Ice Fernz player Anjali Mulari finds her inspiration in interesting places: Sitting in the stands at a White Ferns cricket match in Cape Town; in the social media posts of Olympians Gemma McCaw and Camille Buscomb; even while watching CSI on television.
Inadvertently, they’ve all helped Mulari make a successful return to international ice hockey after having two children, and while training to become a police fingerprint officer.
Mulari was the highest scoring member of the bronze medal-winning Ice Fernz team at the women’s world ice hockey championship (division IIB) in Cape Town in February.
Coincidentally the Ice Fernz weren’t the only New Zealand women’s team competing in South Africa at the time – the White Ferns were there contesting the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup.
The Ice Fernz took the opportunity to go to a White Ferns match in the lead-up to their own tournament.
“We saw the White Ferns win against Bangladesh, and we caught up with them after the game,” Mulari says. “It was a neat experience to see another New Zealand women’s team in action on the other side of the world.
“The White Ferns won by quite a significant margin [71 runs] so it was really inspiring going into our tournament. Then when we heard they were coming to one of our games, we thought: ‘We’ve really got to perform now’.”
With a group of White Ferns cheering in the stands, the Ice Fernz won their opening ice hockey match against Croatia, 15-1.
“When you win an ice hockey world championships game, the winning team’s national anthem is played,” explains Mulari. “It was special to have the White Ferns up in the stands when God Defend New Zealand played.”
Just getting to the world championships proved challenging for the plucky women of the Ice Fernz. The pandemic had forced the team to withdraw from the 2021 and 2022 world championships.
This time Cyclone Gabrielle almost scuppered their plans.
One member of the team walked through knee-deep water and mud, lugging her ice hockey gear, to join the team at the airport for a flight that was ultimately cancelled and rescheduled. Other team members, unable to get to Auckland, had to reroute their journey.
But once in Cape Town, the team realised things could have been far worse.
“We were meant to play Croatia, South Africa, Turkey, Australia and Belgium, but just before the tournament began, Turkey pulled out due to the earthquake devastation there,” Mulari says.
Overall, Mulari was pleased with the team’s performance at the world championships, finishing third, as well as her own contribution. She was named MVP in their game against hosts, South Africa.
“I got quite a few assists – passing the puck to somebody who then scored the goal. I didn’t know how I was going to go, coming back into the sport after having kids. But seeing the outcome, I was definitely reassured that it’s possible,” she says.
In 2019, Mulari had been only six weeks away from jetting off to Romania with the Ice Fernz when she learned she was pregnant. She pulled out of the tour, but farewelled the team at the airport.
The world went into lockdown the following year, and Mulari says it proved timely to have put her hockey career on ice.
“It just worked out that it was a really good time to have kids, during a period when we couldn’t travel anywhere,” says the mother of three-year-old Maija and one-year old Mikko.
Before children, Mulari had enjoyed a long and successful career, representing New Zealand in both ice hockey and inline hockey numerous times.
She’d been a member of New Zealand’s bronze medal-winning Inline Ferns at the 2013 women’s inline hockey world championships. Plus she’d played professionally for teams in Melbourne, Spain, France and Sweden.
Despite the absence of mothers in the Ice Fernz, Mulari felt her international playing days weren’t over after starting a family, and took inspiration from athlete mothers in other sports.
“I’m only 29, so I’ve still got a few more years left in me,” she says. She follows two New Zealand athlete mums – Olympic field hockey player Gemma McCaw and Olympic distance runner Camille Buscomb – on social media.
“Watching other people do the same after having children is definitely a confidence booster,” she says. “Seeing the likes of Dame Valerie Adams really kick ass on the world stage is just incredible, and shows it’s definitely possible.”
Now that Mulari is amongst those demonstrating the possibilities, what advice does she have for others returning to high performance sport after having children?
“I would say just trust the process. And time is your friend,” she says. “Giving your body a chance to heal and not forcing anything. Doing what you can and not feeling like you should be doing more.”
Mulari credits her highly supportive husband and mother as key to enabling her to keep playing at the highest levels.
Mulari met her Finnish husband, Setti, while playing inline hockey in the United Kingdom. When they decided to make New Zealand their home, Mulari says it just so happened they were following in the international footsteps of her parents.
“My dad is from India. My Kiwi mum met him in India during a meditation trip. Then, much like me, she brought him back here to live in New Zealand,” she says.
Mulari – whose kids are “half Finnish, one quarter Kiwi and one quarter Indian” – appreciates the way hockey has expanded her horizons.
“I’ve had some amazing experiences through sport and I’m really grateful for all the places it has taken me in the world. There are countries I never would have been if it wasn’t for a tournament being held there.”
And she’s not done yet. Mulari aims to represent New Zealand again at both the world ice hockey championships next year and the 2024 world skate games in Italy with the Inline Ferns.
In addition to juggling two children and two sports, Mulari works as a fingerprint officer trainee for the New Zealand Police in Hamilton.
Watching programmes like CSI once helped her envisage her dream career, especially as someone who loved science at high school.
Mulari completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in biochemistry – at the University of Waikato where she was a Sir Edmund Hillary Scholar – and a postgraduate diploma in forensic science at the University of Auckland. She then successfully applied for her fingerprinting role, up against over 100 candidates.
“Work is a big part of my life,” Mulari says. “Being able to talk about the sporting experiences I’ve learned from helps in a job interview. I have all these different examples I can give of times I’ve navigated things in a team environment.”
Having found her dream job, Mulari says working in forensics is everything she hoped. “I love how varied my work is. Everyday is different.”
The various elements of the job, she says, include attending serious crime scenes, collecting evidence, and making identifications in the lab using chemicals and different lighting sources.
Mother, international ice hockey and inline hockey player, forensics specialist – multi-talented Mulari is something of an inspiration herself.