A finals weekend for the ages.

So, in the end, my team lost and I was sad, but if you move past that, the AIHL weekend of finals was pretty remarkable. Two nail-biting semi-finals and then a final, between the Newcastle North Stars and Melbourne Ice, that transcended both of them.

If you wanted to convince people that hockey is a sport worth watching in this footy-obsessed land, then the weekend would have been a great place to start.

Newcastle's moment of victory. Pic: Nicko

Newcastle’s moment of victory. Pic: Nicko

The final was brilliant. I used to be a boxing writer and standing on the glass, at my usual spot just next to the deliberately-punned Bell End, I was mostly struck by the similarities of this match to a great boxing bout.

Melbourne Ice was the complete team: a strong mix of locals and imports, who trust one another, play strong systems and have been at the top of the league for what, in sports terms, is forever. What was always going to be a vacuum after the astonishing Goodall Cup three-peat of 2010-11-12, has been followed by a narrow semi-final loss in 13, and then back to back losing finals in 2014-15. So close and yet not quite.

A former Ice player wrote to me on Friday night, saying he didn’t believe that Ice coach Brent Laver got enough press as one of the best coaches in the land. The former player said Laver was an astonishingly great coach, and should be feted.

I don’t really know Laver, beyond watching his teams, but he has certainly done a great job of nursing the team through the post-Jaffa years; negotiating some changeroom-shaking personality clashes, politics, the inevitable decline of some stars, and the need to blood new players.

Ice captain Lliam Webster shows the joy and relief of beating Perth in Saturday's semi. Pic: Nicko

Ice captain Lliam Webster shows the joy and relief of beating Perth in Saturday’s semi. Pic: Nicko

Last year, the team was smashed in the final by the uppity Melbourne Mustangs, and looked a long way off the pace when it mattered in the season’s finale. But this year, the Ice saddled up again, solidly made the finals, held off a desperate Perth team, 1-0, in a tense semi-final and then shaped up to the undisputed heavyweight champion of the season, Newcastle.

Which, to continue my boxing analogy, is the big puncher, with an anvil in both gloves. Newcastle is a fighter that knocks opponents out. Witness the team’s semi-final when it started slowly and was suddenly down 3-0, on the wrong end of some silky, skilful Brave play. But the slugger wasn’t out and bam bam bam, from late in the second period, Canberra suddenly found itself on the canvas, probably still wondering how. Geordie Wudrick, the NHL-rated Canadian import, who had scored a ridiculous 91 points in 28 games this season, had a third period hat-trick to get Newcastle to Sunday. This was the opponent that the Ice faced in the final: a one-punch knockout machine.

And so it proved. Wudrick inevitably scored the first goal and seemed to be on the ice for 45 of the 60 minutes, as far as I could tell. Alongside him most of the time was another import, defenceman Jan Safar (56 points in 28 games).

The best hair of the final. In fact, nothing short of a skating shampoo commercial. Well played, sir. Well played.

The best hair of the final. In fact, nothing short of a skating shampoo commercial. Well played, sir. Well played. Pic: Nicko

Meanwhile, the Ice also rolled its top two lines, but was the fighter without an obvious knockout punch, relying instead on a strong peekaboo defence and the ability to land regular punches, even if not knockout shots. It seems to me – and I haven’t watched as many games this year as I usually would – that the Ice has maybe lost a percentage of scoring power since the glory days. There was no Wudrick-type in an Ice jersey to have your heart in your mouth every time he was on the ice.

In the end, Newcastle won in overtime, on a penalty shot that I still don’t quite understand, although people who know the game better than me all shrugged was a fair and brave call by the referee. It looked to me like Ice defender Todd Graham just tied up Newcastle’s Brian Bales on a breakaway, stopping Bales from even managing a shot, but the call was apparently tripping.

The beaten Ice team watch Newcastle receive the medals. Pic: Nicko

The beaten Ice team watch Newcastle receive the medals. Pic: Nicko

Any way you cut it, the best team all season won the final, and it was Newcastle’s first for a while so good luck to them.

My take-outs from drinking it all in from among the Ice army? In no particular order:

TOMMY POWELL

I think, as far as the Ice went, Tommy Powell might have been my MVP. I thought his desperation was fantastic and oh, wow, what a goal he scored to level the final after Wudrick had struck. Tommy plucked a high puck from the air, just before it sailed past the blue line, everybody else surging the other way, and suddenly Tommy was one-out against the goalie. It was like watching somebody load a shotgun, rack it and then shoot. Tommy was so calm and sent an absolute exocet past the poor netminder before he could move.

LLIAM WEBSTER

Sure, I’m biased because these guys are my coaches and friends, but I thought Lliam’s opening shift, as captain of the side, was outstanding. He launched off the bench as the second shift, playing wing, and was everywhere, filling the rink and shrinking space for the Newcastle stars. He never stopped all day, even to the point of taking a professional penalty to stop Newcastle scoring deep in the third, only to see them score on the power play. And, as per last year, Webster showed his character by staying on the ice, applauding the victors, beyond requirements. Classy.

