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Taking it to the streets: NHL tries to grow its game with an 'ice' hockey push Down Under

FILE - Kids play ball hockey at an NHL Street event, June 17, 2023, in Boston. The National Hockey League is trying to build on its first foray into the Southern Hemisphere — two preseason games between the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyote on the weekend — by expanding its NHL Street Hockey program to Australia. The program is designed for children ages 6 to 16 and will eventually be instituted into some schools in Victoria state. (AP Photo/Jimmy Golen, File)

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — It’s a frequent — and most often frantic — high-pitched yell when kids playing street hockey in North America know their game is about to be interrupted.

“Car!” screams one of the players, and the nets at either end of the makeshift asphalt or cement “rink” are quickly — and most often begrudgingly — pulled to the side of the road to allow a vehicle to pass. Then the nets are back on the street and play with the often tattered hockey sticks and a battered tennis ball resumes — at least until the next car approaches.

If the National Hockey League has its way, youth in Australia — where it's common to see cricket being played in parks and on quiet streets — will soon have an opportunity to do the same with a variation of North American street hockey.

The NHL, attempting to build on its first foray into the Southern Hemisphere with two preseason games between the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes on Saturday and Sunday in Melbourne, is expanding its NHL Street Hockey program to Australia.

The program is designed for children ages 6 to 16. The North American version has incorporated various aspects of previously successful NHL club programs in non-traditional hockey markets such as Las Vegas, Nashville and Tampa, Florida.

Although Australia fits the non-traditional hockey market, Mark Black, the NHL’s vice president of international operations, told The Associated Press that the league feels it's a long-term viable market.

“There is an interesting history of hockey in Australia and a lot of passion there for all sports," Black said in a telephone interview. “It may be a smaller market, but there is a lot of knowledge."

The NHL’s plan Down Under will be to use the upcoming year to pilot the program within a selection of interested local schools in Victoria state, with a focus on the Melbourne area. It will then attempt to expand it across the country by mid-2024.

While ice hockey in Australia is definitely non-traditional, it's been around for a while, and has a profile.

The semi-professional Australian Ice Hockey League has 10 teams, made up of a lot of expatriate and some former pro players, and it completed a 26-game schedule this season.

Ice hockey has a surprising 120-year history in Australia. The first rink in Australia was the Glaciarium Ice Palace in Adelaide, South Australia where the first games of “bandy” were played using field hockey sticks with a ball on the ice.

In 1904, a notice at the Glaciarium asked for skaters to express their interest "in the introduction of a new form of amusement on the ice.” So hockey on ice, unlike its distant field hockey cousin which is played outdoors on grass or artificial turf and with a slew of different rules, equipment and styles — no serious contact among competitors, for the most part — was born.

And field hockey in Australia has plenty of street cred. The men's Kookaburras and women's Hockeyroos have won numerous Olympic medals and World Cup or world championship titles.

Organized hockey games featuring more North American rules started when ice rinks opened up a few years later in 1906 in Melbourne and Sydney. It's had its dry spells, particularly with the fledgling domestic league over the past 20 years.

Australian ties to the NHL are somewhat distant.

The first Australian-born NHL player — Jordan Spence — made his NHL debut during the 2021-22 season with the Kings. He was born in the beachside Sydney suburb of Manly and started playing hockey in Osaka, Japan before moving to Prince Edward Island in Canada as a teenager.

Spence, who identifies as Japanese-Canadian because he was only a year old when his family moved to Japan from Australia, is expected to play this weekend for the Kings against Arizona.

Ice Hockey Australia says St. Louis Blues forward Nathan Walker made NHL history twice: in 2014, when he became the first player of Australian nationality to be drafted by an NHL team when he was selected by the Washington Capitals in the third round — at No. 89; and again in 2017 when he became the first Australian player to appear in an NHL game in his debut for the Capitals.

Walker was born in Cardiff, Wales, but grew up in western Sydney and moved to the Czech Republic in 2007 after dominating local competition in Australia. He will soon begin his seventh season in the NHL and his fifth with the Blues.

The lack of top-notch talent currently in Australia is highlighted by the fact that Ice Hockey Australia has asked on its website for “expressions of interest" from potential players to fill its men's and women's teams for the world championships next year.

Australia, which has more than 6,000 registered hockey players, has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1938 and played at the 1960 Olympics, though it lost both of its games, outscored by a combined 30-2 by Czechoslovakia and the United States.

The NHL's Black says he hopes that the two preseason weekend games at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena and the street hockey program in schools might result in more home-grown Aussies in the NHL in the future, and help create a player pool for Australian teams in international competitions.

“We are looking at leaving a lasting impact beyond the weeks that we are in the market,” Black said. "It’s not a tomorrow thing, it’s a 20-year thing.”



Dennis Passa, The Associated Press

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