Last Wednesday, I walked into the St Moritz bar, looking down on the Henke Rink, at the Icehouse, and Jason Baclig was working behind the bar, which is probably not somewhere you would find Pavel Datsyuk if you were to hang out in Detroit during the Red Wings’ off-season.
As I waited for my glass of water (hey, dev league was an hour away; never let it be said I’m not committed), I complimented Bacsy on the fact he looked frighteningly fit – for a smallish guy, he’s got a lot of muscle at the best of times – and he said that yeah, the Melbourne Ice team was back in training in a big way.
But it turns out the No. 57 was onto some information I wasn’t: he’s set to become an Australian TV star this coming season. No wonder he’s pumping iron.
FoxSports has just announced that it will be screening one AIHL game each week, which is brilliant news for the local hockey competition, and has me already watching closely to see if Lliam Webster’s beard is just that little more coiffured, or whether Army’s head is bald and polished near game-time, from April.
In terms of landing sponsors and growing the sport even more, this is a brilliant development. Reading the press release from the Australian Ice Hockey League, it said:
“Ice hockey membership in Australia has grown more than 40% nationally since 2008, making it one of the fastest growing team sports in the country. Attendance at AIHL games has grown more than 25% each year since 2008. Many matches exceed 2,000 attendees, with many more watching online.”
Those figures are astonishing on lots of levels but especially for me, because they mirror exactly when I became interested in the sport. Have you ever had that zeitgeist experience? Where you start doing something – whether it’s wear a red hat around, or put chopper-style handlebars on your bike, or start studying an obscure language, and then notice other people wearing red hats, on bikes with the same bizarre handlebars, speaking in tongues? OK, maybe not to that extent, but this is the zeitgeist. (A book, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, does a great job of examining the moments and machinations that seemingly randomly explode something obscure into something not at all obscure.)
Anyway, it’s surprising to me that at the exact moment I got the flu, lay in bed, turned on the Stanley Cup finals for the first time ever, fell in love with the Red Wings, found out Melbourne had a team called the Ice, found out the Icehouse had just opened, found out you could take lessons, started lessons, started playing, corresponds almost exactly with a much wider explosion of interest in the sport. In Melbourne, a bunch of us who started lessons at more or less the same time two or so years ago called ourselves “The Rookies” and it seems we were riding a wave of deeper, broadening interest in hockey. I know there has been surprise among the original few at how many members the Rookies’ Facebook page now has; how many people keep flowing into the learner ranks. Hockey is booming. Maybe it is because of the tireless work of ex-player and Olympic committee veteran Geoffrey Henke, who now has the rink named after him? Maybe it was the Icehouse bringing a new level of facility (no offence, Oakleigh rink – you know I love you)? … I have no idea. But it’s happening and continues to grow and now it’s about to be a weekly feature on cable sports TV.
It should be noted that hockey and television haven’t always had an easy relationship. Legend has it that when the NHL tried to play hardball with an American TV network a few years ago, the network didn’t blink, as expected. The television execs instead politely excused themselves from discussions, and discussed what could replace the very-much fourth American sport as a TV option? Poker was on the rise at the time, and in TV terms, suddenly made a lot of sense. As against the expense of trying to have cameras all over a hockey stadium, where a puck is hard to see at the best of times, poker happens in one room, with a few geeks around a table, easy to light, easy to commentate. They dress like freaks, from Texan cowboy hats to upside down sunglasses, there’s high drama on the river and it’s possible to have women with low-cut cleavage in every second shot. (TV execs know their audience.)
Bam, before you could say ‘face-off’, the World Series of Poker was screening on sports cable instead of the NHL and boom, poker took off as a phenom, making global stars of the top players. In 2006, the situation reached its nadir with more American TV viewers watching a poker game than a Stanley Cup play-off between Carolina and New Jersey on a Saturday afternoon. A broadcast of surfing that led into that NHL game also out-rated the game itself. There are other examples too. On February 18, 2007, the Penguins versus the Caps (aka Crosby v Ovechkin) was out-rated by figure skating. And on April 1 that same year, two NHL play-off games, Detroit-Columbus and LA v San Jose, managed only a 0.71 rating, which was the lowest ratings anybody could remember, according to the definitive source that is Wikipedia.
Of course, they were the bad old days – all of six years ago. The landmark doco, ‘24/7’ leading into the annual Winter Classic, has been hugely successful, and NHL Gamecenter has made hockey a much more compelling and successful tv product. The AIHL is hitting the small screen at the right time, especially as the TV rights for AFL and NRL and other sports are going to become murkier in the years ahead.
I have no idea how well thought out a plan this has been, but one of the smartest things the AIHL has done, in my opinion (and, here, I feel an unusual need, on this blog, to offer credentials: see below, if you care*), is that local hockey has never sought to challenge the AFL or NRL for supremacy. Or A-League, for that matter.
I know it sounds ridiculous given the relative profiles of the sports, but trust me, it’s a mistake that has been made before by American sport. I was a sports journalist in the trenches when baseball and basketball tried to pitch their tents in a big way in the local sports scene, a couple of decades ago, more or less. (I even covered an underwhelming Aussie Bowl gridiron game between two NFL squads). Baseball in particular arrived with trumpets and fanfare and there was a lot of talk about how it would take over the nation, because, hell, it’s huge in America, right, so all those hokey local curiosities like Aussie Rules and, what’s that quaint little English sport again? Cricket? Yeah, they’ll make way. Baseball is here.
