From a desert, from the driest continent, from this land at the opposite end of the globe ...
... as remote as could be in the hockey world ...
... came one of the world’s oldest winter sports trophies.
A cool tradition, a dream of champions, and a story we owe it to our children to tell.
Legends of Australian Ice.
Glory Without the Sell-out
Australia's World Ranking in Ice Hockey | Apr 2014
There were 30 member-nations in the IIHF when Australia first competed in olympic ice hockey at the 1960 games. We haven't qualified for the Olympics since, but we were ranked 9th in the world when we started back then. We competed at the Worlds twice more during the 1960s; twice during the 1970s; and thrice during the 1980s at the end of which we had dropped 15 places to 24th in the world.
IToday we are ranked 34 and some attribute the decline of 25 places to an increase in the number of nations that held a comparative advantage over us. But that was not true during those first 3 decades when there were only 5 new IIHF member nations: China, North Korea, New Zealand, Mexico and Greece. All except Mexico still rank below Australia today and they had little or nothing to do with our decline in international ice hockey.
Rather, nations we had always competed against did better, and that is hardly surprising for a country that competed only 5 times during its first quarter-century on the international stage. Players had to pay their own way and it had taken years to repay the financial debt of our first international adventure. We were remote from the action and seriously under-resourced.
Over the next quarter-century Australia missed only 2 Worlds yet dropped about 10 places during the 1990s, from mid-20s to mid-30s. Only 7 of the new nations that entered from 1990 have ranked higher than Australia. And only 4 of them have more rinks than our 20, and more players than our 3,650. Slovakia with 77 rinks and 9,200 players; Belarus with 33 rinks and 7,250 players; Ukraine with 32 rinks and 4,360 players; and Kazakhstan with 18 rinks and 4,320 players.
Yet, it is also true that other small hockey countries have overcome similar disadvantages. Not least of those is Slovenia, another of the nations that first competed at the Worlds in the early-1990s. Slovenia qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi just 20 years after it first competed internationally, and with a national resource today of just 7 rinks and 886 players.
The Lynxes are instructive. Their country is much smaller than ours yet they have eclipsed nations with significant competitive advantages to be ranked 14th in the world. Yes, they are well-positioned in central Europe and they do have the LA Kings' Anze Kopitar. His brother also plays and his father is coach. But all three were born and raised in Slovenia like their other national players, even if they do play away from home these days in higher European leagues.
II Australia has distinct competitive advantages over Croatia's 6 rinks and 552 players, and Israel's 2 rinks and 650 players. Yet, we have never beaten Croatia and although we struggled against Israel recently, we cannot attribute a drop in our world ranking to them in those years; only to those other 4 nations with competitive advantages that entered in the early 1990s. That explains 4 places down to 27th in the world, not the all-time lows we first hit in 1995-6; 36th of 48 competing nations. No, that slide was not as a result of more nations competing internationally, nor a shortage of players or rinks at home.
Australia went on to prove exactly that, climbing back up 5 places during the first decade of the new millennium. We finished 31st in the world at home in 2009, promoted to IIHF Division 1 for the first time. But we were instantly relegated back to Division 2 on our return to Europe the following year, then up and down again, only to return to our all-time low ranking: 36th in the world.
You see, we continue as a nation to exploit our players and their dream of representing their country. Fifty years on, they still subsidise others and pay to compete against opponents who pay little or nothing out of their own pockets. If they get to train together at all, it's as remote from the action as ever, with all the usual distance issues. Only when these twin problems are elegantly solved and our best native-born players participate, only then will Australia become a top-30 nation regularly competing in Division I. Otherwise we are likely to have a national team of naturalized imports.
And what's the difference you ask? Well, a small matter of grit and authenticity.