16 Apr 2024

Hockey: Privately owned league answers Black Sticks' wishes

6:47 am on 16 April 2024
Black Sticks during the international hockey match between New Zealand and Japan at the National Hockey Centre in Auckland

Black Sticks Photo: David Rowland

Why is hockey turning to private ownership and what will it mean for New Zealand's best players? Felicity Reid finds out.

In October 2023, Hockey New Zealand (HNZ) called for financial backers for four new franchises to form a Premier Hockey League (PHL).

It was the first time HNZ had handed over a domestic competition to private owners.

The plan, according to HNZ chief executive Anthony Crummy, was two-fold. Develop a league to bridge the gap between the Black Sticks and local competitions. And give fans more elite hockey to watch.

The "just over a million" hockey fans in New Zealand who support the Blacks Sticks didn't have a "fan-focused product" outside of the national teams to get behind, Crummy says.

HNZ had been toying with the idea of franchise hockey for years, and some players were skeptical it would ever get across the line.

However, the PHL is a response to what players had told HNZ was the number one thing that needed to change in the current Black Sticks pathway - another tier of competition.

"It will be a huge opportunity for our emerging Black Sticks but also our current Black Sticks to keep plying their trade and getting better, because we need to make sure we've got elite competition for them so they're getting prepared as best they can for when they do pull on the black shirt or singlet and head off to play international hockey."

Kelsey Smith of Blacksticks Women with Jane Claxton of Austalia in defence.

Kelsey Smith of Blacksticks Women with Jane Claxton of Austalia in defence. Photo: Photosport

It has similarities to the National Hockey League of the early 2000s and the Premier Hockey League piloted in 2020 as a response to Covid-related circumstances.

The difference is that it is not owned by the national governing body and there is a focus on revenue generation and fan engagement.

Initial plans to introduce the league last year were held back as Crummy says they were taking their time to get it right.

Despite times being tough for all sports commercially, Crummy was confident that this year the timing was right to launch the men's and women's teams playing for franchises based in Auckland, Waikato/BOP, Lower North Island and the South Island.

With seven months until the seven-week home and away competition begins investors are still being sought for some franchises.

But the free-to-air broadcast deal is locked in.

Former Black Stick Dave Kosoof is a driving force behind the Auckland franchise called the Tridents - which encompasses from Northland down to Manukau - and says New Zealand is ready for this type of competition and it "should have happened sooner".

"There are a lot of members or parents who are able to invest in something like this. There is quite a high cost to play hockey therefore our supporters of hockey are the right demographic and the right market to tap into for something like this."

David Kosoof tackles the Spanish defence during the New Zealand men's hockey match against Spain at the Beijing Olympic Games.

David Kosoof tackles the Spanish defence during the New Zealand men's hockey match against Spain at the Beijing Olympic Games. Kosoof is part of the Aucklanfd franchise for the PHL. Photo: Photosport

Kosoof grew up playing hockey on Auckland's North Shore, where he had access to a lot of different codes.

"As a kid I'd be going to watch the Breakers, I'd be going to watch the Warriors, going to watch the Harbour rugby team - but I never played any of those sports.

"We don't really have that with hockey so it's a great opportunity. We think hockey is exciting, fast, easy on the eye to watch live so we don't think there is too much change there. But there is possibility to spice it up a bit so that when you go along you can watch hockey for the first time and be excited by it as it is, or we can add in modified rules or whatever it might be to make it more user-friendly for the fans."

Kosoof believes the action on the turf will be sufficient to hook a non-hockey person into the sport, but the PHL is part of a bigger picture of getting hockey on the radar in a different way.

"It would be great to see posters on the wall of a Tridents hockey player rather than your traditional Blues rugby player."

Who will be playing?

Black Sticks striker Sam Hiha.

Black Sticks striker Sam Hiha. Photo: Andrew Cornaga/Photosport

Playing the PHL in November and December means New Zealand's top players will be available regardless of where in the world they play their club hockey.

"Like other sports our players are not professional we just don't have the funding to drive that, so being able to build a career out of hockey where you could paste together an overseas experience where you're getting paid - some of our players are paid well in the European leagues - they can then come back because there is a break in that league, so they've got their Black Sticks commitments outside of that and they've got the domestic league at the end of the year," Crummy says.

"Equally if you're a locally based player it's at the end of your club season so we think it suits everyone whether you're an emerging player or whether you're an established Black Stick who may be playing offshore."

Kosoof says the priority is to make the PHL an even competition.

"No one likes to follow a competition that's lop-sided so across the four franchises and the four teams for the men and the four teams for the women we want to make sure each game is close and competitive," Kosoof says.

"There will be an identified pool of players which will be our top 80-plus players in New Zealand and they need to be playing PHL so ideally they play for where they are from, so if they're Auckland-based they play for the Tridents, but we have a lot of players who are based in Auckland for work or study so if the Tridents quota was taken up then those that are identified would play for another franchise."

An NBA-style draft pick system has also been developed Kosoof says for those that don't make their initial franchise.

Players who have off-shore contracts do want to return for the PHL and Kosoof says there is incentive.

"It's going to sit as an important part of the Black Sticks pathway. Black Sticks contracts are renewed at the end of the year so PHL ties in well with that, if they are part of this league they can get exposed to the national selectors and therefore hopefully pick up a contract."

Each franchise could add an international player to their squad with some limitations that are still being finalised.

Auckland`s Jamie Dwyer is challenged by Southern`s Callum Bailey in the Auckland v Southern Men`s semi-final match, Ford National Hockey League, North Harbour Hockey Stadium, Auckland, New Zealand,Saturday, September 13, 2014.

Australian Jamie Dwyer, left, came to play for Auckland in 2014. Photo: David Rowland

"You want to look after your own and develop own but there is a massive development opportunity with bringing in an international player.

"It's an amateur league so there will also be restrictions on those player payments for international players so they won't be able to pay $10,000 to get a guy over to play two games. If you're going to remunerate him it would be through coaching clinics or coaching coaches or running seminars or something like that."

Despite the amateur nature of the league, Kosoof says taking it to private ownership means it is still a step up in conditions for many players.

"Apart from our Black Sticks a lot of players are use to having to pay quite a bit of money to play the sport. They go to a national tournament and they have to cover a chunk of their accommodation, travel, food and other expenses for the Premier Hockey League part of the commercial model is that they have no expenses so they'll all be keen to play."

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