Melbourne Mustangs players celebrate a goal during the 2022 AIHL season. (Photo: Melbourne Mustangs/Facebook)

The Melbourne Mustangs will hold a 10-year alumni reunion event on Saturday, March 4 after COVID interrupted the club’s original plan to celebrate the decade milestone in 2020.

It will be a chance for former and current players, sponsors and fans to come together and celebrate 10 years of amazing hockey which included winning the 2014 Goodall Cup as champions of the Australian Ice Hockey League.

There will be fan favourites and familiar faces filling up the O’Brien Icehouse Arena in acknowledgment of a club that has now embedded itself within Melbourne and Australian ice hockey culture since hitting its first puck back in 2010.

“We had originally planned this 10-year celebration for 2020 however with the outbreak of COVID this was halted like so many other things,” President John Belic told The Inner Sanctum.

“So, to finally and somewhat belatedly be able to mark the milestone and celebrate with all those who have been part of the journey and success of the club is absolutely wonderful.”

Melbourne Mustangs team photos over the years 2010, 2014, and 2022. (Photo: Melbourne Mustangs Facebook)

For a club that was stepping into a space where there was already a strong ice hockey presence with the Melbourne Ice, who had garnered terrific support from the local AIHL community.

It was a battle for the Mustangs to grab hold of the Melbourne ice hockey market and get a foothold in the city. To see how the Mustangs have been able to build an identity and culture year on year was something many at the club didn’t see in the initial vision when the idea to create the Mustangs was floated.

“I don’t think any of us foresaw how the club would evolve and develop,” Belic continued.

“At the beginning it was very much about providing opportunities for local players and the practicalities of funding, recruiting and running the club. We had to make a strong case to gain acceptance into the league [AIHL] which naturally included predictions about our future, how we would grow, generate fans and survive as a club.

“Seems we managed to carry out those objectives. Over the years, our collective journey, shared experience, the people involved, the fans who have taken us to heart and made us their own, the highs of winning and the pain of what could have been have become embedded in the club’s psyche.

“All those special moments and special people our shared memories our achievements are building the club’s history.”

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Coming from these initial beginnings and now being able to put on a night like this is something the Mustangs hold dearly. A list of players and coaching staff that included Goodall Cup winning coach Brad Vigon, captain and club champion Pat O’Kane, former Nashville Predators draft pick Viktor Gibbs Sjödin and well-renowned Canadian hockey coach Bill Wilkinson have all passed through the Mustangs corridors.

With Ty Wishart and Scott Timmins both former NHL draft picks and players headlining the current roster, the event itself has outgrown expectations from those at the club with the majority of past players returning to take part. Highlighting the culture and environment that people like Belic have been able to create and instil for over a decade.

“It is quite humbling to see the degree of passion shown toward the Mustangs by the hockey community and our tribe of fans and supporters,” Belic said.

“From what was originally anticipated as a simple club gathering and without knowing how many players would want to be a part of this event, the responses have been quite overwhelming. Almost every player available since we started will be playing in these games.

“From having one game between two small teams the event has grown into a mini tournament with three teams incorporating over 50 players. It seems quite clear that the players involved enjoyed their time with the club and especially time spent with their teammates and love the opportunity to play together once more.

“We have players travelling from Queensland, Darwin and even New Zealand to be here and bringing families with them. The event has also resonated amongst our fans, some of whom have not been able to come to games for some time but are embracing this opportunity to reunite with fellow Mustangs supporters and old acquaintances. We are ecstatic with the degree of enthusiasm this event has generated.”

One of the most exciting things the Mustangs are looking forward to when the alumni celebrations kick-off will be seeing many of the old faces that were in the stands every week cheering on the orange and black.

Some who might not be able to attend games regularly due to circumstances, however, the Mustangs are expecting close to a capacity crowd when the first puck is dropped.

“When the club began the emphasis was on providing a platform for young local players to showcase their talents and to provide opportunities and inspiration for juniors,” Belic continued.

“We always knew there was a serious commercial side to running the club, you could not avoid it. Costs to run the club are substantial and ongoing so we obviously needed to focus on building a supporter base and corporate partnerships. The degree to which the club has been adopted by so many people is the most inspirational part of all.

“Every year we do a pre-season presentation to players with expected standards of conduct on and off the ice. The most important part of that presentation is having all players understand who the important people are around the club. The players get to play the game they love in the best venue in the country in front of adoring fans, family and friends.

“The only reason that happens is because of a whole bunch of people that work together, the club is a collaborative effort by fans, members, sponsors, volunteers, committee and players. The message to players is when you see or interact with a fan or a sponsor, or volunteer or committee member be polite, friendly courteous and professional.

“Without our supporters, we don’t exist as a club. The club belongs to all of us and that’s how we have always run it, we are open and inviting and I think we provide something of value.

“I suspect we will have close to a full house tomorrow which would be a reflection of how much the club means to a lot of people and how much they all want to share in this celebration.”

Melbourne Mustangs 10-year anniversary logo. (Image: Melbourne Mustangs Facebook)

For John Belic who has been at the club since its inception and was part of the opening discussions when the idea of another AIHL club was floated, is quick to shy away from taking personal accolades and where the Mustangs stand today.

Quickly highlighting the years of service many people have given the Mustangs and still do all these years later. It’s why the Mustangs have been a success story in the AIHL and ice hockey here in Australia, keeping those core values that the club was built on from day one.

“It’s part of club folklore that the catalyst for a new clubs’ formation was a Browns National tournament where the need to have more Victorian players exposed to top-level competition was clearly evident,” Belic said.

“Along with Andrew McDowell and Steve Laforet, we lamented what should have been. I said we need another AIHL club, Andy [McDowell] said it should be called the Mustangs, Laforet, like a dog with a bone was calling daily to make it happen.

“So, while I formed the first committee and registered the club, the club itself was founded by a whole lot of people. All those who put in the hard work: Andy [McDowell], Lafs [Laforet], Alana Fennessy, Ross Carpenter and all those who have been working with the club and supporting ever since.

“Ebony Dwyer a volunteer since 2010 and still today, her dad Rick Dwyer also there from the start and until his sad passing. Stuart Coombs and the Young family sponsoring players since 2011, Naomi Druery, the Shortis family and Joyce sponsoring players over the last 8 years and MOAT sponsoring the club for 9 years.

“Team managers Ken McCoy and Mick Burslem with 8-year stints in the job, Vice president Rod Johns started in 2012 and still with the club as is Minuteman Press, Hamish Jones with a 7-year marketing role. Wez Holmes came to our first game in 2011 and has been with the club ever since.

“And the new generation of sponsors and committee like Sam and Chris Browne, now 6 years with the club and hopefully many more to come.

“It is one thing having an idea and maybe even bringing it to fruition, but to achieve long-term sustainability and success requires a whole lot of passionate and dedicated people. I and the club are fortunately at the receiving end of these contributions.”

Melbourne Mustangs Alumni Tournament & Reunion is on Saturday, March 4 between 4-7pm at O’Brien Icehouse Arena.

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