A group of enthusiastic hockey-lovers are forging bold new paths for minor sports with their innovative digital explorations.
"Once you’ve seen it, you want to see more." This is the common refrain from new observers of the Australian Ice Hockey League. It also applies to those who have been lucky enough to see rough cuts of the Resolution Media documentary following the 2012 season of AIHL powerhouse Melbourne Ice.
The fly-on-the-wall documentary gets to places that broadcasters of major Australian sports can only dream of, depicting try-outs, tribunal hearings, injuries, upset losses, triumphant victories, livid and rapt coaches and the prospect of league-changing business deals.
The Ice has given Resolution inside-the-room, no holds-barred access to its bid for a championship "three-peat", and the results are impressive and addictive.
"We’re mad hockey fans and we had access to the Ice guys, we thought it would be perfect to go for it, and the drama has unfolded," says Resolution Media’s Shannon Swan.
As with much of the burgeoning media coverage of the thriving "third-tier" sport, the production is a labour of love.
"This is more like a hobby that we like doing," Swans says. His "day job", making TV commercials and corporate videos, has enabled him to indulge the taxing in-depth coverage necessary for the six-part series. Sales to fans at season’s end could help the project break even, and Swan hopes potential coverage via local and foreign broadcasters will be "more about exposure for the game and the guys".
The series, which may also be edited into a stand-alone 80-minute program, was inspired by the HBO 24/7 documentaries, which follow two NHL teams preparing for the annual Winter Classic match played in an outdoor stadium around the New Year.
Swan considered applying that format to the AFL, but found Australia’s major footy code "too censored". He soon turned back to ice hockey, the other sport in Australia with footy’s traits – "it’s fast, tough, end-to-end" – which has flourished since the inception of the national league 12 years ago.
"I thought well, if we’re going to follow around a team for a year, it may as well be something we love and do it for guys that are really passionate about what they do."
Swan has great admiration for AIHL players.
"The guys are electricians, plumbers, they sharpen skates during the week. And then on the weekend they go out and act like professional athletes, for no money."
Swan says the coaches and players have "completely bought in" to the project, saying it "adds another level" to their 10th-year anniversary title defence. With that comes responsibility for the filmmakers.
"You do have to leave a level of professionalism between you and the guys. As much as I would love to throw down the camera and have a beer and party and all that kind of stuff you do have to maintain that level. Because they need to know that you’re there observing them, you’re not there to be involved. If you become too matey ... They can’t stay themselves around you."
Swan looks forward to sharing a drink with the Ice boys once their season, and his filming, is done, hopefully after a title win. In the meantime, he will be happy to continue chronicling the season.
"Every time you go, you can’t believe the stuff that happens."
Melbourne Ice, now selling out every game at the state-of-the-art Icehouse in Docklands, is atop the Easton conference of the AIHL, and though experiencing enough ups and downs to satisfy the filmmakers, remains on target to make another finals series and compete for a third successive Goodall Cup.
The quality of the league constantly and pleasantly surprises hardcore hockey watchers. "The product’s excellent. It’s super-entertaining," Swans says. "It’s everything we love in sport, and it’s playing to packed houses."
Also playing in those packed houses are expertly edited and shot broadcasts of the games. Amazingly, the company which performs these technical feats grew out of amateur theatre, had not seen an ice hockey game three years ago, and came into existence purely because of Melbourne Ice.
James Morgan, 26, went with a cousin to the first game at the Icehouse after watching ice hockey on TV during the Winter Olympics. An 18-year veteran of amateur theatre despite his tender years, Morgan loved the spectacle, but felt the audio quality needed improving. He offered his services. They were accepted.
Soon afterwards, he had "begged, borrowed and stolen" some second-hand equipment, and taught himself how to make rudimentary broadcasts by scouring university textbooks and broadcasts of other sports. Working with volunteers who "hadn’t touched a camera", Morgan managed to piece together a product that was broadcast in the stadium and online, gaining an audience as far afield as Canada, where a group of hockey nuts gather in a Toronto bar to follow the progress of their adopted Down Under team in the NHL off-season.
When the division two world championships came to the Icehouse last year, Morgan’s crew got access to superior equipment. Their growing expertise enabled them to form ATC Productions, which now works for clients such as the Melbourne Renegades Twenty20 cricket team and Super Rugby’s Melbourne Rebels.
Morgan has a full-time job as a network engineer, but he can see the time looming when he will have to decide between his current occupation and the growing broadcasting company. The AIHL and other teams are coming to Morgan for assistance in setting up their own live webcasts, and he will be working in Newcastle for the league’s finals series in the first week of September.
The company’s work on other sports now subsidises the hockey broadcasts, but Morgan remains keen to contribute to the club and ATC Productions has become a Melbourne Ice sponsor. All those years in community theatre means he empathises with Andy Lamrock. "I know what it’s like. We come in and do a job that no one else can do."
Morgan enjoys the appreciation from grateful fans.
"Hockey is still the sport we do because we love it. It’s a third-tier sport — we wouldn’t do it if we were doing it for the money."
Ever seen an ice hockey story in the mainstream Australian media? One that wasn’t about the fights? The sport will remain a minor league curiosity for the big boys. But in this digital day and age, that means opportunities have arisen for smaller players.
Incredibly, it is a man whose life was nearly ruined by hockey who is filling the breach for the sport in Australia. Andrew Hewitt is another late adopter of the sport. He liked it so much when taken to a game by friends that he became one of the many adults who took up the sport at the Icehouse. His career as a beginner was cut short when he badly broke his leg in a freak accident during a game. Unable to "stand up anymore", Hewitt was no longer employed in a cafe, and he used the time to further his love of writing.
