Coaching Kiwis on international ice
When Mike Sommer packed his bags and boarded a plane for Australia two years ago, his plan was not dissimilar to the plans of any young backpacker intent on travelling the world.
Explore a different culture, meet new people, experience a life different from the one he was used to in Canada.
Funny then, that he ended up doing exactly what he’d done his whole life back home: playing hockey.
“I just planned on backpacking,” Sommer, a Semiahmoo Minor Hockey alum, said last week by email from New Zealand.
Soon after arriving in Australia, Sommer, a 22-year-old Semiahmoo Secondary grad, found himself as the night manager at a hostel in Byron Bay – one of Australia’s best surf destinations – which is where he met a man named Bert, a 30-year-old Nanaimo native. Bert lived in Queenstown, NZ, he told Sommer, and played for a hockey team there called the Southern Stampede, which plays in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League, a five-team amateur circuit that Sommer called “the highest” level of hockey in the country.
After striking up a friendship, Sommer was asked to join the squad.
“I wasn’t going to do it, but decided this was an opportunity I needed to take. A few (weeks) later, Burt came back with some of the Queenstown boys and I signed the papers to make it official, and the rest is history,” Sommer said.
Sommer moved to New Zealand and played last season – which runs June-August – for the Stampede, but soon turned his eye to coaching, which is where he admits his true interest lies.
Before heading Down Under, Sommer, who played Junior B hockey in the Lower Mainland as a teen – first with the Delta Ice Hawks and then the Grandview Steelers – was also an assistant coach with Semi’s midget B1 squad, while also helping out the Ice Hawks by running summer camps.
“It was a really cool experience,” Sommer said of coaching. “It’s always been a passion, so when I came to New Zealand, I told Bert I wanted to help coach minor hockey kids.”
And just days upon arriving in New Zealand, opportunity knocked – one of the local hockey association’s top coaches, a Canadian ex-pat himself, quit and moved back to Canada, thus opening up a position for Sommer.
“I jumped at it. We gave (the team) some continuity and structure and the kids absolutely thrived, so I guess we did something right,” he said.
At about the same time, he was also asked by Southern head coach Stephen Reid to become a player/coach with the Stampede.
And when Reid was named head coach of New Zealands’ under-20 team for the next two world junior championships, he brought Sommer along for the ride as an assistant coach.
Internationally, New Zealand plays U20 hockey at the division 3 level (by comparison, the IIHF Div. 1 World Junior Championships were held last month in Calgary and Edmonton).
Sommer and his team left for World Championships, held in Dunedin, NZ, earlier in the week, and begin play today (Thursday). The tournament wraps up Jan. 22.
And while New Zealand’s hockey culture may not come close to Canada’s – the Div. 1 U20 championships were broadcast day-and-night on TSN – Sommer said the sport is certainly gaining in popularity.
“It’s definitely heading in the right direction. And being in Queenstown, which is such a tourist town, there’s so many people from out of the country, so we pull in a lot of hockey fans, and first-timers, too,” he explained. “We have the loudest building in the league, and it’s such a fun place to play.”
However, he admits there is a ways to go. Queenstown’s arena, for example, does not have plexiglass around the ice; instead, there’s netting. All rinks are privately owned, Sommer explained, and shipping boards and rink glass from North America is very expensive.
“So the fans pretty much sit on top of you,” he said.
Despite enjoying life in New Zealand, Sommer – whose younger brother, Ryan, is an accomplished track-and-field athlete currently attending the University of Lethbridge – doesn’t plan on staying forever. The plan, he said, is to be part of the country’s U20 program this year and again in 2013, after which he’ll likely move home to the Peninsula.
“I think my mom and dad like the freedom without either of their boys in the house, but I don’t think they expected me to be away this long,” Sommer said. “But they’re happy that I’m coaching because they know it’s a huge passion of mine.”
Sommer hopes his experience in New Zealand will help him land a coaching gig in the Lower Mainland upon returning home.
“Right now though, I am focused on making the most of the opportunities I have here in New Zealand,” he said. “I never thought I’d be here, but I have absolutely loved every minute of my time here.”