Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Ice Hockey: American rivals a big hit with crowd

It wasn't the NHL - but last night's hockey spectacular between US and Canadian selections is as close as we will see in New Zealand.

Ice Hockey purists may disagree but the exhibition match delivered a quality spectacle in front of a noisy crowd of 10,000 fans in Vector Arena.

There were some brilliant goals as well as outstanding goaltending from both custodians and some collisions worthy of the sport at the highest level.

The match ended 3-3 in normal time, with Canada eventually prevailing in a lengthy penalty shootout.

One particular body check by US captain Aaron Miller was bone crunching, while in the second half three players smashed head on into the Canadian goal, slamming the goal clean off its foundations as the players flew into the wall.

Canada dominated the first period to lead 2-0, but seemed to tire later in the match and the US scored three unanswered goals, on the back of some outstanding work in the net by US custodian John Grahame. Grahame, a former Stanley Cup winner, was one of the game's dominant figures along with Canadian captain Derek Armstrong.

American forward Bates Battaglia was another to impress.

There were elements that spelt exhibition though. In the final period while leading 3-2, the US forwards twice scooped shots wide when one on one with the goaltender.

It seemed easier to score and perhaps indicated that Canada were destined to come back to 3-3 and force a penalty shootout - which they duly did.

In the NHL there would be overtime - but the shootout, where the players skate from halfway before trying to beat the goaltender was the perfect way to end the evening.

Last night was as much about entertainment as it was sport. Cheerleaders did backflips and somersaults in the narrow corridor between the stands and ice, while fireworks blasted off the ice in the darkened arena. The USA entered the rink to the strains of AC/DC's Back in Black, Canadian following soon as Where the Streets Have No Name rang out.

Over the three-year development of the event, the promoters have fielded many questions about the credibility of the exercise. Would the exhibition matches been taken seriously by the players - or were they here for a holiday?

As the game got under way the players seemed a little tentative and were noticeably slipping on parts of the ice where the fireworks had left ash chars on the ice. In the first five minutes the opposing captains Derek Armstrong and Aaron Miller downed sticks and dropped their gloves to line each other up. It seemed a little contrived - as if they were trying to prove they were fair dinkum - as they slugged awkward punches at each other while their team mates stood around watching.

The play livened up soon after that - and a body check by Miller later on a Canadian took both players off their feet and was worthy of what you would see in the NHL.

Canada were first to settle and had more of the early chances. After a series of excellent saves from US goaltender John Grahame, the deadlock was broken by the Maple Leafs in the seventh minute, forward Kevin Doell sliding the puck home after a clever assist from Armstrong. At one stage in the first period it was a three on three contest - as two players from each team were sent to the penalty box for fouls. Doell added a second five minutes later and only the outstanding reflexes of Grahame stopped the Canadians from notching two or three more.

The US struggled on offence in the first stanza, though were noticeably lifted by Miller's ferocious hit.

The second period saw a turnaround as fatigue began to take it's toll. In the NHL teams carry 22 players, allowing for four separate 'lines' of defence players and attackers, giving regular opportunities for rest in the frantic sport. In contrast last night there were just 11 players on each team, meaning players got half the normal rest.

The American comeback started early in the second period, as they nailed a controversial goal through Battaglia. Further goals from Blake Barkwell and Nick Tuzzolino took the Americans into a 3-2 lead by the end of the second period. It could have been four - but Canadian goaltender Andrew Engelage defused a US penalty opportunity.

As well as the ice hockey, there was plenty of action to watch. The "kiss cam" - where an in stadium camera zoomed in on couples - saw normally reserved Kiwis locking lips for the camera during the extended breaks between the three 20 minute periods. There was a spectacular climax with a marriage proposal in the aisle, also on camera and after a brief hesitation a positive reply.

The series continues with a second game in Christchurch before the final match in Dunedin.

- Herald on Sunday

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