Black Stick’s determined journey from Apiti to Albany

She could have been a rugby player, a heptathlete or a full-time physiotherapist, but Steph Dickins is more than content she's followed her Black Sticks dream. 

From the pockmarked rugby paddock of Apiti, to the smooth, iridescent-blue turf of Albany, you can see just how far Steph Dickins' hockey journey has come.

When the Black Sticks defender stood on the new number one turf - of five - at the National Hockey Centre for the very first time when it opened on Friday, she was left gobsmacked.

It was such a distance from the grassy turf she’d learned to play on at the age of seven – the rugby field at Apiti School in rural Manawatū (current roll 27 kids, and supposedly where Wal of Footrot Flats was educated).

“You certainly learned how to trap a ball when it hit a pothole,” says Dickins, now 24 and the MVP in this year's National Hockey League. 

“But this turf feels amazing; it’s so quick. I just can’t wait to get out and play on it, especially on the international stage.”

Dickins will have to wait till February 1 - when both the Black Sticks women and men open their Pro League season on this field against Belgium.

But as she trains on this world-class $75m hockey facility over the next eight months, building up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Dickins could consider how the twists and turns of fate have landed her here. Because she could have headed off in many different directions.  

The youngest of four girls, Dickins grew up in a household dominated by rugby - a game her mum and sisters played, to a high level too.

She was a promising national track and field athlete, who could have pursued heptathlon.

And she has a degree in physiotherapy, and works almost full-time at a clinic on Auckland’s North Shore - a career she loves, that she could have put first.

But at every fork along her journey, she’s always chosen hockey.

Steph Dickins strips the ball from an Indian player in this year's FIH Pro League. Photo: BW Media/Hockey NZ

Dickins grew up “out in the middle of nowhere”, on her family’s 800 acre (325ha) beef and sheep farm in Apiti. “It was quite secluded, but I loved being on the farm, helping Mum and Dad,” she says.

She also worked on the neighbour’s dairy farm: “That’s how I paid my way through university.”

Apiti is roughly half an hour’s drive from Feilding, where Dickins went to high school, and just under an hour from Palmerston North, where she played representative sport. “I was making that trip most days,” she says of her teenage years.

It wasn’t easy for her parents, Dickins admits, when all four daughters played sport and sometimes headed off in several directions.

The Dickins girls took after their mum, Helen (nee McCall), who played hockey for Taranaki and rugby for Manawatū. In fact, her great claim to fame was captaining Manawatū in New Zealand’s first interprovincial women’s rugby game, against Hawkes Bay in 1980.

Steph’s sister Nicole replicated their mother, also captaining the Manawatū Cyclones, in rugby’s Farah Palmer Cup until she retired at the end of last year. The loose forward also has a couple of national sevens titles to her name.

But the youngest of the Dickins daughters preferred hockey and athletics. She was the national Year 9 cross country champion, and at the age of 13, made her first overseas trip representing New Zealand on the track at the Pacific School Games in Canberra.

Through her junior years, Dickins stood out in heptathlon and the 400m hurdles – where coincidentally, one of her main rivals was her now Black Sticks team-mate Amy Robinson.

Dickins won 10 junior national championship medals (four of them gold) in her athletics career, which ended not long after she left school. “I wanted to focus on hockey,” she says. “Making New Zealand age group teams guided me towards that decision.”

As she rose through the hockey ranks, and moved to Auckland, Dickins also had her head buried in books, studying physiotherapy at AUT.

“I always had the mindset to do as much of my degree as I could, and if hockey took over, I’d put it on hold. But I graduated only half a year behind the rest of my class, and by the time I made the Black Sticks squad, I had my degree, so it was perfect timing,” she says.

She was first called up to the Black Sticks in January 2017 – along with her flatmates Kelsey Smith and Tessa Jopp. She missed out on the 2018 Commonwealth Games where the Black Sticks won gold, but was back in the side for the first season of the world Pro League. 

A bird's eye view of the new National Hockey Centre on Auckland's North Shore. Photo: Matthew Williams, Hockey NZ

Somehow Dickins has managed to keep working as a physio alongside a professional hockey career, but admits she doesn’t always get the balance right.

“It’s a juggling act not to burn myself out,” she says. “I don’t do [physio] for the money side of it - I just enjoy having something outside hockey to look forward to.”

She’s working up to 30 hours a week for Habit Rehabilitation but will soon cut that down to around eight to focus on hockey in an Olympic year. “I still want to keep my practice up – you definitely lose the lingo with physio if you’re not working in it,” she says.

“I can really relate to people with their injuries." Touch wood, she says she's never had to deal with a major injury to herself.  "And people suddenly become interested in hockey because I’m playing.”

Dickins tries to keep her two careers separate at the hockey turf, though.  

“If the physio can’t make training, and someone needs their ankle strapped, I’m quite happy to do it. Otherwise I just keep out of it. We have an amazing physio [Jess Meyer] and I just enjoy the hockey player side of my life,” she says. 

The Black Sticks now have three weeks’ break before they hit the ground running from January 6, when the National Hockey Centre in Albany becomes their new home.

It’s also Dickins’ regional home, as the base for North Harbour’s 8000-strong hockey community. For the last two seasons, she’s won the national title with Harbour, and this year was named the outstanding women’s player at the NHL tournament.

The $75m centre was borne out of necessity, when NZTA needed the land where North Harbour Hockey sat, for a new motorway extension. The five new turfs are just a decent whack of a ball away from the old grounds at Rosedale Park, which finally closed their gates last weekend.

“This is outstanding – an amazing community facility, where we can host premier hockey events," Hockey NZ CEO Ian Francis says, "and it’s a dedicated home for our Black Sticks squads. Leading up to the Rio Olympics, the Black Sticks men trained at eight different venues."

It will no doubt set off a flush of new hockey players too. “We’ve got a strong record of growing the game throughout the country. But greater Auckland has been our slowest growth area because of a lack of facilities," says Francis. "So this gives us additional turfs for the community as well as a world-class hockey centre – now one of the best in the world.”

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