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Australia celebrates hockey centennial with gold

by Bill Meltzer

The Australian National Team won the gold medal in front of their home
fans at the 2008 IIHF Division II World Championships last month.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first ice hockey championship in Australia. The Aussies have already made the most of it by hosting and winning the gold medal at the 2008 IIHF Division II World Championships last month. The 33rd-ranked Australian national team, nicknamed the Mighty Roos, will advance to the Division I level for the first time since becoming a member of the international hockey community 70 years ago.

Now the regular season of Australian Ice Hockey League is under way, with eight teams competing for the Goodall Cup. Few non-Aussies are aware that the Goodall Cup is the world’s oldest hockey championship prize outside North America. Only the Stanley Cup and Canada’s amateur Allan Cup have longer histories.

The Goodall Cup was historically an amateur prize, but has been a semi-professional competition since 2002, when the trophy became the prize given to the winners of the newly formed Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL). The Sydney (now Penrith) Bears won the first AIHL Goodall Cup. The Newcastle North Stars won it in three of the next four seasons.

The AIHL consists of Penrith, Newcastle, the West Sydney Ice Dogs, Adelaide Avalanche, Newcastle North Stars, Melbourne Ice, Canberra Knights, Gold Coast Blue Tongues and the Central Coast Rhinos. So far this season, Penrith is undefeated after nine games. Australian national team standout Liam Webster (Melbourne) leads the league in scoring with 12 goals and 24 points. The season runs from April to September.

At the 2008 Division II World Championships, played in Newcastle, the Mighty Roos were represented by six players from the West Sydney Ice Dogs, five from Adelaide, four apiece from Newcastle, Penrith and Melbourne, two from the Gold Coast (formerly Brisbane Blue Tongues and one from Canberra.

Recruited from far and wide

Australia has only 1,738 registered male players in the country and 21 rinks, so it has to get creative to assemble a viable national team. Only handful of players in the AIHL were born in Canada or other elite hockey countries. There were three Canadian-born members on the Mighty Roos, two players originally hailing from the United States and one each from the Czech Republic and Great Britain.

The Aussie program achieved a substantial breakthrough two years ago when it recruited Canadian born former NHL player Steve McKenna to serve as coach of the Mighty Roos. The 34-year-old McKenna played for Adelaide during the 2004-05 NHL work stoppage and has played professionally on four continents. The assistant coaching staff is also Canadian by birth.

Many of the native-born Aussies on the Mighty Roos roster were trained domestically, but some received accelerated training in junior leagues abroad. For instance, goaltender Matthew Ezzy (Newcastle North Stars) played junior A hockey in Ontario for the Aurora Tigers and Collingwood Blues. Mighty Roos captain Anthony Wilson (West Sydney Ice Dogs), a defenseman, developed at home.

Among the Canadian-born contingent on the national team playing roster, defenseman Robert Starke (Newcastle) is a Montreal native and former NCAA and minor-league player for the Missouri River Otters who attended the St. Louis Blues training camp on a tryout basis in 2000 after his collegiate career at Bowdoin College. Alternate captain Chris Sekura, a forward, was born in Taber, Alberta. Veteran defenseman Tyler Lovering (Penrith Bears) was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, but now lives and works in Sydney. He has played on the Mighty Roos since 1998.

Naturalized forward Vladimir Rubes (Penrith) was born in Prague and formerly played at the Czech Division I level, the Japan Hockey League and in North America for the Memphis River Kings. American-born forward Brad Vigon (Melbourne) played junior hockey in the United States and Canada. Forward Murray Wand (Penrith) was born in Ithaca, N.Y., but has lived in Australia for many years, playing for the junior and senior national teams.

The AIHL has a similar composition to the national team. A significant majority of the players in the league are native Australians and national team eligible foreign-born players with various levels of prior hockey experience.

