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.
Asia's most advanced democracy goes pro
While Australia's Mighty Roos valiantly struggled over the past 5 years to progress past 34 in the ice hockey world rankings, something remarkable was happening a 10-hour flight to our north. Another country, positioned about the same as Australia in the world, advanced 10 places to 23rd in that same timeframe. They have moved up 2 or 3 places each year to establish themselves as a Division I team. In June 2011, they won their bid to host the Winter Olympics for the first time in 2018 after two previously unsuccessful attempts. That automatically qualified their nation to enter a team in the Olympic ice hockey tournament.
One year later their national team was promoted to IIHF Division 1A, the second highest level of international ice hockey. Then came the announcement it would join the Mestis league in the second tier of Finnish ice hockey from the 2013-14 season. Their idea was to improve their national team ahead of the Olympics, and they were not the first national team to try to join Mestis. Negotiations with Estonia collapsed due to the Estonian federation's desire to play home games in Tallinn.
The country we speak of is South Korea, one of the Four Asian Tigers, and they agreed to play both home and away games in Mestis. Six players joined Kiekko-Vantaa in Finland's Mestis for the 2013-14 season onwards with talks to expand that number. South Korea hosted the Division 1A championship at home last April. Yet, the process of raising the standard of hockey in South Korea only dates back a decade to the first team they had competing in the professional Asia League Ice Hockey. Halla is a founding member of the League based in Anyang, the only team to survive the collapse of the Korean Ice Hockey League in 2003, and back-to-back Asia League winners, 2009-10 and 2010-11.
High1 is the second team based in Goyang and owned by Kangwon Land who felt that its creation in 2004 would aid in the country's bid for the 2014 Olympics, which they ultimately lost. In preparation for their first Asia League season, the team announced that it would spend 46 days in Canada training, including playing 10 games. The Daemyung Sangmu is based in Seoul are the newest Asia League members debuting last September. Sangmu is the sports division of the Military of South Korea established in 2012 by the Korean government to prepare for the 2018 Winter Games. There are more people living in Seoul Capital area than in the whole of Australia.
Asia League Ice Hockey (ALH) is a pro league headquartered in Japan consisting of eight teams from East Asia: Japan, China and South Korea. The ALH was formed in 2003 as a result of the decline of the sport in Japan and the folding of the league in Korea. Although it is a pro league, its stated mission is to promote hockey, to develop players' skills, to "improve international competitive power", and to increase the showing of participating nations in the Olympics. It also aims to promote better understanding between the countries by promotion of interchange of nations, economy and culture. You cannot help but admire an organisation that states its goals as ambitiously as this:
• To build a league which produces some higher level players at international level who can represent their country.
• To build a league at the same level as North America and Europe.
• To have Olympic Games medals won by representative countries participating in the League.
The League hoped to quickly expand to twelve teams early on, but that did not occur due to the financial difficulties experienced by some teams. It has however expanded in the past to highs of four countries and nine teams. Like its semi-pro neighbour in Australia, the ALH allows each team a certain number of foreign imports on their roster to help build skill and competitiveness. Presently, China is allowed the most imports while the experienced Japanese teams are allowed the fewest. The League's current TV partners are Ex Sports of Japan and SBS ESPN of Korea.
The ALH play three 20-minute periods separated by two 15 minute intermissions. Training camps and exhibition games run in the Australian winter, followed by the regular season, September to early-March depending on schedule, then the post-season playoff in March. This is an elimination tournament where teams advance through the rounds until the last one remaining is crowned champion.
Under the current schedule each team plays the other 7 teams 6 times. Each makes an away visit to each other team's home rink for a three game series. They also play a three game series at their own home rink against that team. Visitors stay for two weeks to play two teams and so minimize travel, although flying between participating countries only takes one to three hours. For example, visitors play Japan's Cranes and Eagles on the same trip because they are geographically close, then play Japan's Free Blades and Ice Bucks on another trip. Each team thus makes 3 trips to other countries for a week or two each time, with the balance of the regular season games played in their own country.
The Asia League runs in the Australian off-season and flights there usually take 9 or 10 hours, or almost half the time it takes to fly to Europe or North America. Perhaps Australia's national team could take a leaf out of South Korea's game book. Or raise itself in the world rankings by competing with pros in our own region. It only requires a little motivation, a little enterprise, a little faith in the ultimate return on investment. We did not expect a country other than Australia would do this when we first wrote about it in 2007.
1. Wikipedia, 2018 Olympics. Online
2. UUTISET News, 20.6.2012, "South Korean hockey team to join Finnish league" Online