Melbourne Ice team manager Tom Harward walks out from the players’ tunnel and approaches the rink pointing to his watch. Practice was supposed to start 15 minutes ago for his club, but their adversary, the Melbourne Mustangs, are still on the ice preparing for the upcoming derby.
Mustangs forward Sean Jones hurtles one last slap shot across the rink as his team begins to head towards the change rooms. The puck makes contact with the usually indestructible plexiglass and it shatters into pieces that spill onto the rink.
Melbourne Ice isn’t practising tonight.
Despite having some amazing talent playing to packed crowds in modern arenas across the country, the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) is still a fragile, semi-professional competition where nothing seems to come easily. People are overworked and mostly unpaid. Teams share rinks and battle for precious ice time. There’s not much glamour here.
Although practice has been cancelled due to the broken glass, 18-year-old Ice rookie Mitchell Bonollo leaves Docklands’ O’Brien Group Arena on Thursday night in a joking mood.
“Smashing the glass was part of their game plan,” he says, “but we came here an hour early for a team meeting before practice so at least we were able to do some preparation still.”
O’Brien Group Arena has been home to Melbourne Ice since construction was completed in 2010. For the eight years prior to that, home had been a ramshackle skating centre in Oakleigh.
The arrival of the Docklands rink represented a dramatic step forward for ice hockey in Melbourne. When the Mustangs joined the AIHL in 2011, they began to share facilities with the Ice in order to minimise costs for both clubs, as well as the league. As such, when the glass doesn’t break, both teams train on rink one at O’Brien Group Arena on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Bonollo first saw the Mustangs play as a child. His family had come for a public skate on rink two, the adjacent public skating rink, and he was soon hooked.
“They ran some ‘come and try’ sessions for ice hockey which I did and wound up loving it,” he says.
The AIHL consists of eight teams across Australia, and though the adrenaline flows during games and the teams bond on road trips, at best the league offers players the mirage of feeling like a professional athlete. For Bonollo, the rush of competing and the glory of winning quickly evaporates on Sunday nights.
“It can be hard being semi-professionals and not getting paid,” he says, “but we’re still doing this and putting our body on the line before starting our jobs again at 6am on Monday. We’re getting close to the end of the season and a lot of us are getting exhausted.”
“Between working, late-night training and then going away and coming home every weekend, it takes its toll, but we love it.”
Former Age journalist Will Brodie literally wrote the book on the AIHL. ‘Reality Check’ documents the ups and downs experiences by the two Melbourne clubs during the 2014 season. He found it a thrilling, yet under-appreciated piece of the Australian sports calendar.
The book reveals just what happens on road trips, examines some often bizarre pre-game rituals and decodes a language seemingly unique to hockey players.
“For that 48 hours they get to feel like professionals,” he says. But then comes the fall. “I call it Sunday night sadness.”
“I remember sitting at Canberra airport with the Ice team,” he says, “and everyone’s really flat after losing one and winning one. I asked the coach at the time what the matter was and he responded ‘tomorrow we go back to the real word.’”
Brodie believes the future should be bright for ice hockey in Australia. In recent years, big-time sponsors such as Air Canada have taken notice, social media chatter has grown strong and games are being televised nationally. For now, though, the reality is the league’s viability remain very much in doubt.
“It’s still more lucrative for arenas to have public ice skating,” Brodie says. “They make much more money selling a few hundred tickets to public skaters than they do selling seats to the hockey games.”
Adding to the product’s woes, a behind-the-scenes power-play is on between the AIHL and Ice Hockey Australia (IHA), and it’s left the league in a perpetual state of jeopardy.
“There’s a lot of good people on both sides volunteering their time for the sport that have completely different ideas on how to run things,” Brodie says.
The IHA, which runs the national team and organises local competitions and camps, has announced its intention to terminate a memorandum of understanding with the AIHL and form its own national league.
“It (the AIHL) could have imploded while I was writing the book in 2014, but it didn’t,” Brodie says. “It would be a real shame if anything happened to this league, so you’d hope they find a way to use each others’ strengths to help the sport grow.”
A cable television deal with Fox Sports in 2014 brings one nationally-televised game per week to fans across the country. This exposure has been instrumental in helping the league attract sponsors and grow the supporter base.
One of those fans is James Morgan, who loves the game so much he founded the company that produces the AIHL broadcast for Fox Sports. The ratings may not be great, but the exposure is invaluable.
“That the AIHL is shown on Fox Sports is no accident,” he says. “The AIHL has no ability to convince a free-to-air broadcaster that they are able to generate the type of viewership that would make it worth a broadcaster’s airtime.”
“Let’s be honest with ourselves. A lot of this sport is played in rinks with haphazard setups of netting around the boards instead of glass. Our players mostly play it for the love of it. Our administrators do it for the love of it and it’s usually in front of a fanbase that numbers in the hundreds.”
Going forward, the challenges facing the AIHL are many. But judging by the passion shown by the players, coaches, ticket sellers, volunteers and fans, it will have a future, and an exciting one at that.
Go to www.theaihl.com to learn more about the league or grab a copy of Will Brodie’s ‘Reality Check’.