Australian Ice Hockey League: Youngsters can stay at home?

NHL draft candidate Nathan Walker enjoys giving back to hockey's grass roots when he returns to Australia at the end of each Northern Hemisphere season.
NHL draft candidate Nathan Walker enjoys giving back to hockey's grass roots when he returns to Australia at the end of each Northern Hemisphere season.

Do promising young Australian hockey players need to leave their homeland to hone their craft?

Australia's greatest hockey export Nathan Walker will learn at the end of the month whether his dream of playing in the NHL, the sport's elite professional level, will be realised.

Walker, whose skills will be on display in July's International Exhibition series, was closely monitored by the Washington Capitals as he played with their American Hockey League 'farm' team the Hershey Bears in the just-completed season.

It has taken an international odyssey for the Welsh-born, Sydney-raised leftie to reach the cusp of the NHL. He famously left Australia at 13 to learn more about the game in the Czech Republic, and he has played in the US for the past two years. For the past eight years, he has only been home during breaks between seasons.

If Walker makes it to the highly-paid, globally televised world of the NHL, his progress could have a big impact on the number of youngsters who want to take up the sport in Australia.

But would the most talented of them have to leave the country, Walker, to further their hockey education?

In the past 10 to 15 years, more and more aspiring Australian players have traipsed across the pond in search of knowledge and experience. Melbourne Ice turned Mustangs star Joey Hughes spent eight summers plying his trade at college and in the Southern Professional Hockey League, picking up insights he now hands on at his Next Level hockey school.

Melbourne Ice defenceman Todd Graham has been playing junior and (Buffalo State) college hockey in North America since 2006-07. He regularly misses the start of AIHL seasons finishing his northern hemisphere school and hockey responsibilities.

Perth Thunder defenceman Jamie Woodman (Banff Bears, Palm Beach Hawks) and Newcastle North Stars Beau Taylor (Selkirk College) and Matt Lindsay (Northland College, Wisconsin) are further examples of the trend of Australians opting to get as much exposure to overseas hockey cultures as possible.

Walker says he had to leave to develop his skills.  "I'm not talking bad about Australia but we just don't have the funding for it and the ice time,'' he says. "It's not a major priority in sport ... to be an ice hockey player there, it's real tough.

"You're on the ice twice a week which doesn't really give you that much. Whereas if you head overseas you have a chance to get on the ice every day of that week."

Obviously, for a budding elite professional, it will remain essential to get to a place where he can play more games, get specialised attention and get noticed.

But the continued improvement in the standard of the AIHL is having an interesting consequence.

The better the league gets, the better the calibre of imports who are attracted to play here, and the greater the demand from our clubs that they are of good character. And some of these good guys are falling in love with Australia and putting down roots, cementing their positive influence on the hockey community.

Mustangs goalie Fraser Carson, just 19, first travelled to Calgary, Canada, as a 14-year-old, and later played at college in Canton, New York, following his hockey dreams. But he doesn't think that it is as necessary now for young players to leave Australia.

"When I was coming up it definitely was for me," he said. "But now it's coming a long way. With the help of imports coming over and staying, hockey's a lot better off for it. Matt Armstrong (Melbourne Ice) is running hockey schools here. Pat O'Kane (Mustangs US import) and I were running the colts for the Mustangs.

"There's lots of talented coaches and players here now, so that you don't need a link any more really."

Highly-respected ex-pats like Brian Bales (Newcastle North Stars) and Robert Malloy (Sydney Ice Dogs) have recently been granted permanent resident status. Ice linchpins Jason Baclig and Matt Armstrong, who have played in Melbourne since 2010, will also soon be naturalised.

This does more than strengthen their teams on the ice – as they are no longer classified as imports and another overseas star can play in their team's line-ups – it provides massive gains away from game day. Most of these admired role models coach juniors. Even those who do not still help raise awareness and standards at training, on camps, and in dressing rooms.

Fraser says improved coaching is the result of improved AIHL hockey.

"Some of the coaches here have taken it upon themselves to get better,'' he says. "Even Laves (Brent Laver) the Melbourne Ice coach, he was over in the States pre-season doing clinics and camps and stuff trying to better himself as a coach. So I think Australian hockey has come a long, long way."

Laver, with the help of assistant coach Johan Steenberg, is establishing a coaching and player exchange with a Swedish club.

"In this state and in this country, in a lot of areas the players are ahead of the coaches, Laver says. "So we're up-skilling and taking the opportunity to have somebody come out and take practices and watch and listen and talk to us and do reviews with us and do critical analysis on how we're going about it so we can be better."

Apart from local coaches learning to keep up with their stars, how else does an import affect a club?

Laver established a close relationship with Baclig when he captained Ice last year. Armstrong, less inclined to adopt a formal leadership role, still exerts a major influence, even if he isn't aware of it.

Laver says Armstrong's "buy-in" affects how closely Ice's young locals listen to Laver's words.

 "I'll call the boys in and he will come right up to my left and he’ll be really close – and you'll feel the whole group come in," he says.

He says that Armstrong didn't realise this effect until it was pointed out.

"But I said 'mate, it's things like that,you've got no idea what that does for my currency as a coach'. 

"Even if I am running a drill or explaining why I want a system to run a certain way ... a Mitch Humphries seeing you nodding has a massive effect. That body language, you just don't know how powerful it is.

"I've got all the time in the world for Matt.

"He's so giving. He doesn't know he's giving. It's more powerful than having him run a drill. Then you see him in the gym – he's at a whole different level."

Matt Lindsay told Hockeywise writer Stephen White of the influence of quality imports.

"The AIHL will improve if all teams focus on their imports imparting their knowledge on to the local talent as we don't get the same opportunities as they do.

"A lot of the imports come from "hockey mad" countries so they have better understanding of the game, how it is played and the expectations on players to perform."

As for ice-time, Fraser, entrusted with number one goalie duties with a title-contender before he turns 20, is busy enough that he has dialled back his hockey involvement this year.

He still coaches a local junior team, sometimes right before he plays himself, but with more work and more Mustangs responsibility, not to mention recent knee surgery, he was finding the hockey load "a bit full on". He has relinquished his Colts role to 2014 Swedish import Viktor Gibbs Sjodin.

"There's a lot of guys, they're not getting paid, but it's like their full time job," he says.

Teammate Matt Stringer is a case in point. Matt plays local hockey on Friday nights for the Braves, coaches the Mustangs Colts, and trains and plays for the Mustangs. That's a potential six-day-a-week commitment.

With travel on the weekends for AIHL road trips, it's an exacting regimen. But it does immerse a young player in hockey.

The vast majority of Australian players will not be as gifted as Nathan Walker. Most of them are looking to further their education as much off the ice as on when they travel, and not too many can expect to earn a living playing hockey.

It will still prove an invaluable experience for Aussies to get abroad to play hockey.

But if the improvements wrought by the growing league continue, it may not be essential.

This story Australian Ice Hockey League: Youngsters can stay at home? first appeared on WA Today.