Guess what … it didn’t happen. I have nothing against baseball, and strangely quite a few of the local hockey crowd seem to have a background in baseball, but it turns out more than 100 years of Test cricket and AFL passion was a little harder to budge than expected.
I’ve been impressed that Australian hockey seems to know its level, if that doesn’t sound patronizing. The facilities, the crowds, the media coverage – it’s boutique. Several times last season, I wandered straight from a Richmond game at the MCG with 50,000 or so fans, to a Melbourne Ice game at the Icehouse. The two sports can and should co-exist. Many of the sensibilities of hockey naturally appeal to a footy fan: big hits, courage, speed, teamwork. I don’t know a single sports fan who has watched hockey for the first time live and been unmoved or unenthusiastic. But the very fact that the Henke Rink struggles to house 2000 fans says that hockey cannot currently hope to grow much beyond its current level until it has those extra rinks in Melbourne or other cities, with more capacity in the grandstands. But should the Mustangs start trying to book the Tennis Centre and put ice over centre court, ready for 20,000 fans? Probably not.
Hockey sits behind NFL, MLB and NBA in America. It’s always going to be a niche sport here, and as long as it remembers that, can thrive. In my humble what-do-I-know opinion, FoxSports is a brilliant start, finally moving hockey away from novelty slots on breakfast TV and weather-crosses, so that Australian sports fans can watch the real thing and fall in love. The challenge is to find where ratings and enthusiasm naturally sits.
One last thing on hockey’s sparkly new TV deal: I try hard not to get political on this blog because the endless politics that seem to rumble in the background of the sport can be profoundly boring and, anyway, the point of this blog was always to chart my own journey from guy flip-flopping around helplessly on rental skates to bad-ass hockey player (dodgy knee notwithstanding, it’s been a fun few weeks of Interceptor and dev league play, against teams full of mates, played with passion and commitment and smiles, as well as power-skating lessons with Zac, which I will write about more extensively once and if the trauma lifts).
But it needs to be said: I really hope the executives in the AIHL finally have the decency to buy Jason McFadyen and Shannon Swan of Resolution Media a drink, if not go all the way and throw them the street parade they deserve. Jason and Shannon are the guys who created, filmed, edited, entirely produced the 24/7-like documentary following the Melbourne Ice last season: The Ice: Road to 3Peat. (Still for sale – a brilliant series). Yes, I wrote some scripts at the last minute to help the voiceover, so I’m potentially biased, but my understanding (and I didn‘t hear this from Jason and Shannon) is that after the series screened, hockey officials gave the doco makers a hard time, largely because one league referee threatened legal action – feeling he had been slighted in a highly entertaining coach’s address (note to this faceless ref: I worked on the doco and I still don’t know who you are, and have no idea who that coach was referring to. Or to quote Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”)
Hockey officials also reportedly frowned and harrumphed that the doco didn’t always show hockey in a glittering PR light. The Gold Coast “facilities” were shown honestly, with no league-happy spin. I was close to charging AIHL headquarters, to shriek: “Can you not see what these guys have done for your sport, off their own bat, through sheer passion and storytelling?”
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the success of The Ice: Road to 3peat on FoxSports probably has a lot to do with the TV deal just announced.
Oh wait, my bad. Reading the AIHL press release again: “Commissioners from the AIHL approached FOX SPORTS with a proposal to increase viewership of NHL games and grow the grassroots ice hockey community. Airing AIHL games was the cornerstone of the strategy. The unique content will ultimately drive FOX SPORTS viewership as well as introduce audiences to the Australian ice hockey fraternity.”
Actually, that already happened. Audiences met the Australian ice hockey fraternity in all that fraternity’s glorious, slightly dysfunctional, passionate, committed, hilarious, brutal glory. Last year. In a self-made, self-funded labour of love that was the best national advertisement the sport could have hoped for. But apparently wasn’t recognised when the gift horse smiled from less than a metre away, waving and whistling and holding a sign reading: “YO! Gift horse!”
Alas, there is no mention of The Ice: Road to 3peat in today’s announcement. It would be decent if Jason and Shannon were finally recognized for their service to a sport they were barely part of when they started.
It’s not hard to find them, either. These days, I cross paths with them every Wednesday, as they have a beer in the St Moritz bar, fresh from Intro hockey class. Yes, they’re strapping on the skates, caught up in this crazy world we all love. Part of the zeitgeist, part of hockey’s community. Well played, boys.
* I was a professional sports writer for more than 20 years, off and on, across The Herald, The Sunday Herald, The Age and Sunday Age newspapers, working internationally as a tennis writer, as well as covering a lot of AFL, boxing and other sports, plus I wrote features and profile pieces for several magazines. I also worked as a sports writer and producer for the Seven Network for a decade, off and on. (My whole career has been off and on; some call it “impressive diversity”; I call it “short attention span”. ) Even now, in my day job, at Media Giants, we control and publish content for a bunch of major internet news sites, including Big Pond Sport and SBS and, for a while, created and published pretty much all the content for afl.com.au.