While it is the offseason in North American and European hockey leagues, the ice hockey season is in full swing in Australia and New Zealand. Recently, Australia played host to the first annual Trans-Tasman Championship League tournament. The event pitted last season's playoff finalists from the Australian Ice Hockey League against their counterparts from the New Zealand Ice Hockey League.
The Melbourne Ice and Newcastle North Stars represented the Aussie league, while the Botany Swarm and Southern Stampede represented the Kiwi circuit. As expected, the two teams from the more established AIHL defeated both of their NZIHL opponents. Next year's tournament is slated to take place in New Zealand, with the venue alternating in each successive year.
"I think it's a great competition. It's a big step forward. It can only get bigger and better," Melbourne Ice forward Lliam Webster told Australia's Back Page Lead.
Defending AIHL titlist Melbourne won the 2012 Trans-Tasman championship against Newcastle by virtue of a superior goal differential (plus-13 for the Ice, plus-11 for Newcastle) in their two games against the Swarm and the Stampede. However, the championship-clinching victory for Melbourne on its home ice proved to be anything but easy. As their match with Botany progressed, the Ice realized they had a fight on their hands, both figuratively and literally.
Entering the game against the Swarm, the Ice had a 12-2 goal differential as a result of their blowout win against the Stampede. Newcastle beat the Stampede 11-3 then defeated the Swarm 6-3. As a result, the Ice needed to beat Botany by at least two goals to capture the Trans-Tasman title.
The Kiwi team was determined to make it tough on their Aussie opponents. Melbourne trailed for much of the game before it finally exploded for four unanswered goals to capture an 8-5 victory and the championship.
Throughout the final game, the play was as physical -- at times chippy -- as many North American playoff games. The two teams combined for 77 penalty minutes in a match that saw one player ejected and seven minors handed out for assorted slashes, cross-checks and high sticks.
The nasty tone was set early in the first period. With the score tied 1-1, Matt Armstrong, a Canadian import forward who is leading the AIHL in scoring this season, hit Botany's Josh Hay (the team's top forward and a mainstay on the New Zealand national team) from behind near the boards.
Hay crashed headfirst into an unpadded stanchion, falling to the ice in a bloody heap. He had to be helped from the ice and was diagnosed with a concussion. Armstrong, who had scored Melbourne's opening goal, received a boarding major and a game misconduct.
In a development reminiscent of the clinching game of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, Botany punished Melbourne for three power-play goals during the ensuing five-minute advantage. Goals by Charlie Huber, Jordan Challis (who, at age 20, is New Zealand's top young star), and Canadian import Jean-Marc Boucher built a 3-1 lead for the Swarm.
However, shortly before the end of the major penalty, the Ice were able to regain a little momentum. Webster, a native Aussie who played Junior A hockey in Canada as well as minor-league hockey in Finland, broke loose against Botany goalie Zak Nothling and scored shorthanded to trim the deficit to 3-2.
"I think it's a great competition. It's a big step forward. It can only get bigger and better."
-- Melbourne Ice forward Lliam Webster on the first annual Trans-Tasman Championship League tournament
Shortly before the midpoint of regulation, Botany added another power-play goal as Richard Idoine put the Swarm up 4-2 while Melbourne's Todd Graham (14 penalty minutes in the game) sat in the box.
At this point, the Ice realized they were in danger of an upset in front of their home crowd. The Melbourne side took over the game, rallying for goals by Jason Baclig and Matt Korthuis to tie the score before the second intermission. The dominance continued in the third period. The Ice outshot the Swarm by a 20-6 margin (50-24 for the game), and more importantly got the three goals they needed to win the Trans-Tasman championship.
Webster put the Ice ahead to stay with 11:21 remaining in regulation, then goals by Baclig and Graham enabled Melbourne to catch and surpass Newcastle in goal differential to capture the championship.
Now that the Trans-Tasman tourney is complete, the Ice's focus has shifted back to defending its two consecutive AIHL championships. Through its first 16 regular-season games, Melbourne is in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 13-3-0 record (11 wins in regulation). Newcastle, a four-time AIHL champion, is the top squad in the Western Conference. The current season marks the first time the league has used a conference system during the regular season. The top teams from each conference will make the playoffs.
Not surprisingly, six of the top seven scorers in the league this season play for the Ice or the North Stars. The top three are imports: Melbourne's Armstrong (39 points in 15 games) and Canadian countryman Baclig (37 points) lead the way, followed by Newcastle's Alaska-born Brian Bales (36 points). The leading native Aussie scorer in the league is Melbourne's Joseph Hughes (35 points), who also leads the league in penalty minutes with 110 in 15 games.
AIHL teams compete in the playoffs for the Goodall Cup. Created in 1909, the trophy is one of the ice hockey world's oldest existing championship prizes still being competed for today. Traditionally awarded to the victor of an Australian amateur interstate tournament, the trophy has been used by the AIHL for the past decade. The league was created in 2000 and acquired the rights to use the Goodall Cup two seasons later.
This year, the AIHL championship game will be held at the Hunter Ice Skating Stadium in Warners Bay, New South Wales. The venue previously was the host of the 2008 IIHF Division II World Championships as well as the 2005, 2008 and 2009 AIHL Finals. Melbourne's Mediabank Icehouse, where the Ice won the Trans-Tasman title, hosted the AIHL championship matches in each of the past two seasons.