Looks like the Die By The Blade community took really well to the idea of supporting an Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) team during this upcoming summer. Lots of you had questions about what 'Aussie-Rules' hockey looked like, so we sought out a prominent AIHL blog and shot them a few questions.
Before we get into that though, the last game of the Australian hockey preseason was on Saturday afternoon Sydney time, which is a mere 14 hours ahead of Eastern Seaboard time. The Wilson Cup was being contested between Sydney Ice Dogs and Sydney Bears, and the final score was 3-1 to the Bears.
We spoke wth Hockey Down Under, which looks to be a community blog with contributors across the league. The aptly named Stats Man expertly fielded our questions. He's probably still working off the effects of celebrating Australia beating bitter rivals New Zealand 6-2 in an IIHF Div. IIB qualifier, but feel free to ask more in the comments below and we'll forward those on to him as well.
DBTB - Tell us about the growth of ice hockey in Australia.
HDU - The growth of Ice Hockey in Australia has been difficult to track, as the main guide we have at the moment is social media 'likes' and engagement. At the moment, the league has just over 20,000 likes - which is under 1% of the Australian population. There has been growth, slow and steady though, with the league's biggest hurdle being facilities - as many of our facilities have netting, not glass. We are currently on pay TV (Foxtel) - however viewership is less than impressive. Livestreams only operate out of Melbourne, Newcastle and Canberra, with many games being on a 4 to 5 day delay to feature on a condensed 60 minute slot on Foxtel.
We are growing, steadily, but soon the league will be limited by it's lack of infrastructure and the fact that it's volunteers and players are overworked and given little to no compensation for their time.
DBTB - How are kids being attracted to the game? Is it available in schools' sports programs?
HDU - Currently, there is no real attraction to kids other than leagues made exclusive to those under certain age brackets - with programs varying from rink to rink. Ice Hockey Australia has created the Australian Junior Ice Hockey League, in an attempt to give young players a stage to feature and develop their skills, however interest is minimal and players up to 21 can participate due to a lack of young players being available, and a limited number of families who can afford to play.
DBTB - Is the NHL widely available on televisions across the country?
HDU - The NHL is limited to two kinds of people: those who pay for NHL.tv / Gamecentre, and those who seek the 1 or 2 games featured on Foxtel per week (which only caters to a few teams). The NHL, however, is popular in Australia - as we rank as the 2nd largest consumer in the world of Gamecentre (outside North America) and also rank fairly high in merchandise sales.
DBTB - In what ways is the AIHL different from the NHL?
HDU - The AIHL, unlike the NHL, is IIHF sanctioned - meaning we run on "World Cup" style rules, so 20 man rosters are permitted and there are various rule changes. We are also limited in ice time, with games being a 15-15-20 structure; opposed to the 20-20-20 structure. Our league also does not feature an "affiliate" league - so there is no feeder teams or "call-ups" or assigning players elsewhere.
The AIHL is also severely financially handicapped compared to the NHL, as the AIHL only makes money during AIHL Playoff games and does not take a cut of ticketsales or merchandise sold.
DBTB - Do you have many international players in the AIHL?
HDU - The AIHL thrives on international players. Each team is permitted 6 "import" players, with only 4 being allowed per team per game, with an import being someone who does not hold Australian citizenship/residency. So players who have been in Australia a while can actually be classed as local, permitted they gain citizenship. Each year, there is a frenzy to sign the best 'imports', while also trying to have enough depth from your local players to successfully compete for the Goodall Cup.
DBTB - What do you see as the future of ice hockey in Australia?
HDU - Ice Hockey in Australia is dependent on a few factors; such as the board of directors assigned, the management teams of each club, the facilities available and most importantly - money.
Under current Commissioner, Robert Bannerman, the league has seen steady growth - not taking too many risks, which guarantees that we don't risk collapse due to trying to exist beyond our means.
A lot of criticism has been thrown the league's direction, however they have served their stakeholders well by ensuring the product remains in existence, rather than threatening our future by expanding too rapidly. There is interest in hockey, as it used to feature on free-to-air TV back in the 70's or 80's.
DBTB - And a big question from one of the fans - is there fighting?
HDU - There is fighting, however it is rare. Fighting is met with an immediate game ejection and one game suspension, per IIHF standards. Most recently, Viktor Gibbs Sjodin dropped the mits with infamous tough guy, Kevin Harvey.
A big thank you to Stats Man for his time and insight.