WINNIPEG — It’s summer in Christchurch, New Zealand, some 13,000 kilometres from Stephen Hoyle’s current home to where he’ll soon set up shop in Winnipeg.
“It’s not been as good as we wanted lately,” began Hoyle, the newest member of Valour FC, offering a weather update from the southern hemisphere.
“It’s about 22 and sunny, but it’s been raining for quite a while. We’re hoping summer kicks in pretty soon. And what’s it like there?”
Told it was sunny in Winnipeg, too, but a balmy -20 C, Hoyle offered this, with a chuckle:
“Ohhh… I want no part of that right now. But I’ve heard it’s fantastic there in the summer. I’ve read a lot online about the city and the history behind the team being named Valour. It’s an incredible story. I know it’s not the No. 1 winter holiday destination, but it sounds exactly like what I’m looking for right now.”
Yes, make no mistake, Hoyle is eager to get to Canada and to Winnipeg to begin the next chapter in what has been a fascinating football journey for the 26-year-old centre forward from Barnsley, England. Hoyle now plays for Canterbury United in the New Zealand Premiership, but has also had stops in Scotland, Australia and with the Toronto Lynx, formerly of the Premier Development League.
“It’s definitely going to be a new adventure for me,” said Hoyle. “I love playing here. I love the country and recently became a resident here. But when I was growing up in England, I always wanted to live in the most beautiful country in the world. I heard about New Zealand and I heard about Canada. I’ve been here for quite a while and have been consistently scoring goals. It’s a challenge for me to try and do that in another environment and another country where everything is new to me.
“I want to come to Canada and challenge myself to do well in a new environment.”
Hoyle and Valour FC head coach Rob Gale have never met in person, but have spoken numerous times on the phone. Gale’s global connections in the game alerted him to Hoyle, and he was one of the first players he reached out to after taking over Valour.
A gifted, technical forward, Hoyle has five goals in eight matches for Canterbury, ranking him third in the New Zealand Premiership. He found the back of the net 35 times in 72 games over the previous five seasons with Canterbury, WaiBOP United, Napier City and Hawke’s Bay.
“He’s versatile in that he can play on his own or in a front two or wider if necessary,” said Gale. “He has the technical and tactical acumen as well as the right character to be a hit for Valour and make his mark on the new league.”
The character part comes across instantly in the conversation with Hoyle. He has already become a coach and hopes to learn more of the technical aspects of the game from Gale, while also improving his own skills. There’s also a genuine joie de vivre in almost every word he speaks.
“I really like the idea of challenging myself and moving around,” Hoyle explained. “I just also love seeing new places and meeting new people, new coaches, new communities to be involved in, and football has been a tool to do that.
“I had opportunities to go play in other countries, places like South Africa and I spoke to a club in Finland. But when Rob was speaking to me about Canada, about Winnipeg and about how this is a new product in a new league and the excitement we’re going to create, that’s what made me want to do that over something that is already established. That excites me. I want to be a part of seeing something grow.
“The fact it is the inaugural season of the Canadian Premier League is exciting to me. No one has had their name yet on the trophy. So, straight away you can make history. Straight away you can be the first team to win the CPL. Straight away you can be the first-ever goal scorer of a new league or the top goal scorer in the league if you stay for a couple of seasons. There are lot of aspects that are exciting.”
Hoyle does have roots to New Zealand — his younger brother James is a defender with the Hamilton Wanderers and his girlfriend Jill is a Kiwi. But the window for a professional athlete is open for only so long and the opportunity to be on the ground floor in a new venture – and in a country he wants to see coast to coast – has Hoyle embracing what’s ahead of him, even if it comes with a healthy dose of the unknown.
“I’m definitely not a person who lives in fear or is afraid of change,” he said. “I don’t know if ‘free-spirit’ is a bad description of a professional athlete, but I’m quite open. I have a thirst for knowledge and experience. I’m not very materialistic, so I like to see and do things. And when something like a brand new professional league comes into a country that is one of the best to live in on the planet and I’ll get to travel and see it all … it’s an absolute no-brainer for me to want to be a part of that.
“I’ve been in a professional academy system since I was eight years old. All the experiences I’ve had with travelling usually come from football. If I want to immerse myself into meeting different people in different cultures with different religions, then football helps bring that together. I’ve gotten to see all of New Zealand now, all because of football.
“If I move to Winnipeg on my own I have to find friends and things to do,” Hoyle added. “When I come there to play for Valour, I’ll have 20 friends straight away. That’s the way I see it. They can open my eyes to Canada and the most important thing is we can do some things together on the field as a team.”