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MELBOURNE, Australia — The setting for this weekend’s NHL Global Series between the Coyotes and Kings is a microcosm of the state of hockey in Australia.
While the games on Saturday and Sunday are being heavily promoted, and while they are both expected to sell out Rod Laver Stadium, attracting a total of 25,000 to 26,000 fans, their presence will be dwarfed by a weekend event across the street.
The Australian Rules Football League preliminary finals will take place at the 100,024-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground. Collingwood will host Greater Western Sydney on Friday night for a spot in the 2023 AFL Grand Final against the winner of Saturday’s game between Brisbane and Carlton. Both games will be jam-packed and the crowds will spill out into the adjacent fields and gathering areas surrounding Melbourne’s dense cluster of sporting facilities.
“The plan is really just to have fans interact from both games and try and see if we can’t convert a couple of Australian League fans to hockey and a couple of hockey fans to Australian football,” said NHL Senior Executive Vice President for Media and International Strategy, David Proper. “It could be a very fun weekend for people in Melbourne.”
It has already been a dream week for the country’s modest hockey community, which is hoping to step out of the shadow of the nation’s more popular sports.
On Thursday, Coyotes players Nick Bjugstad, Alex Kerfoot and Jack McBain took the ice for a practice with kids from the Adelaide-based Aboriginal team, the Kaurna Boomerangs.
Former NHL referee Don Van Massenhoven held a teaching clinic at Torrens University for officials from all over Australia.
In an auditorium at Torrens, former NHL coaches Dallas Eakins and Paul MacLean held a clinic for coaches across the country to teach them everything from power-play and faceoff strategy to coaching philosophy and culture building.
“We’ve probably got 40 or 50 coaches in there,” Eakins said. “The coaches here are pure passion, trying to drive the sport, not making a living at it, but really trying to develop the kids. It’s been an amazing journey so far for us.”
Adam Woolnough is the GM for the sports governing body here, Ice Hockey Australia. The IHA currently has 6,000-plus members who play in about 20 rinks across this nation of almost 27 million people. Woolnough would love to see that number grow.
“There’s a challenge for those 6,000 members to jump on the ice because there aren’t enough ice rinks and ice rinks have to be commercially minded,” he said. “It costs a lot to run an ice rink so getting the public skating there first and foremost is what they need to do to pay their bills. As a result, playing hockey usually comes early in the morning or late at night.”
While the IHA knows that it needs more sheets of ice, it is following the NHL’s lead when attempting to start a grassroots movement.
“We know we need to grow participation so what’s our broad church?” he said. “It’s a no-brainer for us, particularly in Australian culture. We’re looking at how we get a hockey program into schools and we know it’s incredibly important that it aligns to the Australian curriculum.”
Stephen White is the play-by-play man for the semi-pro Australian Ice Hockey League, where the Melbourne Mustangs captured the Goodall Cup as league champs earlier this month. The league has 10 teams that all play out of what would be viewed as community rinks in the United States, the best of which may be the 1,500-seat O’Brien Icehouse where the Coyotes and Kings are practicing this week.
“To give it an American context, [the AIHL] probably sits between the [ECHL) and the SPHL in terms of standard,” he said. “We’re a tier-two, tier-three sport here so we just have to be realistic about our expectations.
“Without getting into too much hyperbole, this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened and this has been about 10 years in the making. It’s massive. As someone who’s been battling here for 13 years with the local league, just the boost that it’s going to give us is huge and just the stuff that the Coyotes are doing with the kids, the Boomerangs, that’s massive for the kids. That’s the future of the league.”
St. Louis forward Nathan Walker was raised on hockey in Sydney but he had to leave at age 13 to further his career potential in Czechia. He won’t see the games here because he is taking part in Blues training camp, but he is keeping close tabs on the NHL’s first foray into the southern hemisphere.
“A lot of Australians have gone to a game overseas, but to have them come over here and play games here I think will have a completely different impact,” he said. “I think a lot more Australians will see what’s possible and they’ll get exposed to what I think is the best game in the world.”
In order for that impact to take hold, however, both the NHL and the Australian hockey community know that this weekend’s Global Series can’t be the extent of the league’s efforts here.
“It can’t be that the NHL comes down once a year and plays two games, and then the game’s magically going to grow and we’re going to get sponsors and we’re going to get rinks and facilities,” Woolnough said. “It needs to be a long-term strategy, encouraging the NHL to keep coming back year after year, and then locally, we all work together.
“Without the right approach, this opportunity can be lost.”
Top photo of former NHL players Darcy Hordichuk and Dustin Brown via Getty Images
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