DOCKLANDS, Australia -- When the Kaurna Boomerangs left Adelaide, Australia, in January of 2020, bound for a hockey tour against First Nations teams in Northern Alberta, it was a bit of a shock to the system for the Aboriginal team based in South Australia.

"I think we left at 42 degrees and arrived at minus-50," Marie Shaw said, laughing, with 42 degrees Celsius equaling 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was an adventure, a test, an expansion up of the world for the kids on the Boomerangs, a six-year-old team based out of Adelaide that is a branch of the Ice Factor ice hockey program set up by Shaw in 2005. It was a way for them to play against other indigenous teams, a way for them to share their culture with similar cultures in Canada.

It was exactly what the program was designed to do.

As Shaw said, "It's not too much the hockey itself, it's more the doors that open."

Three years later, with the NHL in Melbourne, Australia for the first time for the 2023 NHL Global Series -- Melbourne with the Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings set to play on Sept. 23 and 24 at Rod Laver Arena, the Boomerangs are a thriving program that has helped dozens of at-risk kids who might otherwise have been left behind.

On Thursday, the team got on the ice with Alex Kerfoot and Nick Bjugstad of the Coyotes and hockey analyst Anson Carter at O'Brien Icehouse, presenting them with Aboriginal art and receiving a donation of equipment from NHLPA Goals & Dreams. The Boomerangs were scheduled to attend the open practice for the teams Friday and slated to participate in the pregame festivities and play a scrimmage at intermission of the game between the Coyotes and Kings on Saturday. That game, like the one on Sunday, is at 12 a.m. ET, and will air on NHL Network and ESPN+ in the United States, Sportsnet and Sportsnet+ in Canada, and 9Go, 9Now, ESPN and the ESPN App in Australia.

It's a new frontier for a team that has already helped so many.

"It's a program designed to have kids who are slightly disengaged or having issues at school just somewhere to have a bit of an outlet," said Justine Ruffino, the team's head coach. "A lot of these kids [are from] low socio-economic areas, feeling sort of misunderstood. It gives them a good social context, a good team environment and a nice aggressive sport to get some of that heat out."


* * * * *

Marie Shaw had had an easy time with her first two children, but her third proved more of a challenge, a kid who had ADHD and dyslexia, who struggled to read and write. She had been through four different schools by the time she turned nine.

That was Ruffino.

It was at nine that Ruffino first watched the movie that would alter the course of her life, her mother's life, and the lives of the kids who would follow.

"The Mighty Ducks."

Ruffino was captivated.

"I guess what I was really searching for was a way to get my energy out," she said. "I really liked 'The Mighty Ducks.' I really liked the idea of it. I really liked the speed. I really liked the underdog aspect.

"I went and tried [hockey]. It just calmed me down. That was the effect it had on me. And when I was calm, I was focused and when I was focused, I was found to actually be quite smart, which was to the surprise of a lot of people."

In Australia, a continent that loves rugby and cricket and Australian rules football, ice rinks are few and hockey players uncommon. But Ruffino thrived in the sport, getting to compete against future NHL player Nathan Walker.

"It definitely opened up the world for me, in many different aspects," she said.

When Ruffino was 12, the sole ice arena in South Australia -- the southern central portion of the country -- was about to close. It wasn't making any money in a place where temperatures can soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The sporting associations, including figure skating, broomball and ice hockey, approached Shaw.

"My daughter's 12. Ice hockey is her lifeblood," Shaw said. "It's what makes her tick. Of course, I'd do anything to keep the ice arena going."

They formed a nonprofit and, after much wrangling, got the lease of the ice arena, saving it.

She noticed, though, that the ice was largely unoccupied during the day. So, she figured that if they weren't making money on the ice being available, they might as well give it away.

But schools weren't interested. Equipment was scarce and expensive in Australia, and it wasn't in the budget. And then a case came before Shaw, an indigenous man who had used boxing to engage Aboriginal youth. She wondered if hockey might do the same.


* * * * *

They started from zero, back in 2005. The goal was for them to learn how to play in eight weeks, starting with learning how to skate, to be ready for a game at week nine. The first team named themselves the Reapers, a reference to the Grim Reaper.

But hockey was only part of the plan. The goal was to teach the kids so much more: persistence, respect, unselfishness, sacrifice, communication, trust. And in the ninth week, they played Ruffino's Learn to Skate team, the Ducks, with the governor of South Australia there to congratulate them after.

"That was how the idea came up, essentially using my daughter's experience and the benefit to her from ice hockey, the way it turned her life around," Shaw said. "Can we apply this to other children who are disengaged, for whatever reason?"

From that, the number of teams mushroomed.

"Our program is about all of those that don't have the advantages of circumstance or family," Shaw said. "We're a program that's not about ice hockey, per se, it's about helping young people find themselves and be the best at what they do."

It was then, in 2017, that the Boomerangs started, when Shaw was approached by two Aboriginal boys who had been through the Ice Factor program. They knew the difficulties facing Aboriginal people in Australia, including an overrepresentation in prisons, like the 29.5 percent of the adult prison population which is Aboriginal, according to data from the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

They wanted a team of their own.

