By Kirby Fenwick
It’s a Sunday afternoon in February, one of the hottest months of the year in the driest inhabited continent on earth. And I’m shivering inside O’Brien Icehouse. Ahead of me is the bronze medal and the gold medal games of the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League. Around me are hundreds of fans, many kitted out in hockey jerseys, some, incredulously, wearing shorts.
A few weeks earlier, while on the phone to Mark Weber, the administrative assistant of Ice Hockey Australia’s women’s council and the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League (AWIHL), we’d discussed the upcoming finals at the Icehouse, the premier facility in Australia by the way. Mark had told me that I should be sure to rug up for my first ever ice hockey experience. Have you got a ski jacket, he asked me. I laughed, no I said, but I’ll be fine. I’ve played footy, a winter sport, in freezing temperatures and driving rain. I’ve got this. I really didn’t.
Up until this point, my exposure to ice hockey has been, well, limited. I’ve seen the Mighty Ducks (Quack! Quack! Quack!). I follow Gritty on instagram, the chaotic good mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, an ice hockey team that plays in the National Hockey League. And my friend Hayley, who is a big ice hockey fan, regularly posts on social media about games and I often like her posts. But, ever the curious cat, when the opportunity came to actually go see some ice hockey, and not just any ice hockey but the finals of the premier women’s ice hockey competition in the country, I jumped at it. And that’s how I found myself at O’Brien Icehouse on a Sunday afternoon and it’s also how I discovered that ice hockey is very very cool. It’s also one of the fastest and most dynamic sports I’ve ever watched.
First up on the schedule for the afternoon is the bronze medal game between Perth Inferno and Melbourne Ice. It’s an exciting moment for the Inferno who are playing only their second season in the AWIHL. For the Ice, it must be somewhat bittersweet given they’ve won the Joan McKowen Memorial Trophy (the award given to the winners of the gold medal game) in six of the last seven seasons. On the ice, the noise of hockey sticks hitting the puck reverberates around the arena. It’s complemented by the sound of skates on fresh ice and the voices of the women as they call to each other. I’m struck but how fast the game is, how quickly the players skate from one end of the sixty metre rink to the other, and how quickly they stop. I think about my own experiences on the rink, tentative like a baby giraffe learning to walk. Am I impressed? Slightly intimated? Do I want to go buy some ice skates? All the above.
Women’s ice hockey has a surprisingly long history in Australia. The first recorded game in Australia was played at the Melbourne Glaciarium on August 31 in 1908. It was a one-off game, played in honour of a visiting American fleet according to ice hockey historian Ross Carpenter who details the early days of women’s ice hockey at Legends of Australian Ice. The first national women’s ice hockey competition launched in 1922, with state teams playing for the Gower Cup right through until the 1930s.
However, like most women’s sports, the history of ice hockey is one that stops and starts. After the cessation of the Gower Cup, in part due to the Depression, ice hockey wouldn’t seriously reappear on the Australian sporting landscape until decades later. By the 1980s, talks of a national women’s ice hockey league were happening but nothing eventuated. It wasn’t until a successful showcase series in 2006 and 2007 that the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League was officially formed. Today, some twelve years later, the competition runs from October through to February and is contested by five teams: Melbourne Ice, Sydney Sirens, Adelaide Rush, Perth Inferno and Brisbane Goannas.
While Melbourne and Perth battle it out on the rink, I chat with Melissa Rulli, a foundation player for the AWIHL, and the league’s commissioner. I ask her about her ice hockey origin story and she tells me about a pair of roller blades and a rink in Sydney.
‘I wanted to try ice skating and I just picked it up really really quickly because I had the basics from rollerblading. And then I was always bugging my parents to take me back to the rink. And when I went back, I saw an ice hockey match that was on and I just fell in love. I was like, “Oh my god, I want to do that”,’ she said.
And do that she did. Melissa played for the Sydney Sirens in the AWIHL, but she also represented Australia eight times, including playing in the historic 2000 team, the first Australian women’s team to make it to the World Championships. Today, she sees her role as commissioner as much more than just governing the day-to-day operation of the league.
‘[We’re] out there trying to grow the league as well and create more opportunities for ice hockey to be recognised as a sport in Australia that’s definitely on the rise.’
‘I think most sporting federations understand now that growth in their membership lies in women’s programs. So for us it’s to continue to build participation and to get young kids in and making sure that this league is really firing so we’re really giving them something to challenge them to get to. So it’s really important that this league is a strong league. And that it’s a high performance league,’ she said.
In a story that’s familiar to many involved in women’s sport, the women who play in the AWIHL must pay around $2000 each a year just to play. That’s on top of gear—skates and hockey sticks and some serious protective equipment—that costs about the same. It’s something Melissa says the league is very conscious of and something they want to change.
‘We would really like to get to a point where the players here don’t pay a cent… so we can have a league where the players only have to worry about being fit, being ready and playing.’
