‘Rugby on ice’: Can the NHL move the needle for hockey in Australia?

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Nathan Walker is not exactly a superstar in the United States, but enough people know who he is.

Back home in Australia, he has only ever been recognised twice in his life – moments apart, five years ago, when he was getting married in Sydney and then-Washington Capitals teammate Chandler Stephenson was in town to be one of his groomsmen.

Nathan Walker is just one of two Aussies to feature in the NHL.Credit: Getty

“He’s like, ‘Does anyone recognise you walking down the street?’ I said, ‘No, no one’s recognised me. And I doubt anyone will,’” Walker recalls.

“Sure enough, 20 seconds later, someone comes up to me. ‘Hey, are you Nathan Walker?’ I’m like, ‘Alright, you’ve probably paid him. That’s never gonna happen again.’

“Thirty seconds later, someone else comes up to me, says the same thing. ‘Hey, can we get a photo?’ I’m just like, ‘There’s no way.’

“That’s the two times that people have ever recognised me – and it was in front of him, so he’s probably thinking that people do it all the time.”

Can the NHL pick up steam in Australia?Credit: PAUL CHIASSON

There are niche sports in Australia. Then there’s ice hockey, which has a participation base of roughly 6000 people, just 22 facilities across the country where it can be played, for obvious climate-related reasons, and – you might be surprised to learn this – a national league that has been running since the year 2000.

If you don’t know who Walker is, he doesn’t blame you.

To make a career out of the game he loves, Walker had to convince his parents to let him move to the Czech Republic at age 13. He went on to become the first Aussie to ever play in the National Hockey League, and then the first to win the Stanley Cup, which he hoisted in 2018 with Stephenson and the Capitals – a few weeks before his wedding.

Now 29 and a player for the St Louis Blues, he found himself back home in Sydney a few weeks ago, during the NHL off-season, unable to train because his local ice rink in Canterbury was undergoing renovations.

The Los Angeles Kings train at O’Brien Icehouse in Melbourne this week.Credit: Getty

“I’m kind of stuck for some ice. No one really needs to do what I need to do in Australia right now,” Walker laughs. “There’s not enough ice rinks, there’s not enough ice times, there’s not enough games, there’s not enough teams. It’s just kind of the way it is.”

Will that ever change? Can it? Not until this country freezes over – but the NHL is going to give it a crack anyway.

It is with a high degree of envy that Walker will watch the NHL’s first official foray into the Australian market from afar, as his St Louis Blues continue their pre-season campaign in the US, while the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes prepare to meet at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne this weekend.

“I’m just happy there’s games coming down, and I get a chance to talk about it,” Walker says.

Arizona Coyotes head coach Andre Tourigny holds a press conference in Melbourne on Tuesday.Credit: Getty

The NHL has a long tradition of taking games around the world, remarkably dating back to 1938, but Melbourne is the furthest from North America the league has ever been.

Several months ago, the NHL sent down a cargo ship containing 51 pallets of equipment from Ontario, Canada – the bones of a full-scale arena, which will be filled with ice by a specialist company from Amsterdam. Then it’ll be painted white, decorated with fabric markings and logos, and sprayed with water.

The whole process will take less than two days, but the idea of bringing top-level ice hockey to Australia has been a decade in the making, according to David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy.

The NHL will become the second of the ‘big four’ North American sports competitions to bring their teams here, following Major League Baseball’s SCG experiment in 2014. Despite ice hockey’s miniscule participation base and mainstream profile in Australia, Proper truly believes the NHL can move the needle.

NHL executive David Proper promoting the upcoming games in Melbourne.Credit: Getty

“Digging in a lot with the people who deal in hockey down in Australia, it became very clear that there was a more of a groundswell than we may have thought,” Proper says.

“And then we really dug into our numbers with some heavy promotion and saw that we over-indexed in Australia as compared to other countries, in terms of the people that either participated or watched our events, or subscribe to our channels, or went on NHL.com – all those things led us to believe that it was worth pursuing pretty aggressively.

“This is a long-term project – this is not one where it’s play a game and leave. We’ve put too much time into deciding to come. The real plan is to help to grow hockey, grow the NHL, and hopefully in the long term have a real meaningful participation in the Australian market for years to come.”

While there is always a novelty attraction to events like this, the NHL believes there is not only a large enough expat community in Australia to make this venture worthwhile, there is enough crossover between their sport and the codes followed here – in particular, Aussie rules, rugby league and rugby union – to potentially convert some fans.

“I watched AFL football really for the first time in a meaningful way over the last couple of years. The speed, the action, the physicality, all those things – those are things that translate well to our game,” Proper says.

“What we found was that a lot of AFL fans, when they watched our games, actually gravitated to watching the game and enjoyed the game – and ironically, it went the other way, too, when we showed AFL to some hockey fans over here.

“What we’re really looking for are places where we think we can build hockey because of the sports culture, build the brand, and ultimately gain more interest among the fan base there. A lot of what we’re trying to do is help to hopefully increase that participation – even if it’s street hockey, ball hockey – with the ultimate looking at people investing in building rinks and so forth.”

Walker concurs.

“Aussies love rugby. It’s pretty much that, on ice,” he says. “You flick on TV, there’s AFL, there’s rugby league, rugby union, soccer, the NFL, the baseball, basketball … there’s not much hockey being played, you don’t see too much of it on TV. But I can’t see why the Australian people won’t enjoy it.

“The more eyes we can get on it, the better. Who knows? In a couple of years time that might equal to 500, 1000, 2000 more registered players in the country. That’d be great for Australian hockey, I think, going forward.”

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