they played, the rink was full. There’d be all the Chinese supporting the Chinese, the Koreans supporting either North Korea or South Korea. And when the two teams played, the crowd just supported both. It was amazing. And at the end of the game, the two teams came together, got photos, shook hands.”

On a more recent visit, though, Graeme said the bus for the North Korean team could only drive around if all the windows were blacked out. In the players’ hotel rooms, the TVs and minibars had to be removed. But the local in charge of shepherding the team passed on a story of one loophole: during the tournament, a North Korean player was injured and had to go to a medical centre. Sitting in the waiting room, the player was transfixed by the clinic’s TV. The Ellen DeGeneres Show was on, and he was “just glued to the television”.

As a part of all these exchanges, North Korea has played host to Kiwis, as well. In 1999, Simon was on the D-Level under-18 New Zealand ice hockey team, and that year, the championships were in North Korea. In the Oceania pool were New Zealand, North Korea, South Africa and Chinese Taipei.

It was about as strange as you’d expect. In the Pyongyang airport, the arrivals and departures board listed only one flight, theirs, for the next month. The city was totally restricted, and two coaches got a hiding for going on an unauthorised stroll. The hotel they stayed at was new and nice, but weird. A player surreptitiously sent their lift to the wrong floor, and when the doors opened, the entire thing was unfinished. The food was rubbish, but Simon snuck in cans of spaghetti and baked beans and heated one up on his radiator every night for breakfast. “I reckon I was the only one that was eating okay,” he laughs. 

The stadium, though, was incredible, better even than the Queenstown rink. A live orchestra played from the rafters of the teepee-like rink, which was packed out with 8000 people, by Simon’s estimate. The de-facto finals were between North Korea and South Africa and “a massive on-ice brawl broke out.” Normally, when this happens, one or two players fight and get a penalty. But sometimes it’s infectious. One team might empty their bench, followed by the other, until everyone’s involved. South Africa emptied their bench … and North Korea did not. “So it was like 18 South Africans on six North Koreans,” Simon remembers.

The North Korean military police marched onto the ice. They were dressed in their full regalia but had no skates; they did their best to look authoritative as they slid around after a bunch of South African teenagers. It was only when the stun guns came out that the South Africans shot back to the dressing room. Eventually, the game went on like nothing happened. Looking back, Simon says, “it was crazy… I think back then no one really knew as much about North Korea as we do now. I think people were just like ‘ah, it’s alright’, and I think once we went a bunch of the parents were like ‘hang on, what are we doing?’”

PHOTO: James Allan

A century of skating

Back in Canterbury, a cold wind blows down the Rangitata. Icy waters gurgle over chunks of smoothed schist, carrying a cloud of shining, micaceous dust. Wyndham Barker’s old stone house sits tucked at the base of the hills. “If you go in autumn, all the poplars will be in colour,” Katharine tells me.

To her, this history of ice skating is one of youth and determination. “This is just one person and their driving ambition, and it shows what you can do when you are relentless, basically. And I always find stories like that inspiring.” As the world raced headlong into a new war, Wyndham Barker poured his ice sheets and sharpened his skates, fixated on a future he was committed to creating. “He just did not give up and he was determined to make a success of it. [And] he was right in that vision, I suppose, and knowing that it would work.”

Today, the ice is gone. Wyndham is gone. Christchurch International  ̶  believe it or not  ̶  is also gone. But ice hockey remains, and so too do the skeletons of those original rinks. “I would encourage anybody who has the opportunity to, to take a visit,” Katharine says. The landscape is still “really legible … you don’t need to be an archaeologist or a heritage specialist to walk around and see all of the things. You can walk around and follow the embankments and the water races and you can look at the houses and, yeah, you can see it all there.” 

Fox Meyer

Top photo: James Allan