Hockey is still in its infancy in Australia, but there’s a sense it could be a good growth opportunity for the game. A recent exhibition series between Canadian and American professional players sold out mid-sized to large venues, including a 20,000-spectator turnout in Sydney. The local semi-pro league has a national TV deal and Australians are sports fanatics, particularly of games that are fast and aggressive. All they need now is ice.
Is Australia ready for NHL hockey? Don’t laugh. It might not be as far-fetched as you’d think.
Kerry Goulet, the brains and brawn behind the awareness and charitable organization
stopconcussions.com, has returned from his second exhibition tour of the nation and has been blown away by the support the games have generated. All matches on the four-city swing this summer were sold out, including a 20,000-fan throng at Allphones Arena in Sydney. Smaller venues in Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne were also jam-packed. And it wasn’t a cheap ticket; seats ranged in price from $74-$230 in Sydney.
What the spectators witnessed were teams of Canadian and American professionals, most of whom toil in the AHL and ECHL, doing battle for their countries on an exhibition scale.
Emerson Etem of the Anaheim Ducks and
Ian Cole of the St. Louis Blues added an NHL flavor to the rosters, while Keith and Wayne Primeau were on hand for part of the tour as goodwill ambassadors. For the record, Team USA won the series 3-2, pulling out an overtime victory in Game 5.
Goulet, who carved out his professional hockey career in Germany, said promoter Douglas Webber Group put on a world class event, creating a spectacle replete with fireworks, pyrotechnics and spectacular video. “The opening ceremonies were like nothing you’d ever seen before,” Goulet said. “Emerson Etem said to me, ‘Gouche’, this is the greatest experience I’ve ever had at a game.’ It was rock star-ish. By the time the puck dropped, the place was going crazy.” For Goulet, the venture provides a chance to raise money and awareness for his cause. With the help of NHL Goals and Dreams, they also helped to outfit local underprivileged children with hockey gear and got them started in a new sport. For the players, it’s an opportunity to broaden their horizons, train at a high level in a first-rate environment, spread the hockey gospel and give something back. Hockey in Australia, while still finding its legs, is in growth mode. Nathan Walker, a Welsh native who grew up and developed in the land down under, became the country’s first legitimate NHL draft pick when the Capitals selected him 89th overall this June. There’s a semi-pro league (
Australian Ice Hockey League) with eight clubs featuring a combination of imports and homegrown talent, with the level of play similar to a low minor professional league in North America. The AIHL has had a national broadcast deal in place with Fox Sports since 2013, an arrangement under which the carrier airs a Game of the Week throughout the season. Infrastructure, at the grassroots level, remains a significant challenge. Sydney, for example, has two rinks to serve a population of four million. And the nation’s climate isn’t conducive to outdoor facilities. On the other hand, Aussies are rabid sports participants and followers, and are typically drawn to aggressive, fast and intense endeavors. Think Aussie Rules Football and rugby. That, plus the Canadian ex-pat community, helped drive attendance for the stopconcussions.com tour. Goulet said the AIHL welcomed them warmly and that the team in Perth, for one, saw a turnstiles’ spike after the Canadian-American exhibition raised awareness and curiosity for the sport. For its part, the NHL says it hasn’t made any formal queries to host exhibition or Premiere Series-type contests in Australia. But Goulet wouldn’t be surprised if they did at some point in the not-too-distant future. He said the reception and the buzz in the community – there were six video cameras and 12 reporters on hand from across the country – lead him to believe the country would embrace hockey with a bear hug. “The dynamics are there for the NHL to at least take a peek,” Goulet said. “This is a country that lives and breathes sport. If the NHL ever decides to venture out again (beyond North America), I could see them doing it in an exotic venue like this.”