The Newcastle North Stars are no strangers to the trophy. The club, which makes its home in New South Wales, has reached the playoff finals in each of the last seven AIHL seasons and skated off with the Goodall Cup four times, most recently in 2008. Last season, after finishing first in the regular season, Newcastle lost the championship to the Adelaide Adrenaline in a heartbreaking overtime finale. This season, with four weeks left in the AIHL regular season, Newcastle once again holds down first place in the seven-team circuit. The North Stars currently hold a four-point lead over the Melbourne Ice.
Offensively, the North Stars have been led by American import player Brian Bales. The 25-year-old Anchorage, Alaska native, who was a standout at the USHL level for the Sioux City Musketeers before going on to a collegiate hockey career at Bowling Green University and the University of Alaska-Anchorage, joined the North Stars this season. In 17 games, the right wing leads the league with 31 assists and 50 points.
Matt Ezzy (Courtesy: Melbourne Mighty Roos)
On a league-wide basis, the top-scoring players are usually import players. Eight of the top 10 scorers (and 15 of the top 20) are imports. On the North Stars, the top four scorers are non-Aussies.
The third linemate of Bales and Cartwright, Blair Tassone, ranks third on Newcastle and sixth in the league with 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists). A native of Castlegar, B.C., the 28-year-old left wing is another alumnus of the University of Alaska-Anchorage. The club's top-scoring defenseman is veteran Chris Belanger. The 38-year-old former Hartford Whalers draftee has 9 goals and 20 points in just 12 games. Belanger has ECHL experience as well as years of experience in secondary leagues in Europe. His production ranks third among AIHL defensemen this season.
Four North Stars players represented the Mighty Roos (the Australian national team) at the 2010 Division II World Championships in Mexico earlier this year. Most notably, Newcastle goaltender Matt Ezzy started three games at the Worlds. The native of Linsmore, New South Wales, was the North Stars' starting goalie in its most recent Goodall Cup-winning season. He is 13-3-0, and ranks third among AIHL starting goalies (fifth overall) with a 3.03 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.
Australian national team defensemen Robert Starke and Matt Price are mainstays on the North Stars' blueline. The 33-year-old Starke was born in Canada but dons the green and gold Mighty Roos uniform in international play. The 5-foot-11, 205 pound blueliner was a collegiate standout for Bowdoin College and attended the St. Louis Blues' 2000-01 training camp as a non-roster player but did not earn a contract. He has played in the AIHL since 2004 and has also played in the UHL and Dutch league, among other second-tier circuits. This season, Starke has 16 points.
Price, a 22-year-old native of Newcastle, tied for the Australian team plus/minus lead at the 2010 Worlds with a plus-6 rating. Despite standing just 5-foot-10 and weighing 182 pounds, Price likes to play a physical style. He leads the North Stars with 76 penalty minutes after totaling 96 penalty minutes in 22 games last season.
AIHL regular-season games are played on weekends. This is done because players are not paid and most hold other jobs during the week. However, players do receive certain forms of assistance from their teams. The specifics differ from team to team but typically include covering costs such as meals and accommodation while traveling, flights and bus travel to away games, hotel accommodations, use of a car, and work contacts or job search assistance.
League rules permit teams to use six import players (defined as non-Australian permanent residents or citizens) at any time, but may only dress four per game. Import players almost always receive more financial assistance from clubs than local players due to the increased hardships of travel and accommodation during the short season. AIHL clubs will play their final 2010 regular-season games Aug. 22. The playoffs will commence thereafter.