At nearly 20 minute-mark of the penalty shootout, Leon Hayward thwarted Shamsher Singh’s first attempt, pushed away the shot from a rebound and was scrambling across to throw his body as the Indian looked to have one last go. But the hooter went off and India was out in the crossovers. The cheers and whistles of 15,000-plus at the Kalinga Stadium were drowned out.
What Hayward describes as ‘the biggest moment of his hockey career’, was a nightmare to forget for the partisan locals. Hayward threw his stick, took off his gloves and hit an awkward-looking griddy, a popular dance move. Even before he could complete his jig, his onrushing New Zealand teammates climbed all over him.
Hayward was the star of the penalty shootout. Amateur-level and semi-pro hockey players have had moments to remember this World Cup, but the 32-year-old Hayward’s feat will probably be talked about for some time to come.
The accountant from Auckland, who plays hockey in his ‘spare time’ made five saves out of eight penalties after the 3-3 draw in regulation time, during which he was sat on the bench for the entirety of it. Starting ‘keeper Dominic Dixon had done his part earlier with five saves in limiting the fancied Indian attack.
And to make the moment sweeter, he was in a goalkeeping duel with P.R. Sreejesh, who he looked up to. “The whole experience of being in India and playing against India is really special. Sreejesh is someone who I like a lot and followed what he has done. So this is probably the biggest moment I have had in hockey,” Hayward tells Sportstar. “I was gonna say hello to Sreejesh and [Krishan] Pathak but then I was too nervous, to be honest, and I was trying to not be sick actually (laughs). it was a big moment.”
Hayward had come on in the second half of all the Pool games and began on the bench again on Sunday. “It was pretty difficult,” says Hayward, on switching into match mode after full-time “But I had done my homework and I was focussing on the notes I had made. That’s where I was feeling my confidence come from, knowing I had prepared for this situation, even if it hadn’t happened.”
Hayward has had plenty of jobs over the years in finance and coaching in hockey over the years before landing a full-time role at Finnz Chartered Accountants in Waikato. “So that’s my day job [accountant] and this is what I do [hockey] on my spare time, which is pretty crazy. But if they have any HIL [Hockey India League] contracts ready and come knocking, I am ready to come over,” he says.
Hayward calls it a demanding job where he works and then plays hockey 10-15 hours a week, which isn’t the same amount of time as a professional player. “When you have to work as well, it gets pretty difficult to put that time aside,” he says.
“I am lucky to have a very flexible employer. When I have time to go down there for a week, I will spend the week with them, other times I might do 3-4 hours a day. Other times they are pretty good with me to let me fiddle around with my hockey. Without them, I don’t think that would be possible. I am lucky to have two amazing bosses, Greg and Alan, down there. The whole team is really caring and understanding of my situation and my dreams,” Hayward added.
Hayward is the older brother of Australia international defender Jeremy, who scored a hat-trick in Kookaburras’ opening game. Leon turned out for Australia too in 2014 before he moved to New Zealand in 2019 and made himself available for Blacksticks through his mother’s lineage. His mother Ellie was a hockey player too.
His parents had flown down to Bhubaneswar to watch Jeremy in action but surprised Leon by turning up in Rourkela for the team’s match against Chile the next day. On Sunday, they were in the stands in Bhubaneswar to watch Leon have his moment for New Zealand.
‘Little brother’ Jeremy’s Australia, too, has progressed to the knockouts and the possibility of facing his sibling in a World Cup is something Leon says he would love to experience. But before that, defending champion Belgium awaits next for New Zealand.
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