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MELBOURNE, Australia — David Proper has heard the misconceptions about the NHL’s decision to stage games in Australia.
Lured by the promise of a big payday, the league rushed into a nation where hockey is an afterthought.
Through careful and thorough research, the NHL knows that none of those assertions is true.
“We have been looking at Australia for upwards of a decade as a place to potentially play games to really try and grow our business,” said Proper, NHL senior Executive Vice President for Media and International Strategy. “One of the things that we’ve tried not to do is rush into any particular market without doing our due diligence, and there was a lot of due diligence we felt needed to be done because it’s obviously a major enterprise to try and build your business in Australia.
“We have done interviews and research in the sports business, the sponsorship business and the consumer products business spaces. We’ve also talked to a number of teams in various leagues that have been there. It just took time.”
After 15 years of conversations and calculations, the NHL Global Series has arrived in Melbourne. The Coyotes and Kings will practice here all week and play two preseason games this weekend at Rod Laver Arena while the league and city host a multitude of other events planned to showcase both the game and the first nation in the southern hemisphere to host NHL hockey.
“One thing about Melbourne is that they are sports mad,” said Adam Woolnough, general manager of Ice Hockey Australia (IHA), the sport’s governing body here. “We could go watch a couple of cane toads race to the end of the street or across Australia and we would be 10 deep.
“We’re very fortunate to be involved in this whole process with the NHL because it would have been quite easy for them to come down here and play their games and go home just as quickly as they landed. To their credit, they decided to engage with us as the national federation and brought us along on the journey. It’s an interesting time for the sport here and with the NHL here now, we’ve started looking at some unique and innovative ways to grow the game.”
Ice hockey is not new to Australia. The sport was introduced here in 1908 and Australia competed in the 1960 men’s Olympic tournament in Squaw Valley, California. But the sport is anything but front and center. It barely registers next to rugby, cricket, soccer and Australian rules football, which will hold its preliminary finals in Melbourne on the same weekend as the Global Series.
Australia has its own pro hockey league, the Australian Ice Hockey League, as well as a women’s league, but AIHL co-director Wayne Hellyer refers to it as a semi-pro league that is akin to Junior B hockey in Canada. The 10-team league runs from April to September and just concluded with the Melbourne Mustangs capturing the Goodall Cup. While each team is allowed six imports (four of whom can play in any one game), all of the players must work other jobs to earn a living so the games are held on weekends.
Overall, there are about 6,000 members in IHA, but the problem with further growth is one that will sound familiar to Arizonans.
“We’ve not got enough ice time or rinks for the amount of people that want to get further involved with the sport,” Hellyer said. “You’ll see that a lot of the games are played early in the morning or late at night because the rinks have to make money off public and figure skating during the daytime.”
St. Louis Blues forward Nathan Walker is really the only NHL player who can say he honed his hockey craft in Australia (the LA Kings’ Jordan Spence was born outside Sydney but left when he was 1½). Walker was born in Cardiff, Wales, but he moved to Sydney when he was 2 and played hockey there until he was 13 and moved to Czechia.
“It’s a lot easier to go and buy a soccer ball or a rugby ball and go kick that down the field than it is to get kitted out with hockey gear and go find some ice time in Australia,” said Walker, who still spends his offseasons in Sydney. “Rinks are fairly hard to come by, even in Sydney. Over the last five to 10 years a lot of rinks have been knocked down for developmental purposes, whether it be residences or shopping centers.
“I think if we could get a bit more funding to build arenas and make the ones we have better, that would be big. The arena that the Melbourne Mustangs play out of (the O’Brien Icehouse) is perfect for Australian ice hockey. It holds 1,500 or so, it’s got great ice, it’s got glass, and it’s got another sheet as well. If a lot of other rinks or cities could follow in that suit, I think that would be the biggest help to hockey in Australia.”
That’s where the NHL comes in. While it will require investment from others to build those necessary ice sheets, Proper said the league’s approach follows three timelines.
