Twenty kilometres south-west of Whangarei sits the tiny township of Maungakaramea. It’s where one of New Zealand’s greatest-ever hockey players, Jenny McDonald, grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s.
It’s the kind of place from which many top Kiwi sportspeople typically hail; where a kid might try all kinds of sports in the backyard and at primary school, before properly settling on one or two.
But if it wasn’t for her father, McDonald’s outstanding hockey career may not have got off the ground.
“I was into all sports back then,” recalls McDonald, who was then Jenny Bint. “It’s what we did when we were young. But I did have a [hockey] stick in my hand as far back as I remember.”
She played tennis and table tennis, but wanted to play more hockey.
“The problem was there weren’t any teams or clubs or local schools to play against. So my dad actually gathered people who wanted to play from the local area and we created a competition,” she says. “I started playing hockey in actual games from about the age of nine.”
And having three brothers to compete against meant McDonald had to work extra hard on everything to get the better of them, or to at least stay even.
McDonald left Maungakaramea for a place at teachers’ training college on Auckland’s North Shore, and after graduating in 1969, taught at Outram School, near Dunedin. Around this time, she met her future husband, Rex.
“That was how I ended up in Otago. Rex is from here, so that was it, really – I couldn’t get him to move. And we’re still here,” she laughs.
McDonald would teach at Outram School for almost the duration of her hockey career, which internationally stretched from 1971 to 1986.
She was a goal scorer with a freakish conversion rate – scoring at an average of more than a goal a game in the black uniform. In a total of 192 matches, she was on the scoresheet more than 200 times.
Probably the most famous of those goals she scored on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium, against England in 1977. The goal came from a penalty corner and turned out to be the match-winner in a 1-0 victory.
Incredibly, there were around 65,000 people in attendance. In those days it was an annual tradition for thousands of hockey-playing schoolgirls to go to Wembley to see the national women play.
McDonald remembers the crowd being completely deafening. “The noise was just horrendous; we couldn’t really hear each other at all. But obviously it was great to play there, in front of 65,000 people for goodness sake. Fantastic.”
There was also an unexpected thrill following the goal: “We were running back to halfway and one of the girls said ‘Look, Jenny’, and there was my name in lights on the board. That was pretty amazing.”
New Zealand had a strong women’s team throughout the 1970s. In 1975, they competed in what were ostensibly the world championships in Scotland. The previous year the inaugural Women’s World Cup had been won by the Netherlands, but New Zealand were to beat them 3-2 in a penalty shoot-out at the 1975 tournament and finish third.
McDonald was the top overall goal scorer. To some of the players from the other nations, this was a big deal.
“A German player asked me what I would receive for being the top tournament goal scorer,” she says. “And when I asked her what she meant, she said that if I’d been playing for them I’d have probably have been given a Mercedes Benz.”
It was no easy road being a New Zealand international in women’s hockey in the 1970s – the players had to fork out for half of the travel expenses. “That’s why most of us had full-time jobs,” McDonald says. That changed in 1984 when New Zealand made the Los Angeles Olympics.
The Kiwi women had held high hopes of a medal finish at the 1980 Moscow Olympics – the first time women’s hockey was included at an Olympic Games.
“We thought we had a pretty good team before those Games,” McDonald says. “We were a solid group of girls and we’d all played together for a while. That’s what you really want. It’s the experienced players who tend to get you far in big tournaments.
“You add in a couple of younger players and the older ones can let them show off their flair without them having to worry about too much responsibility.”
However, they never got to prove it. History shows the New Zealand government fell in line behind the United States in boycotting Moscow after the Soviet-led invasion of Afghanistan. It was only at the eleventh hour the New Zealand Olympic Committee, at the behest of our government, announced there would be no official New Zealand team going.
The decision not to send a New Zealand team came as no great surprise to McDonald. “We’d heard the rumours already and the political stuff had been swirling around for a long time. All the other sports were pulling out, and the government was putting the pressure on not to go.”
McDonald had that year been named as the New Zealand captain for the first time – a responsibility she would hold through till 1986.
There was a slight silver lining to the cancellation – the national associations of some of the major nations who had boycotted got together and hastily organised a five-city tour of the United States.