The result, a couple of years later, is the ever-expanding Hewitt Sports Network, a site covering the Australian and New Zealand ice hockey leagues, and moving into covering Australian baseball. Hewitt and his 10 correspondents (one overseas) file timely match reports and opinion pieces, filling a crucial niche for grassroots fans.
Hewitt has some part-time work, but he says it is "not where his heart lives", and he is devoted to finding a niche among smaller sports which currently don’t get the coverage they deserve. The network may become a financially viable product itself, or it may serve as a springboard to a media career. "It’s a traineeship I’m putting myself through," he says. If so, he is assembling a unique resume.
He hopes the HSN can provide smaller sports the means to professionalise their media reach. Like most people who have fallen in love with ice hockey, he can see its potential for growth, but says it is a matter of awareness. It is a matter of giving more people the opportunity to see and play the game.
"Most people who come, come back again," he says.
For a man starting a new career, Hewitt remains altruistic.
"I never wanted us to be the main source (of information) for the league. I want the (AIHL) league site to be that, like the NHL site is in North America."
And his vision for his future? "If we can be a smaller version of (sports website) Sportal, specialising in smaller sports, and we’re still doing it for the right reasons, I’ll be happy."
At the other end of the media spectrum is hockey blogger Nick Place, journalist, author, entrepreneur and co-owner of multi-faceted content production company Media Giants. Like Hewitt, Place fell in love with ice hockey by chance, but was a firm fan immediately
"I had always meant to watch ice hockey, having heard a puck is the fastest-moving object in world sport, and having heard about the clashes, etc. Sick as eight dogs with the flu, during the Stanley Cup finals, I channel surfed, found it, and was instantly smitten, by the sport and the Red Wings. I loved the fact the puck is hardly ever out of bounds [unless it flies above the glass], that it is so fast, skilful, non-stop."
Like Hewitt, Place took to the Melbourne Ice, and looking for a "dramatic mental/emotional gear-change", he took the "ridiculous step" of joining ice hockey lessons at the age of 45, with his teenage son. Those classes are now over-subscribed, with local facilities barely coping with demand.
Place is bullish about the potential of the sport to grow – he says there is a "definite zeitgeist-groundswell-popularity surge" occurring. But he is cautious about unrealistic expectations.
"I saw baseball and basketball both 'land' in Melbourne, with ambitions to sweep aside footy etc, because hell, if the US thinks this sport is the best in the world, then it must be, right? It was always a dumb approach and hockey has a different mentality, just naturally as a sport. Hockey is quite happy to co-exist with other sports and it should. It doesn’t need to challenge the AFL, or other major sports. I think if you love footy, which quite a few Australians — read most — seem to do, then hockey is a great complementary sport. It’s tough, fast, physical, skilful."
However, Place worries that the sport is in serious danger of withering because there are not enough rinks to cope with fan and player demand.
"I read an Australian men’s mag from the ’50s that had an article about Australian ice hockey and the writer predicted then that 3000-people stadiums were needed for the sport to thrive. Nothing has changed. It could subside as quickly as it has risen."
He says "boutique" sports don’t fit well with the mainstream media, especially TV, but ice hockey could be a "trailblazer" in the new media sports landscape.
"As YouTube channels and more and more niched vertical media happens, thanks to online streaming etc, hockey is in a perfect place to explore those fields."
Swan, Morgan, Hewitt and Place himself are some of those explorers, fostering the sport and finding opportunities through due to their love of the game.
Friday, August 3
Gold Coast Blue Tongues 5 v Melbourne Mustangs 3
Saturday, August 4
Gold Coast Blue Tongues 1 v Melbourne Mustangs 3
Newcastle North Stars 5 v Sydney Ice Dogs 4 (SO)
Canberra Knights 1 v Perth Thunder 2 (SO)
Sunday, August 5
Sydney Bears 3 v Perth Thunder 4
Sydney Ice Dogs 3 v Canberra Knights 5
Thursday August 9
Melbourne Ice 6 v Melbourne Mustangs 1
Saturday August 11
Perth Thunder v Gold Coast Blue Tongues, Perth, 4.30pm
Adelaide Adrenaline v Sydney Bears, Adelaide, 4.30pm
Melbourne Ice v Newcastle North Stars, Icehouse, Docklands, 5pm
Canberra Knights v Sydney Ice Dogs, Canberra, 5.30pm
Sunday, August 12
Melbourne Ice v Sydney Bears, Icehouse, Docklands, 3.30pm
Perth Thunder v Gold Coast Blue Tongues, Perth, 4.30pm
Adelaide Adrenaline v Newcastle North Stars, Adelaide, 4.30pm
Australian Ice Hockey league at a glance:
- There are nine teams, playing in two conferences
- The top two teams from each conference make the sudden death finals on the first weekend in September, in Newcastle. The semi-finals are played on Saturday, with the grand final played the following day.
- Each team is allowed four imports, usually professionals from European or junior North American leagues. The league is completely amateur, though imports are allowed to receive assistance to help with accommodation etc.
- Melbourne Ice has won the past two championships.
* Gold Coast will be playing the remainder of its home matches this season in Brisbane at the Acacia Ridge rink.
Full Standings - click here
Leading scorers - click here
Melbourne Ice (including live webcasts of Ice games) - click here
Melbourne Mustangs - click here
AIHL - click here
Melbourne Icehouse - click here
A crash course in hockey rules, courtesy Newcastle North Stars: click here
Hewitt Sports Network AIHL news - click here
For a great read on the voyage of a new hockey fan - Nick Place's hockey blog
River Road hockey blog - click here