The Perth Thunder has dropped the puck on a new ice hockey season, but as recently as two weeks ago about a fifth of the team was still yet to even set foot on Australian soil.
Like each team in the Australian Ice Hockey League, or AIHL, the Thunder makes use of imported players, but the concept is not limited to places like Australia where ice hockey may not be popular enough to grow multiple teams of local players.
“Every league in the world uses import players to raise the standard,” said Stan Scott, General Manager of the Thunder.
Even the esteemed National Hockey League in North America, the market from which most of these imports come, heavily relies on European and Russian players to grow the game in that region, and for young players growing up around hockey, the NHL is a dream achievement.
But the incoming players for the Thunder are all already on the track to playing professionally in North America, so why leave that environment to come play ice hockey in a country where the only hockey most locals know is played on a field?
Well, timing is everything.
“(The AIHL) is the only recognised league in the world that runs during the North American and European off season, which is why we can attract such high quality imports,” said Scott. “All the guys we bring out want to be here.”
The AIHL runs annually from mid-late April to August, playing 28 games per season plus a playoffs series, and as Australia tends to be quite far from home, foreign players are treated to a few perks.
“The imports get benefits, such as flights, accommodation, jobs, travel expenses, and other negotiated items on a case to case basis,” said Scott.
But the imports get more than just a trip to Australia and a competitive “summer league” to play in during the offseason; they also get the chance to grow the game they love.
The Australian Junior Ice Hockey League is the main draw for AIHL teams, as the teams are made of mostly local players, but to get players interested in starting there, some big names from overseas must be brought in.
“We count on the imports to complement the local players on the team, and to help develop the younger players in the AJIHL so the game can grow and flourish in Australia,” said Head Coach Dave Kenway.
Kenway’s comments about growing the game were echoed by Scott, who added that “the imports are very important for many reasons, as they are to every hockey league including the NHL, as we are in the entertainment business and they assist us in putting on a great show.”
Although the imports were not due to arrive until April 20, with the season starting the on the 23rd, the local players were already having informal practices and scrimmages to gear up for the season.
But that is not to say the imports were not working hard themselves, as many were still finishing up seasons of their own.
“This year we have four pros (imported), one was drafted by Buffalo, one by the San Jose Sharks of the NHL. Another guy is from the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) and one from CIS (Canadian Intrauniversity Sports),” said Scott.
Yet, even if a player is fully committed to come to Australia to play, issues can still arise.
Scott says that ITC (International Transfer Cards), which are instituted by the International Ice Hockey Federation in order to regulate a player’s eligibility to play overseas, and insurance are the main hold-ups in the process, as they can delay the player’s arrival and restrict their playing time.
Not to mention the fact that players usually sign with their AIHL team while their season at home is still going on, so injuries can cause a bit of havoc on both parties.
But despite the risk involved, Kenway says that imports are still a great investment.
“There are quite a few people in Australia following the NHL, so when we can sign a guy from a team that people will recognise, it helps gain popularity for both our team and the sport itself,” he said.
Importing players is a practice that will continue for the life of the league it seems, and with each new player who comes ashore, those in the league hope one more young fan will decide to lace up their own skates.