“I think we only lost one game and it was just by a single goal to the Netherlands, who’d been the best team in the world for years,” McDonald says. “So at least something good came out of the whole Olympics thing.”
McDonald also received a huge honour – the only New Zealander in a World XI to take on the world champion Netherlands in a one-off encounter in Scotland. It was a chance to mix and play with the Germans – who with the Dutch were the only semi-professional female nations in world hockey.
“My husband told me I was much better when playing hockey. Not quite so grumpy.”
It was also a time when players in New Zealand began transitioning from grass to artificial turf.
“There was quite a bit of adjustment to be done after that,” explains McDonald. “Even though the good grass pitches weren’t dissimilar to turf, in New Zealand the grass pitches sometimes had bumps, or were muddy, or occasionally were even just about underwater. Or we had snow where I was.
“The ball moved a lot faster on turf and to adjust you had to be a lot more accurate – it was mostly a matter of getting used to what we could now do.”
Then there was an international rules overhaul – no offside or obstruction and “free hits you could just take yourself and play on,” McDonald says. “And less restrictive umpiring sped the game up, which was another good thing. Because of the changes there seemed to be more space to do things.”
But only when the Kiwis played abroad. In New Zealand, the installation of turf was slow, even though McDonald pushed hard throughout the 1980s for as many turf pitches nationwide as possible.
“I kept coming back from overseas and saying that we needed to get turf put in. On grass in the 70s, we were ranked number three in the world for some years, and then as soon as turf came in we lost that ranking, and unless we could play on it more here we’d slip down even further.”
New Zealand finished sixth, and last, at the 1984 Olympics. McDonald, though, says the build-up and games on turf were enough, and there were other factors influencing their performance.
They were taken aback by the restrictive security at the athletes’ village, with ID cards and bag checks, lasers, wire fences and helicopters with search lights at night.
Tiny Outram in Otago must have seemed a world away. And forgetting their Athlete ID was a big no-no: “One of our girls took a shower, went out for dinner and then wasn’t allowed back in the village. She had to wait for a long time at what we called ‘the police station’ before our manager could get her out.”
What perhaps threw them the most was having no practice fields available: “The only time we could practise with a stick in our hand was in a 10 to 15-minute warm-up before the game. What we missed completely was the whole thing of being together. Our play became disjointed; you could see it happening, but couldn’t do anything about it.”
McDonald represented New Zealand until the age of 36, but in 16 years only played 94 test matches; a far cry from the current era where a player can bring up that number of games in five years or less.
Would she have preferred to have played in the modern, professional environment with its myriad tournaments?
“It’s hard to know, or compare, because it depends so much where you are in your life journey,” McDonald says. “My love for the game, the desire to improve and be the best possible kept me involved.
“The modern rules allowing greater freedoms and skill-sets would excite me. But in any era, the team combinations and shared experiences create great and enduring friendships. What’s not to enjoy in any era? The whole experience was fun.”
She continued playing for Otago until the late 1980s, closing in on age 40. “A nice way to finish off with Otago was winning the K Cup for provincial hockey in 1986 and 1987. It was quite a big thing getting a K Cup badge for three Cups won as a player.”
But old hockey habits die hard, and after a season off, McDonald played in a Masters tournament, out of which was born a team called The Evergreens – who made it into the top league in Dunedin club hockey.
“My husband told me I was much better when playing hockey. Not quite so grumpy,” she laughs.
She finally pulled the pin at 53 years old after breaking her wrist. Later, McDonald became President of the Otago association, then chair of Southern Regional Hockey.
She retired from education in 2014 after being principal of Elmgrove School for 10 years. “I’d been in school since I was five, so I felt it was time to let go of all that,” she says.
These days she’s busy taking the couple’s St Bernard dog, Whitney, for walks, and tending to a garden of roses and vegetables. McDonald still follows local hockey and accompanies Rex on vintage car rallies around the south of the South Island.
“We also have a place at Glenorchy where we can escape to and appreciate nature and the simplicity of life,” she says.
After a career dedicated to hockey and education, who could argue Jenny McDonald doesn’t deserve the best retirement possible?