It was a cause near to Shaw's heart, having been chair of the Criminal Law Committee and currently president of the Bar Association in South Australia. She believed that involving kids deeply in sports would keep them on track, in school and out of the court system. The hockey was predicated on the schooling, on the players attending classes, on their grades being up.

The kids named the team, designed the logo, forming the Kaurna Boomerangs, coached by Ruffino.

The team was sourced from the 20 schools that participate in the Ice Factor program and became Australia's first all-indigenous ice hockey team. Shaw told them if they could make it work, if they could produce results, she'd get them to Canada to play hockey.

They made it in January of 2020, journeying to North America just before the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and finding those well-below-zero temperatures.

They played against members of the Cree nation in Calling Lake and Maskwacis in Alberta, saw an Edmonton Oilers game at Rogers Place and participated in cultural exchanges, along with the hockey.

"These guys [got] to experience First Nations culture in Canada and learn that so much of their culture is mirrored in the Aboriginal culture in Australia," Shaw said. "[They saw] the benefits of self-worth and pride in their culture."


* * * * *

There was the girl who came to the Boomerangs with cuts all over her leg, which Shaw found out were self-inflicted. There is the boy on home detention with an ankle monitor. There are the kids who cannot read or write or both. These are the kids who have found Ice Factor, which found them in turn.
Which gave them hope.

"I'm well aware and understand the shame these kids feel because of their circumstances," Shaw said. "And that shouldn't be a millstone around their neck."

They worked to instill a sense of belonging, a sense of discipline, worked on conflict resolution and how to speak to people, the responsibility of showing up for training on time. Ruffino saw those tenets blossom in the lives of the players she has coached, the lessons spilling out from the ice into their everyday.

"In ice hockey, we expect you to fall down. The more times you're falling down, it means the harder you're trying," Ruffino said. "We really promote this idea of failure is good. You learn nothing from winning. You learn everything from failing."

Ruffino remembered a big tournament they had, one that left her needing some time off. She and her husband considered an eight-week break, just to reset.

A player came to her.

"He said, 'Coach, if we take eight weeks off, I'm going to get in trouble,'" Ruffino said. "I said, 'What do you mean, in trouble?' He said, 'I need this, I need to be able to come every week, I need to be able to come to training, otherwise I'm going to get in trouble at school.'"


Her approach includes some tough love, and a sense of responsibility to the team. She does not tolerate trouble, disrespect, and there are consequences if that is breached.

"For me it's about education," Shaw said. "It's not about the hockey. It's about getting these kids to go to school, getting their education and being good people.

"That's our goal: We want you to be a good person. We want you to be a strong person. We want you to believe in yourself. That's the center point of the whole program."

* * * * *

Back in 2015, then-NHL players Kyle Quincey and Zenon Konopka were among a group of hockey players who went to Australia for the 2015 Ice Hockey Classic, when teams from the US and Canada played throughout the country.

"They wanted to do something and leave something behind," said Matt Langen, the senior manager of community relations and Goals & Dreams at the NHL Players' Association.

They were introduced to Shaw and to Ice Factor.

Now that the NHL is returning to Australia, it was an easy call to make another donation, part of the more than $26 million in equipment that Goals & Dreams has given to more than 80,000 kids in 35 countries over the past 20 years. In total, they will donate 50 sets of equipment while in Australia, with the Boomerangs getting a portion of that equipment.

"To be on the ice with these kids and actually see some of this firsthand, a lot of these kids are pretty good," Kerfoot said. "Giving equipment or giving money is one thing, but to be able to spend time with the kids and see what all that work is going towards is pretty special."


While on the ice on Thursday, the team came together to make their own presentation to the NHL players, with 15-year-old Nyre Coffee explaining an Aboriginal artwork flag and a painting that she had made for them. Bjugstad said the Coyotes would be hanging the flag in their locker room as motivation.

It was a moment both sides said they would treasure.

"It's something that I'm going to hold to myself for a long time," said Coffee, who started playing hockey about 10 months ago. "I made the artwork for a cultural exchange, for sharing my culture with [the players]. They're taking home a bit of our country back and will look back at it and think, 'Wow, this is an amazing country to go to.'"

For Coffee, like so many of the kids, the Ice Factor and Kaurna Boomerangs programs have meant the world, have meant the difference between staying in school and not, between getting an internship and a step up in life, between confidence and doubt.

"We have a commitment on the team, not just on the team, but off ice," Coffee said. "With Ice Factor and Kaurna Boomerangs, it gives us something to strive for in life. We have gotten opportunities for internships, more opportunities to stay in school because a lot of us have issues with staying in school and these programs help us stay and improve in our lives. It's just something that we're all grateful for and we all enjoy."

It's about helping more kids the way hockey helped Ruffino, who eventually went on to get three degrees and who now works with kids with ADHD and dyslexia as a speech pathologist. It's about taking the dream sparked by "The Mighty Ducks" -- which is still required viewing for the kids in the program -- and expanding it and handing it over to another generation.

"It really is a way to save [kids]," Shaw said. "It's saved every one of these kids. It's saved 6,000 kids in the last 20 years. Saved them."

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