Australia and ice hockey. Not exactly a Batman and Robin style duo, is it?
While there appears to be no relationship between our sun-scorched land and this ice-requiring sport, there is actually a longstanding connection dating back 114 years to 1909. This was when the Goodall Cup—now the fifth oldest currently running ice hockey trophy in the world—was first used to commemorate the champion team of the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL).
The sport of ice hockey has been active in Australia for over a century, but in terms of economic and viewership success, ice hockey would rank very low when compared to Australia’s more popular sports such as Australian rules football, rugby and cricket. But just because ice hockey is not constantly plastered across our screens, doesn’t mean that the sport has not found some kind of potential for success in Australia over the last 100 years.
Matt Armstrong, a Canadian-born ice hockey player, played professionally in Canada, America and Europe, before finishing his playing career here in Victoria with the Melbourne Mustangs in the AIHL. And while Armstrong knows that ice hockey is nowhere near the top of the Australian sporting food chain, he believes what the sport does for Australia’s hockey-loving expatriates qualifies it as a success.
“There is a pretty big history of hockey in this country that not a lot of people know about and I didn’t know about when I first got here,” he tells upstart.
“It’s been around for a very long time and I think it’s probably been helping ‘expats’ for numerous years to be able to enjoy living in Australia. Having some comfort of the sport that they have grown up and played or watched over their younger years and being able to do so in a great place like Australia.”
After hearing about the AIHL through a friend from university, Armstrong’s initial plan was to live and play in Australia for one year, but 13 years later he is now an Australian citizen and ranked sixth all-time for goals, assists and points in the AIHL. And although Armstrong no longer plays professionally, he is still working in ice hockey as director of the Icehouse Hockey Academy.
Armstrong believes that for many, ice hockey is a way of life and that a lot of junior participants play to follow in their expatriate parent’s footsteps.
“I was talking to one of the coaches last night about how we can get new people into the sport and I was like ‘all these kids’ parents have played (ice hockey) and that’s why they are in this sport’ because their parents have played in this sport and the kids grow up wanting to do the same thing,” he says.
“So I would think it’s a pretty big draw card for the expats to have some sense of being back home (but) in a different country. It’s a little community but it is quite large in terms of it being a novelty sport here in Australia.”
Armstrong says that the sport provides a great outlet for expatriates and believes that the majority of ice hockey participants and fans in Australia are from Canada and the USA. The amount of Americans living in Australia is estimated to be nearly 110,000 (as of 2021), while the number of Canadian-born Australian residents is estimated to be around 50,000 (as of 2021).
Of course, Ice Hockey Australia (IHA), the governing body of the sport, is also looking to grow the game beyond the expat community and make it more of a commercial success. But with IHA being a membership-based organisation (6,000 members), how do they appeal to the wider Australian audience?
One way this could be achieved would be to expose potential audiences to a high-performance version of the sport. Fortunately for IHA, the National Hockey League (NHL)—the top-rated ice hockey league in the world—recently played their first-ever preseason games in Melbourne.
General manager of IHA, Adam Woolnough, tells upstart about the organisation’s plan to capitalise on the NHL’s recent preseason games in Melbourne and how they are looking to introduce a form of “street hockey” into Australian schools. The sport of street hockey is essentially the same as ice hockey, except the game is played on the road or concrete instead of ice and a ball is used in place of a puck.
“I think it’s a sport (ice hockey) that Australians will be significantly attracted to and if they get to see it live,” he says. “It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s physical, it’s skilful so we are hoping that then translates into a rise in enquiries and participation numbers.”
But if for some reason a child, who has recently been inspired to become an ice hockey player, can’t find a local club or ice rink, that’s where Woolnough believes street hockey will help IHA maintain interest in the sport while they build up their resources.
“We are exploring ways of getting into schools, obviously schools don’t have ice rinks so we are working with the NHL around a street hockey/ball hockey type program that we can introduce to primary schools and I think with that awareness and education around the game I think we can get into schools and really promote it in that broad spectrum,” he says.
And while Woolnough understands that implementing street hockey into schools won’t immediately make ice hockey a frontier sport in Australia, what he and the IHA hope it will do is create more fans, volunteers, coaches, administrators, officials and players. This will in turn allow more eyes to be focused on helping IHA break down some of the issues that are preventing the sport from growing.
“Facilities are the biggest issues for us. For families and participants wanting to skate, it’s sign-up costs, it’s registration, it’s skates, sticks, equipment. So we need to explore more of those issues further and lower the costs to participate but also look for participants to engage in the sport outside of being on a rice rink.”
“There’s a couple of big rocks in the next five years for us to target.”
Photo: AIHL Finals by Phil Taylor. This image has not been modified.