OH, THAT LAST ICE GOAL!

A stadium of Ice fans in despair, barely any time left, goalie pulled, a goal down, all hope lost, and then somehow Mitch Humphries was deflecting a shot past the goalie with 31 second left, to tie the game. I don’t think I’ve ever gone so nuts after seeing a puck hit the back of the net – even after one of the very few I’ve scored. Behind the glass was bedlam, and so much fun. Sure, not long after, we were also closest to the goal where Bales put away the penalty shot to win it, but that Humphries goal was an all-time happy memory.

THE OCCASION

Newcastle gear abandoned on the ice, after victory. Pic: Nicko

Newcastle gear abandoned on the ice, after victory. Pic: Nicko

I think the AIHL has to be a little careful with the final weekend. It’s always a great festival, but there is a danger to trying to become too slick, too professional, at the expense of the fans. I’ve seen so many sports go through these growing pains and it’s tricky. A crowd-funding campaign meant the finals were livestreamed, which was good, but I looked at Jaffa the ex-Ice coach dressed in a suit and tie, microphone in hand, and I looked at orange tape along the glass, with ‘media’ scrawled in Texta, where everyday fans have stood all year, and I looked at people with cameras being told that they shouldn’t be shooting because there were official league snappers, and I looked at the fact there were official or unofficial after-parties apparently happening at at least three different venues, instead of everybody coming together, and I just wondered if the organisers aren’t drifting away from the spirit of the event?

Obviously, the final shouldn’t be at some Seventies throwback rink with only 200 fans able to fit along the boards, and no technology, and no media coverage. We’re all blessed to have the size and facilities of The Icehouse, but there is a certain charm in the homespun, unpretentious amateur flavour of Australian hockey. I covered AFL for a long time, with its strict media rules and heavy-handed management. Please oh please don’t get suckered into becoming that, AIHL. If nothing else, consider this: why are the commentators on the live stream in snappy suits and ties? Just because ‘that’s what you do’? Why can’t hockey be different? And, more importantly, has the sport moved far enough that enthusiasts should be stopped from taking happy snaps in the stands and posting them on social media? Isn’t any coverage like that still golden for a growing sport looking for oxygen in the Australian sportscape? Food for thought.

IMPORTS

I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but there is  a danger that winning the Goodall Cup could just become a inter-club arms race regarding who has the most lethal imports. Maybe that horse has already bolted? Seven of the league’s top scorers this season were imports (only Melbourne Ice’s Tommy Powell made the list as an Australian-born player, at #7) with Wudrick dominating everything, and five of the top eight goalies were imports. How do we truly develop local players if they are sitting on the pine, watching ‘amateur’ imports on accommodation/travel/job/I don’t know what else packages log huge minutes? I worry for Australian-born players trying to get elite exposure. And please believe me, none of this is to detract from Newcastle’s win: they just had an amazing roster of imports (three in the league’s top eight), as per the rules, so well done them.

THE CURSE OF THE MOBILES

Mobile phones should be turned off as you walk into the rink. Look, I’m as big a phone fiend as anybody but for some reason, on Sunday, my mobile decided to have one of those days where it overheats and drains its battery for no real reason. Which meant I turned it off for the final, and therefore actually walked around with my head up, looking at the world. But sometimes I felt like I was the only one. Wandering along the back of the stand between periods, all I could see was a sea of bowed heads, and huddled shoulders, intent on mini screens. I felt suddenly sad for days of banter and discussion between the action, especially during such a draining and pulsating game as the final. I don’t know if I can stick to this but I’m going to try to turn my phone off whenever watching major sport from now on.

NOISY VISITORS

A fully committed Newcastle fan. Pic: Nicko

A fully committed Newcastle fan. Pic: Nicko

Man, during play, the Newcastle fans were loud, and enthusiastic. I was standing behind the glass for a lot of the final, at the Zamboni end, but it sounded to me like the local fans were consistently drowned out by the visitors. To try and rectify this, I went up into the stands in the second period, hollered: ‘Come on, Ice, let’s finish these bums!’ and earned a long, hard, sad, shake of the head from a Newcastle man. It was a textbook ‘I’m very disappointed in you’ headshake that my dad would have been proud of in his time. This was a headshake that said I’d let the sport down. I’d let the team down. I’d let my fellow fans down but, most importantly, Nicko, I’d myself down. I was so shaken that at the next face-off, I yelled: ‘Good luck, everybody from both teams’ but he didn’t even look at me.

I was already dead to him. Cold, man. Cold.

I’m in counselling for that but was able to keep track of the  bottom line which is this: amazing finals weekend, everybody. Bad luck, Melbourne, Canberra, and Perth. You all played mightily when it mattered. Newcastle, well done and well deserved.

How good is AIHL hockey?

Now, let’s bring on Spring. Let’s bring on Division 3 summer hockey. And let’s bring on the AFL finals with Richmond in the mix, and let’s bring on the NHL training camps.

Melbourne Ice, take a deep breath. You’ll be back and winning the whole enchilada and soon. You know it, and I know it.

