This week, Saint John’s University ice hockey team will play a pair of exhibition games against Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) opponents. The Inner Sanctum spoke to Newcastle Northstars General Manager and AIHL Board member Garry Doré about the opportunities it presents for the league and the sport.
Saint John’s University participates in NCAA Division III which allows teams to make international trips every three years. This year, the Saint John’s ice hockey team chose Australia as its destination.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has not travelled since a 2018 trip to Japan. “It’s really about creating memories that are going to last a lifetime,” Head Coach Doug Schueller told Frank Rajkowski for Saint John’s website. “I know when we did our senior exit interviews, the guys who got the chance to go on that trip to Japan in 2018 said it was one of the best parts of their careers here.”
As part of the trip, Saint John’s University will play a pair of exhibition games against the Newcastle Northstars (Sunday 4 pm), runners up for the Goodall Cup last season, and the Sydney Ice Dogs (Wednesday 7:30 pm), last years wooden spoon winners.
When Saint John’s University reached out to set up some exhibition games, Newcastle jumped at the opportunity to be involved.
“They reached out to a few teams,” Northstars General Manager and AIHL Board Member Garry Doré said. “We’re pretty quick to jump onto these things, and coordinated with people involved with the team.”
AIHL teams are able to bolster their rosters with imports, players from overseas who take the opportunity to travel while playing hockey. While players come from a wide range of countries, many come from North America.
An added layer of intrigue surrounding the matchups is the familiarity between the AIHL and NCAA Division III talent. “We get a lot of imports from that program,” Doré stated.
Sunday afternoon’s game at Hunter Ice Skating Stadium between the Northstars, an elite AIHL team, and Saint John’s University, an elite Division III program, thus presents a touchstone opportunity for the AIHL.
“Yard-stick is the perfect wording for it,” Doré continued. “They’ve done well in their own competition, so I think we’re in for a pretty humdinger of a game.”
Doré is also excited about the opportunities the game will provide for younger members of the Northstars. “What I really love about it is it gives younger players who have aspirations to go overseas, in that 19-23 age range, a taste of what that could look like.”
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“Gives us [AIHL] higher recognition”
For many, Australia isn’t front of mind when discussing ice hockey nations. However, Australia has a long-standing relationship with ice hockey.
The Goodall Cup, awarded to the AIHL Finals winner, is the third-oldest trophy in the sport, and oldest outside of North America.
Many AIHL teams rely on word of mouth to attract imports, coaches, and administrators. And word of mouth can be a powerful recommendation.
However, events like these can lift that support and recognition to the next level according to Garry Doré.
“It gives us higher recognition,” Doré enthused, speaking from a league perspective. “We’ve got amazing supporters and a great program.
“We’ve run a great league for the last 20 years. This will give us a bit of an identity overseas.
“If we can get more international teams it will help our national opportunities. If we could have a couple of teams like this travelling and challenging more of the teams, it lifts the competition and motivates to get to the next level.”
“The more internationally we get recognised, the more opportunities for players, coaches, administrators and organisations to link up with the league,” Doré concluded.
The AIHL season takes place during the offseason of many North American and European leagues. That presents an ongoing opportunity according to Doré.
“We could perhaps be more of a training, educating, or investment [league] for players to come and have good competition.”
For followers of the Australian Baseball League (ABL) the concept is a familiar one. ABL teams are often affiliated with one or several Major League Baseball (MLB) teams.
MLB teams send out prospects for valuable experience during the North American offseason, and both fans and local players benefit from their presence. Australia’s quarter-final appearance at the World Baseball Classic earlier this year is a testament to the benefits to the national team.
Finding a way to tap into the Asian market makes sense for Doré. Whether that takes the form of regular exhibition matches and tournaments, or club affiliations, remains to be seen.
What is certain, is that this weekend presents a special opportunity for the sport in this country.
“We’re excited, we’re proud to have this game in Newcastle,” Doré revealed. “We do everything we can for ice hockey, whether international or national.
“The [players] are really excited, it’s going to be pretty special.”
Fans will need to head to Hunter Ice Skating Stadium to watch the game, as there are no streaming options. You can buy tickets via the Northstars website.
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