In the early hours of January 23, Black Sticks goalkeeper Leon Hayward walked out onto the bright blue turf at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, India, with New Zealand’s hopes resting on his shoulders.
The Black Sticks had just drawn their sudden death playoff match against India 3-3 and now needed to win a penalty shootout to advance to the quarterfinals of the 2023 Hockey World Cup.
An expert in one-on-one encounters, Hayward – who had spent the entire game on the bench – came in cold to face shooters he admired and respected from “one of the best teams in the last 20 years”.
“I remember walking onto the pitch and looking at all the people and thinking wow, this is ridiculous. I definitely felt the pressure at that point, of all those screaming Indian fans.”
But the 32-year-old goalkeeper had done his homework. With notes about every opposition player scribbled on strapping tape plastered over the back of his stick, he felt a sense of calm wash over him as soon as the first whistle blew.
“I guess all my nerves were gone and I was just focusing on what I had to do,” he said.
Drawing on that inner calm, Hayward pulled off a series of saves that helped New Zealand win the shootout 5-4, sparking despair from India and elation from the Kiwis.
“It only really sank in when I saw the boys running,” he said.
“Sam Lane came in and dragged me to the ground and then they dogpiled me. It’s the biggest moment I’ve had in hockey and something I think I’ll remember forever.”
New Zealand went on to lose their quarter-final match against Belgium 2-0 and Hayward returned to his day job filing tax and GST returns at Finnz Chartered Accountants in Te Awamutu.
Despite his heroics at the World Cup, he can still walk down Alexandra St without being recognised – but that’s okay with him.
“When I walk around in Te A I know that no one knows me, and that’s kind of cool,” he said.
“I’m a pretty simple guy. I just love my girlfriend, I love my job and I love hockey … I just want to be around my girlfriend, do my job and play hockey and that’s it.”
Now, thanks to a pair of Te Awamutu businessmen, that’s exactly what he’s doing: living a dream that once seemed so far-flung it was almost unthinkable.
Just five years ago the Aussie import, who loves hockey so much it’s “almost a compulsion”, thought his days in top level sport were done.
Hayward was born in Darwin, Australia, and began playing hockey for the Fannie Bay Waratahs at age four, later joining the Northern Territory Stingers and then Australia’s national team, The Kookaburras, which his brother Jeremy now captains.
After being in and out of selection for The Kookaburras for seven years, he played for an amateur club in Scotland and professional clubs UDT in the Canary Islands and Lille Metropole in France before returning to Perth, where he joined a division three club.
“I was playing with guys who were my dad’s age who were carrying a bit too much weight and drinking a lot, so I was fully expecting at that point everything would be finished,” he said.
“And then I got a phone call from a guy called Jimmy Grant, who asked me to come and play in NHL (National Hockey League) for Auckland. I just thought maybe it would be kind of a last hurrah for hockey.”
It wasn’t. When NHL coach Darren Smith discovered Hayward’s mother had been born in New Zealand, a new chapter in his life rapidly morphed into a fairytale.
“Darren asked me to play for New Zealand against Japan maybe two weeks later,” Hayward said.
“Then, maybe a month after that, I played the Olympic qualifiers against Korea and we won. So we qualified for the Olympics and ever since then it’s been crazy. I’ve gone to the Tokyo Olympics, I’ve gone to the Commonwealth Games, I’ve gone to the World Cup and that’s the big three things in hockey for me, so that’s been really, really cool. And all things that, not even five years ago, I thought were completely crazy.”
Then, about eight months ago, Finnz Chartered Accountants directors and “sports fanatics” Allan Spice and Greg Brewerton gave Hayward yet another dream shot: an accounting job flexible enough to accommodate his Black Sticks training schedule.
For someone who had been struggling to earn enough to cover the basics, it was a total game-changer.
“If these two people and Finnz had been in my life 10 years ago, my life would look a lot different,” he said.
“I’d be able to do the things people do when they’re 33 and buy homes and buy rings for their girlfriend and not get funny about looking at the price. I’d just be a bit more stable.
“When you’re a semi-professional slash amateur sportsperson it has a pretty big effect on your career and your earning potential, so that’s been the thing that’s been the most difficult for me to correct in my life.
“It’s really difficult for an employer to have an elite athlete as an employee. A lot of people say they want that, and athletes are driven and all of that. But the actual logistics are quite difficult. You’re away a lot, you’re moody because you’ve had training in the morning and you haven’t slept properly, you’re eating weird things, you’re not allowed to be out and have drinks with everyone while they’re doing social stuff. So, I’m really lucky.”
Hayward is currently living in Auckland with his girlfriend, women’s hockey player Carly Williamson, and driving to Te Awamutu to work at Finnz as his Black Sticks schedule allows.
While here he stays with New Zealand hockey captain Nic Woods’ mother Wendy.
“She’s lovely, Wendy, my Te A mum,” Hayward said.
“It’s been really cool to have the hockey community get around me a bit in the Waikato.
“I think some people see it as a step back, coming to Te A. It’s not a step back; it’s an opportunity to grow in a different way. That opportunity wasn’t there for me in Auckland and it definitely wasn’t there for me in Perth.
“And Finnz has been a godsend. If it wasn’t for them I’d still be in the same situation I was a year ago where I was living in Auckland and struggling to pay rent, buy food and all the other things in life. I’m really thankful.”