There’s also a sprinkling of import players – mostly Swedish and Finnish minor leaguers and young Canadians and Americans – who travel to Australia to play during the offseasons of their leagues at home. Four Swedes in the league – forward Peter Lindgren (Adelaide Avalanche), goaltender Christopher Elf (Adelaide), defenseman Bob Sannemo (Adelaide), and defenseman Igor Skenderija (Melbourne) – have banded together to create a bilingual blog and photo journal of the 2008 season.
There’s no significant money to be made playing hockey in Australia. Those who play do so only for the love of the game and the camaraderie on and off the ice. As it does worldwide, the bond of hockey brings together people who may otherwise rarely interact.

The off-ice jobs of the Aussie leaguers span the white- and blue-collar gamut. For instance, Australian national team players Adrian Eposito (Penrith), Brett Thomas (West Sydney) Mark Rummakainen (Canberra), Casey Minson (Newcastle) and British-born goaltender Stuart Denman (Melbourne) work respectively as a personal trainer, an account/business manager, a construction worker, a warehouse manager and an IT systems architect.

First gold in hockey centennial

Prior to hosting the 2008 Division II Worlds and winning the gold medal, Australia’s previous highlight on the international stage was competing at the 1960 Olympics. That year, the Aussies lost 18-1 to the former Czechoslovakia and 12-1 to gold medalist Team USA. Two years later, Australia sent its first team to the IIHF World Championships.

The 33rd-ranked Australian National Team, who
are nicknamed the Mighty Roos, will soon advance to the Division I level for the first time.
Last month, the host nation of the 2008 IIHF World Championship Div II Group B went undefeated to earn its first-ever promotion to the Division I level in front of enthusiastic, partisan crowds at the Hunter Ice Skating Stadium in Newcastle.

A year ago, at the 2007 World Championship Division II Group B in South Korea, the Mighty Roos narrowly missed promotion, losing only to the host nation. This time, the Aussies wouldn’t be denied.

In their opening match, the Mighty Roos easily defeated Mexico, 7-1. Adelaide forward Greg Oddy scored a hat trick while Lliam Webster of the Melbourne Ice tallied a goal and three assists.

Two nights later, the Australians faced much stiffer competition from Spain. Vladimir Rubes got the Mighty Roos off to a leaping start with an early power-play goal, but the Spaniards battled back to tie the game late in the first period and then takes leads of 2-1 and 3-2 in the middle period. In the final period, Australia rallied for 19 shots and three unanswered goals, as Michael Gough (Gold Coast) re-tied the game early, and Webster scored a pair of power-play goals to seal a 5-3 win. Matthew Ezzy turned back 18 of 21 shots for the win.

Next up for the Aussies was a familiar foe, New Zealand. In hockey, the rivalry has typically favored Australia by a substantial margin. The Kiwis’ Ice Blacks team won last year’s IIHF World Championship Divison III in Dundalk, Ireland, but finished last in Newcastle this year.

The Roos dominated much of the territorial play, outshooting the Ice Blacks by a 47-18 margin, but the game was tied 2-2 heading into the final period. Finally Gough scored a power-play goal early in the third period, and Lovering added insurance two minutes later.

The Mighty Roos took on Iceland in the penultimate match, shutting out the Icelanders, 3-0. Ezzy was busy in goal, facing 33 shots (including 27 in the final 40 minutes of the game), but had the answers every time. Oddy gave Australia the offensive production it needed with goals in the first and second period and defenseman Aaron Clayworth (Canberra Knights) added a third goal in the match’s final minute.

All that stood between Australia and a promotion to Division I was a victory against fellow undefeated squad, China, in the tournament’s final match at HISS. The game remained scoreless until Webster tallied midway through the first period. It would be the only one of the Roos’ 32 shots to elude to Chinese goaltender Yang Yu. But Ezzy made the lead hold up, stopping all 36 shots he faced to secure the gold medal.

Next year, the Australians will face an uphill climb to avoid relegation back to Division II. The Aussies will compete in Group A of the 2009 IIHF Division I World Championships in Vilnius, Lithuania. The gap between a top Division II team and even a mid-level Division I squad is wide. The Mighty Roos will likely find it tough to compete among the likes of recently demoted Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Japan, Croatia and the host Lithuanians.

But Australian culture is all about living in the moment. The Mighty Roos and the clubs of the AIHL are basking in the celebration of 100 years of Australian hockey and have had plenty of reason to rejoice this year.

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