Well played, North Stars. Pic: Nicko

Well played, North Stars. Pic: Nicko

 

Comments

  1. Great article, Nicko. You are on point with the suppression of photography/media and the imports arms race. Growing pains from a young league.

  2. Hi Nicko. Just some info on your comment about the domination of the import players and, yes, it is a balancing act and the AIHL have responded to this. A number of years ago, they reduced the number of imports that can be dressed for a game from 5 to 4 and, interestingly, it didn’t reduce the quality of the game. Perhaps in the future they may reduce this number again. In the 12 years I’ve been watching the AIHL I’ve seen the skills of the whole league improve incredibly fast and the imports have been integral in that.

    This is because the imports come to Australia not just to play in the AIHL but also to teach skills and techniques to the Australian players including, importantly, our junior players. I don’t know what other teams do but here in Newcastle our imports have always been heavily involved in training of our local juniors.

    For the record, our Australian-born players outnumbered the imports 3 to 1 and I would imagine that other teams would have a similar ratio. Of that, Newcastle fielded 6 players who were actually born in Newcastle or Lake Macquarie and all, bar our backup goalie, saw ice time in both games on the weekend in either the 2nd or 3rd line. Our local content is strenghtening and we hope will soon contest the local strength that longer established teams such as Ice and Adreneline have been able to rely on and I personally have been envious of.

    To finish, I agree with you that the AIHL has to be careful they they don’t lose that grassroots relationship that the teams and players have with their fans. That is one of the things that differentiates this national league from any other national league in Australia and is what attracts and keeps a lot of people coming back to the game. Having a direct relationship with a team, whether they win or lose, is a very special thing and something that the AIHL and team management must ensure isn’t lost as the League expands and grows.

    • Hiya Jane,
      Thanks for responding. As I said, I wasn’t singling out Newcastle. It’s a League-wide thing and, as a long-time Wednesday night student of Matt Armstrong and Jason Baclig (as well as locals Tommy Powell, Lliam Webster and Shona Powell (nee Green)), I know better than most how much imports can give back, and develop the game.
      I actually think the key going forward is how many minutes locals get. Whether in the AIHL or where I play in lowly summer div 3, if the star players play shift on, shift off, the ever-cooling-on-the-bench third and fourth line players are not going to progress.
      The final of my division a couple of years ago saw one team with a wildly talented Swede in the ranks, and the other had a gun Canadian. The two played on each other, more or less, for the entire game, on the ice more than off, and sure enough the final was won, 2-1, two goals to the Swede beating one to the Canadian, with all the other players, at my level, finding their way into the sport, playing a nil-all draw behind them.
      The ice didn’t run their fourth line on Saturday or Sunday, as far as I could tell, which is fair enough when you’re in a one-goal game, desperate to win. But it would be cool if all the lines had to roll, if the Wudricks of the world got a fair but not wildly enlarged slice of ice-time. Army, too. All the stars.

  3. Nicko, you’re echoing an argument that has been raging among AIHL fans since before I joined their midst. In the past, what I’ve said to those players who have lamented their lack of ice time is:

    ‘When you get out there make a difference, work your butt off and make the most of the time you’re out there. The coach will notice and you’ll get more ice time. Your job is to stop goals, tire the opposition and get them to make a mistake so the gun players (whether they be imports or senior local players) can pick them off and score.’ As junior players, not being scored on is as good an achievement as scoring a goal – you’ve kept your team in the game.

    I can tell you from my observation that the slowly but surely our local players are getting better and are getting more ice minutes. When I first started watching in 2003, when our third line went on I would cringe and barely be able to watch. Now, we’re seeing 3rd and 4th lines that can take it to the other teams, disrupt their plays and, on the occasion, score. Those times lift the roof at the HISS more than an import goal.

    In the past finals series, the Northstars have only ever played 2 lines in the finals, and since the 4 import restriction was brought in in 2009, never won a grand final because these two lines simply didn’t have the legs against those teams like Melbourne, Adelaide, Ice Dogs and Bears who run solid 3rd lines with local players. Consequently, the Northstars didn’t win a Goodall Cup until this year, and from my observation, one of the critical factor was that they ran their 3rd line and all those young local players played their part in preventing goals, disrupting plays and wearing down their opponent.

    Don’t underestimate the great local talent you have there in Melbourne. When I’m watching a game I’m just as wary when Powell, Baclig, Armstrong or Webster take the ice as I am of any of your import players – sometimes more because these guys know their opposition because they’ve been playing them for years.

    Don’t forget the AIHL is a young league fighting for recognition and sponsor dolllars in the massively competitve sporting market in Australia. The men that play in the AIHL do it for the love – they don’t get paid and have to work for a living outside of hockey. When comparing their skill and professionalism against other ‘professional’ sports in Australia, these guys are punching well above their weight.

    I’m looking forward to the day when the Australian Senior team can sit solidly in IIHF Division IIA and working their way up in IIHF standings. We are currently the highest ranked team derived from a purely amateur league. And it will be a golden moment for Australian ice hockey when Nathan Walker takes the ice in a regular season NHL game.

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