AIHL wrap

Sonic boom explosions, urgent announcers, fireworks, pumping music, fake snow, flashing lights, sirens. The North American sport experience came to Hisense Arena Friday night, and organisers of the Douglas Webber Canada v USA ice hockey exhibition series spared no effort in their effort to entertain the sellout crowd.

In between the showbiz presentations, the best array of professionals to play in Australia, led by NHL stars Kyle Quincey and Erik Kondra, strutted their stuff. And when they did so, newcomers to the sport would have heard some other compelling sounds.

Ice hockey is a spectacular game, visual in the extreme, and the eye chases the puck and tries to predict the shape of the play as it surges up and down the ice. But it is an intimate spectator experience, and fans rinkside hear the scouring of skates on ice, the clattering of sticks on ice and body, the slamming and rattling as bodies hit each other and the boards, the satisfying slap of a stick receiving a crisp pass or smacks a perfectly timed shot, and even some of the yelps and barks of the players and referees.

Even in the 9000 seat Hisense Arena fans were swaying with the swerves and feints, and sitting bolt upright at the shots and saves.

The crowd was overwhelmingly supporting Canada, and responded warmly to much of the pyrotechnics, however, through the first two periods, the on-ice action had the air of an All Stars match, showcasing virtuosity but not the crisp teamwork and fierce competitiveness which marks the ever-improving Australian Ice Hockey League. The loudest cheers had been for an obligatory, ‘WWF’ style fight at the end of the first period, and the appearance of diminutive four to ten-yen-year old hockey devotees on ice during the second intermission.

But pit Canada against America in a hockey match, and inevitably, the sporting contest will take precedence. The intensity of the contest increased markedly in the final period, as the pickup-up teams became accustomed to each other, and the USA team, led by as much as four goals for most of the game, began a comeback to get within a goal. Ice hockey is the national sport, and obsession of Canadians, and they were audibly anxious in the last few minutes. The Canucks duly saluted 11-9, thanks to en empty net goal in the final minute, and most patrons seemed pleased enough by the experience to suggest the rumoured expansion of the concept could prosper.

Hisense Arena catering, perhaps accustomed to a more genteel pop show or tennis clientele, struggled to cope with demand, long queues in evidence all night. Management now knows that hockey fans are a thirsty lot. And a last minute glitch with the drop-in ice rink meant the iconic Zamboni ice-cleaner could not be used, which led to some ingenious last minute improvisation featuring an oversized golf cart, what looked like Bunnings irrigation pipes and a set of cleverly rigged towels. In true showbiz tradition, the show went on.

The show goes on tonight again at Hisense, then next week in Sydney, where the 20,000 seat Allphones Arena has also been sold out.

The series was a success before Collingwood footballer Tyson Goldsack dropped the first puck, having sold out in February, permanently postponing a proposed marketing blitz. It has proven that there is a bigger than expected market for the skilful, physical sport in football-mad Australia.

The series is a commercial enterprise, but also a promotion for concussion awareness, and the sport itself. Co-promoter Kerry Goulet, 54, runs the stopconcussion杭州夜生活m site devoted to improving awareness of the dangers of incorrect treatment of head trauma injuries.  An ex-hockey star who suffered severe concussions, and co-authored a book on the subject, Goulet has wrangled the talent and hosts proceedings, offering rinkside commentary with local referee and game caller Stephen White.

“The bottom line is we want to grow the game and the only way you can grow the game is by allowing the players to showcase their talents to the young boys and girls that maybe have the dream,” Goulet said Friday morning.

He hopes to “spark the seed” which may create future Australian NHL stars.

Despite a long history in Australia, ice hockey lacks the infrastructure of many other hockey nations. The opening of the Icehouse in Melbourne’s Docklands has helped the sport grow exponentionally in Victoria in the past three years, but it remains one of only two remaining rinks hosting ice hockey in Victoria.

Goulet says the comparative lack of resources makes spreading the hockey gospel in Australia “that much more exciting” for himself and the players. He hopes such exhibition games help create a “groundswell” of youngsters who go away saying ‘I want to play this game… it’s fast, it’s dynamic… and up close and personal’.

The players taking time out of their off-season to take part in the tour are enthused by the opportunity to be hockey missionaries.

“It’s on all our bucket lists to come to Australia. And to come here and play hockey and have an experience with a great group of guys and have some great fans watch us, it’s going to be so special… the fact that it’s in Australia is an added bonus for us,” USA’s Mike Testwuide said Friday morning.

“You’re not going to have those sort of opportunities for the rest of your life… you’ve pretty much got to jump on it,” Canada’s Ryan O’Marra said.

Most of the players know that there is a growing league in Australia, and some have friends who played in the AIHL. The Australian Ice Hockey League has thrown its support behind the series, hoping to leverage more awareness for its burgeoning competition. It features imports a notch or two below the status of most on offer in the Douglas Webber Cup, and is played in humbler rinks, but the games are passionately contested, and has grown enough to attract Fox Sports as a broadcaster.

A proposed second rink in Melbourne, currently undergoing feasibility studies, could eventually offer the league a finals crowd approaching that at these events. The outstanding turnout at the Douglas Webber Cup helps foster such dreams.

It remains to be seen how many of the 38,000 people attending the matches will be converted to the sport after the experience. Many are baked-on hockey nuts already, ex-pats indulging some nostalgia.

But many will be curious first-timers, locals.

And the reaction of Australian sports-lovers after their first game of hockey is often: ‘How long has this been going on?’

The answer is: over 100 years.

But Australia has never seen talent at the level on offer in these showbiz events, and its local product has never been finer or more keenly contested.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.