Amidst breathtaking alpine views at the Queenstown Ice Arena, the SkyCity Stampede etched their names into the annals of New Zealand ice hockey history by winning the coveted Birgel Cup for a record eighth time over the weekend, defeating the Botany Swarm 2-0 in the best of three series.
The NZIHL, established in 2005, is New Zealand’s premier men’s ice hockey competition, with teams vying for the right to hoist the Birgel Cup after a 16 game regular season. Named after former NZIHF President Günther Birgel, the championship has become a symbol of excellence in the country’s hockey circles and over the years it has grown in prestige, attracting talent not only from New Zealand but also from abroad.
Having finished the regular season in first place, the SkyCity Stampede earned the right to automatically advance to, and host, the grand final series. The Botany Swarm however, finishing just one point behind in second, were forced to play third place West Auckland Admirals in a two-game semi-final series, which they would win 2:0, securing their place in the grand-final series against the SkyCity Stampede.
Game one of the Birgel Cup was a nail-biter from the opening face-off, with both teams trading blows on the ice throughout the three periods. The Botany Swarm would be the first to score, with a power play goal just five minutes in to the first period. Fortunately for the sold out fans in attendance, this would be the first of many goals scored by both teams, with each scoring back and forth throughout the rest of the game. Both teams took advantage of their respective power play opportunities, seeing seven of the eleven total goals being scored under a power play advantage.
After being tied 5:5 at the end of the second period, the SkyCity Stampede scored the only goal of the third period – a 5 on 3 power play goal – giving them the lead, which they would hold for the rest of the game, finishing with a 6:5 victory.
Watch the full highlights from game one below:
Game two of the series would see both teams make changes to their starting goaltenders, and several line changes in the hope of gaining an edge on their opponents, after the incredibly close game from the night before.
Game two – a must win for the Botany Swarm to keep their cup contentions alive – did not disappoint, with a bone crunching hits on display from the moment the puck dropped in the first period. Similar to game one, power plays formed a crucal part of both team’s offensive strategies, however the SkyCity Stampede held a consistent one goal lead from the end of the first period which the Botany Swarm would struggle to overcome.
Extending their lead to two goals at the start of the third period, home fans began to ramp up their excitement as the potential of their SkyCity Stampede hoisting the cup became more realistic with each passing minute.
With just under two minutes remaining in the third period, the Botany Swarm decided to call their goaltender to the bench, in the hope the added man advantage would translate in to a late comeback. Unfortunately for the visiting Swarm, this was not meant to be, with the Stampede scoring an empty net goal, extending their lead, securing the 5:2 victory, and most importantly, earning the right to hoist the Birgel Cup as 2023 champions.
Watch the full highlights from game two below:
An awards ceremony followed the conclusion of the game which saw the following selections for the 2023 season:
Rookie of the Year: Lachlan Hodge (Canterbury Red Devils)
Top Points Scorer: Brendan Wolkom (SkyCity Stampede)
Top Goaltender: Joel Hassleman (SkyCity Stampede)
Best Defender: Jeff Solow (SkyCity Stampede)
League MVP: Petr Stepanek (Botany Swarm)
Finals MVP: Colin McIntosh (SkyCity Stampede)
The 2023 NZIHL season saw record attendance in-person at each of the team’s home rinks, along with growing demand for the livestreams from within New Zealand and around the globe – and it is safe to say the NZIHL and hockey in general is in strong demand in Aotearoa.
Planning is already underway for the 2024 season, with detail to be released later this year.