On the rink, it’s the final minutes of the third period in the bronze game and Melbourne Ice lead. You can feel the tension as the Inferno tries desperately to get a goal. A level score means, well, I’m not really sure because I don’t know the rules but you can’t have a draw in a final, so a goal would give them a shot at least. The announcer pops up telling us there’s a minute to go but the giant red clock in the corner is really all the explanation we need. And it’s racing towards zero seemingly faster than is possible. I’m cheering for the Inferno if only to see what will happen (also because I love an underdog) but the red clock is zero and the siren sounds. Melbourne Ice have triumphed and are the bronze medalists for the 2020 season.
The AWIHL is working hard to grow their sport and their fanbase. For the past two seasons, they’ve streamed every game online. This season, they reached 1000 subscribers on their channel. The games are free to watch for anyone in the world. Melissa says this is an important part of the league’s strategy for growth because eyes on the games means sponsors.
‘We’ve really seen that, we’ve seen that as we’ve started to get that engagement on social media, as we’re starting to get a bigger fan base at games, we’re starting to see more sponsors come to us and ask how they can get involved which is fantastic,’ she said.
As the gold medal game gets underway, the crowd seems to get louder. Cheer squads for Adelaide Rush and the Sydney Sirens have set themselves up at a distance from each other and they’re vocal in their support of their players and in their disdain for the umpires. One Siren supporter wears a hat with an electronic sign that he has set to say ‘Go Sirens!!!!’. It’s exactly the kind of thing a diehard fan would do and it makes me smile. On the ice, the game is tense! It feels far more aggressive than the previous game which, given it’s the gold medal game, probably makes sense. The hits seem harder, the steals more sneaky and the goalies are put under plenty of pressure deflecting attempt after attempt at both ends.
Knowing how much the women in the AWIHL put in to play, how hard they, and people like Mark and Melissa have worked to build the competition, adds another dimension to sitting in the stands. Like my experience with most other women’s sports I’ve watched, you can feel the passion, the determination, the dedication. It spins off the players every time they stretch out their stick to steal the puck, every time they crash up against the glass, every time they celebrate a hard-fought goal.
I ask Melissa what she loves about the sport and she talks about the perception of ice hockey being a brutish sport and how that perception hides the skill and deftness of the players.
‘It’s the fastest team sport in the world. But it actually [requires] quite a lot of finesse. So, you have to be good at skating, but you also have a stick, so you have to be good at controlling a puck. So it’s actually quite a tricky game. There’s a lot going on. I like to think of it sometimes as a really fast game of chess; there’s a lot of strategy involved.’
‘It’s quite a beautiful game,’ she says.
Unlike the bronze game, the Sirens seem to have the edge over the Rush. And when the siren sounds at the end of the third period it’s the Sydney-siders who are victorious and the new 2020 champions. By the end of the game between Adelaide and Sydney, I can see what Melissa means about strategy. Far from simply smacking the puck around, the players move and position themselves on the rink with clear intent. They drag their opponents out from goal, they hit the puck at the wall deliberately, knowing it will spin around the perimeter of the rink. But I can see what she means about beautiful too. The sight of a player racing down the rink, bending their body to gain more speed, all the while controlling a small round chunk of rubber on a sheet of ice. There is something beautiful about that.
It’s fair to say I walked into the O’Brien Icehouse in Sunday afternoon pretty clueless about ice hockey. And, it’s fair to say, I walked out of the O’Brien Icehouse only slightly less clueless. What are the rules? Well, I can’t really tell you but I am a fan of the penalty box. Here’s what I can tell you. Not knowing anything about a sport shouldn’t be a barrier to going along and cheering from the sidelines. Or even pulling on skates or boots and whatever other kind of specialised shoe your sport of choice requires. Sitting, and shivering, in the stands on Sunday I understood why so many fans braved the 16 degree temperatures. I understood why the women on the rink paid to play. I understood why so many volunteers gave up their time to help this league grow and prosper. Ice hockey is all the things Melissa said it was. It’s a game of strategy. It’s a tricky game, a fast game. It’s a beautiful game.
Women’s ice hockey in Australia may not have the profile of other sports—yet. It may face challenges that other sports don’t. There are only 23 ice rinks in Australia, I couldn’t even imagine how many ovals or netball courts there are. It’s unlikely the results of Sunday’s finals will make it to mainstream media. It may not be as embedded in the cultural narrative as cricket or Aussie rules. But with steady growth in numbers, a committed fan base and administration filled with people like Mark and Melissa that understand and, more importantly, that love the game, the future of ice hockey is looking bright.
Kirby Fenwick is a fan first and a writer, editor and audio producer second. She is the creator of the award-winning audio documentary, The First Friday in February and produces the regular segment, Voices From the Stands for Triple R’s Kick Like A Girl. You can find her on twitter @kirbykirbybee
Bronze medal game: Melbourne Ice d. Perth Inferno
Link to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtVOdH64UZM
Gold medal game: Sydney Siren d. Adelaide Rush
Link to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sL6eP5cdRM
Find more information about the AWIHL here.