Wednesday, January 28, 2015 - Submitted by Will Brodie
Will Brodie, former hockey correspondent for Fairfax Media, is completing a book about the 2014 AIHL season, titled: REALITY CHECK: Travels in the Australian Ice Hockey League, due for release shortly. Here is a piece he wrote for theage.com.au which did not make the final cut, about the problem/opportunity facing AIHL imports. In the upcoming weeks, more excerpts and off-cuts from the book will be featured here at theaihl.com For more words and pictures from the project and to keep up to date with its progress, go to facebook.com/realitycheckbook and visit his website willbrodie.com.
You have come halfway around the world, there’s no money in it, and some of the rinks are colder and dingier than the worst you played on in juniors. You’ve just copped a puck to the face, a stick to the groin, an elbow to the neck, and you’re feeling them all. You’ve had three breakaways this period where the goalie was a wall and you can sense the chatter: “He’s not so good ... that import for ... (insert AIHL team’s name here) is better - he’s scoring two points per game.” The coach thinks you’re coasting, and you’re starting to wonder if he is right. Your team is not the juggernaut it was advertised to be and there are local kids not getting ice time who resent you. The team suits up a skeleton crew for road trips because guys can’t get off work or have to be with family or the club just can’t afford it, so you’re pulling triple shifts and getting hammered. You can’t complain about anything because everyone is a volunteer doing their best and without them there is no hockey at all here. Hardly anyone knows hockey exists in this big, forbidding country. They’re all obsessed with rugby or Aussie Rules, whatever that is. You’ve only glanced at the great beaches you know lurk at the edge of some of these big, busy cities. It’s so expensive. ‘Why did I come here?’ you ask yourself. You are sore and homesick and lonely.
This is the best thing you’ve ever done in your career, in your life. You didn’t even know there was hockey in Australia a few months ago, and here you are, travelling the country - in planes, not buses, like back home - and bonding with this great bunch of guys who put in like troopers despite being completely unpaid. Hell, some of them even pay to play. Once you showed you were down-to-earth and prepared to work hard, they accepted you like a brother. You’re having a ball on and off the ice with a bunch of mates you will keep for the rest of your life. The hockey is competitive and the support from the fans is passionate, you really want to bring home this championship; but it’s not life and death, everything is in perspective. The road trips are a hoot, with the guys super-relaxed in between games but super-focused when the time comes to play. You can have a beer and a laugh, and see Australia. You’ve stayed over in some towns a couple of times, and Thailand and New Zealand are a hop away. Some of the rinks are like a throwback to your childhood, dingy and rough, but that’s part of the romance of the whole thing. Would the stories you will tell at home be as good if all these teams played out of sterile barns? The atmosphere in Canberra was awesome. You’re having the time of your life, that bit of coaching you do is helping you meet lots of really friendly Aussies, and that footy game they took you to was nuts. There’s no money, but you don’t get treated like a piece of meat like in minor-pro. You can really settle into your team and make a contribution, and help hockey grow in this growing league. There’s a real sense of the sport going places here right now, and you’re doing your bit. You’re having so much fun you might see if there’s a way you can come back next year ...
The preceding two scenarios represent the extremes of the import experience in the AIHL. Every club now assesses character as much as talent when choosing their imports, a difficult job even in the days of Skype and YouTube. Playing as an import in the AIHL is, to a large extent, what the individual makes of it. Whether the person on the other end of the line is up to the challenge can’t really be known until they are living down under. There is pressure to perform in the AIHL, but nothing so troubling for players used to the brutal uncertainty of pro hockey, where even a well-performed player can be traded or cut at any time. However, these days, clubs want more than a star player. They want a role model, someone happy to teach as well as play, as good off the ice as on. They need someone who wants to embrace the Australian hockey experience, warts and all, as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The imports smart or humble enough to grasp Troy Robertson’s fundamental non-negotiable - that an import must earn respect, regardless of his reputation - get loyal support. Those who are aloof or seeking deference will have a less fulfilling six months. There are horror stories about wild imports who did not cope with their comparatively humble stature in Australia. With the league becoming more demanding of its participants, dissolute party animals now need not apply. An ideal import is talented yet humble; unselfish but self-reliant; mature but fun; dedicated and gregarious. Little wonder that the players who enjoy their Australian hockey experience have a big impact. They’re pretty special individuals.
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