“The short term is getting our infrastructure set up, getting the business set up, and getting ourselves in a position where we can actually take advantage of the things that we think give us the ability to grow hockey and the NHL there,” he said.
“The second is really digging in on the business deals and that’s a couple years down the road; getting a good solid media deal. We already have one with ESPN, but having a free-to-air deal there would be something that we would be looking to do. We also want to build sponsorship relationships.
“Then in the long term, we’d want to have more of a year-round presence with things that we would do there. We would be looking to grow the sport to the point where we’re seeing an influx of hockey players. They don’t have to be NHL players to make it worthwhile. We’ve got a couple, but the idea would be to really have Australia be able to inject players into the systems in various places. You know you’ve got a win if over a decade-long plan you wind up somewhere like that.”
To foster that sort of growth, the league brought former NHL coaches Dallas Eakins and Paul MacLean, and former NHL referee Don Van Massenhoven to Australia to run coaching and referee clinics and speak to the hockey community. On a grassroots level, the league is following its blueprint in other cities by working with schools to integrate street hockey into the curriculum. The NHL also imported parts of its global fan tour with the hope of eventually creating the same event in Australia.
And of course, it brought its best product: the game.
“A lot of the investment is coming over the next 18 months,” Proper said. “The games are really the kickoff of what we’re trying to do and clearly that’s a big investment in and of itself because we’re shipping an entire rink system from Toronto to put in Rod Laver Arena.
“I think that there’s just a misconception for most of the North American leagues that when we play these games, we make huge amounts of money. I can’t speak for the other leagues but I suspect they’ll tell you the same thing. There is so much that goes into putting these games on financially that if you don’t see a long-term growth proposition — a growth of the sport and doing the things we need to do from grassroots level — the games don’t make any sense to do in the first place.
The Global Series in Australia was originally supposed to pit the Boston Bruins against the Kings, but Boston backed out. That doesn’t mean that the Coyotes — with Logan Cooley, Clayton Keller and what is essentially the NHL roster for this season — were a last-minute fill-in.
“The Coyotes were one of our original choices,” Proper said. “We had five or six teams that were originally chosen. We worked through a variety of issues when talking to the teams and the players and ultimately settled on the Kings and the Coyotes. The logistics are critical and it was a little bit easier for West Coast teams than the East Coast. But it was also contingent on the interest of the players and the front office wanting to participate because it’s a long trip.”
The NHL has devoted long hours to getting this event right.
“We have people who are literally living and breathing this right now,” Proper said. “Rod Laver, while a state-of-the-art arena, is a tennis arena and a concert arena. It really doesn’t have an infrastructure built for hockey so we had to do a site visit there and really dig into what was the art of the possible? Would our rink even fit? If it would fit, how would we try and get the best sightlines for what is a tennis arena?
“It’s not perfect, but we’re doing the best we can. There’s no center-hung scoreboard so we had to put in a scoreboard so that people can experience what it’s like to see an NHL game with the video and all the big pomp and circumstance. And then we had to figure out how to integrate that and get it all shipped into Australia and put it together with the ice making facility which we’re working on with a company out of the Netherlands. It’s a lot to put together, but we are very confident we can do it.”
It appears that Melbourne is embracing the effort. Capacity at Rod Laver for each of the games is about 13,000 and as of last week, 21,000 tickets had been sold with sellouts expected.
“We already know that NHL viewership and the fan base here in Australia punches above its weight,” said Rachael Carroll, Managing Director of TEG Sport and Experiences, the promoter of the NHL Global Series here. “I think it’s something along the lines of being the fifth biggest market for fans following the NHL. When you think about North America, Canada and the European countries, to have Australia there in the top five is pretty significant. There is already a fan base that exists here for ice hockey and the NHL.
“There’s definitely room for growth, but I think the nature of the sport is such that there’ll be a whole lot of interest in these games. The real challenge is making sure that the NHL and Hockey Australia can really capitalize on all the attention that’s going to be on ice hockey across the country because of staging the Global Series.”
Top photo of Clayton Keller via Leah Merrall, PHNX Sports