As the Boston Bruins and their fans begin the process of winding down from the long grind that was the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, most will be turning their attention to summer pursuits. As the mercury rises in New England and the hockey news becomes all about the NHL Draft, Free Agency and the off-season rumor-mill, there are still meaningful games of hockey being played in a land far, far away. The Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) has just completed its All-Star weekend, and its’ eight teams continue to jockey for position to compete for one of hockey’s oldest trophies, the Goodall Cup. Boston Bruins fans would be interested to know that former Bruins prospect Jesse Gabrielle has found his way to Australia and is having a big impact.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “Why on earth do I give a darn about the Australian Ice Hockey League? I didn’t even know they played hockey Down Under!” You raise a good point. As a native Canadian and die-hard Bruins fan, I once felt the exact same way. But that was twenty years ago before I found myself on the other side of the world and the Australian Ice Hockey League was born shortly thereafter, commencing play in 2000. The league has made tremendous strides over the past two decades, and the quality of play improves each season as well as the professionalism with which the individual clubs operate.
What is the Australian Ice Hockey League exactly?
The AIHL is the top amateur ice hockey league in Australia. It has been described as a semi-professional league as it does contain several professional players with experience in various leagues around the world including the NHL, AHL, ECHL, as well as various European professional leagues. AIHL players are not paid, they do however receive other forms of compensation such as the use of a vehicle, free accommodation, and their flights to and from Australia. Some are also granted employment opportunities through club sponsors in the communities in which they play. Each team is permitted to ice a maximum of four import players per game though they can have more than that on their roster.
The league began play with three teams in 2000 and is currently an eight-team national competition featuring three teams in New South Wales (Newcastle Northstars, Sydney Bears, and Sydney Ice Dogs), the CBR Brave located in the Australian Capital Territory, two teams in Victoria (Melbourne Ice and Melbourne Mustangs), one team in South Australia (Adelaide Adrenaline), and one team in Western Australia (Perth Thunder). The teams play a 28-game regular season with the top four teams qualifying to compete in a weekend showdown for the Goodall Cup. The Goodall Cup Finals feature first vs. fourth and second vs. third semi-finals with the winners meeting in a single game showdown to capture one of the oldest trophies in hockey.
So, the obvious question then is, what does the AIHL have to do with the Boston Bruins? Why am I reading about it on a site dedicated to the interests of Bruins fans? Are there any Bruins connections to this semi-pro league in the land of kangaroos and that crazy Australian Rules football (see video below for crash course!)? Well, the short answer is there are a few, namely some ex-Bruins or ex-Bruins prospects who have made the long journey to play hockey in Australia.
Checking in on the @AIHL former #NHLBruins prospect Jesse Gabrielle is off to a fantastic start to his season in Australia. Since joining an already powerful @CBRBrave team the 21YO has 9-5-14 numbers in 4 games. Good experience for him as he trains towards an NA pro return. #NHL pic.twitter.com/FNIgzNNRzt
— Mark Allred (@BlackAndGold277) June 10, 2019
The most recent ex-Bruin to play in the AIHL is currently making his mark on the league in a big way. Former Bruins prospect and 2015, 4th-round pick, Jesse Gabrielle, has had a major impact since signing last month with the defending AIHL champion, CBR Brave. Gabrielle has played just six games to date in the AIHL but has made sure the scorers are familiar with him, having tallied 16 goals and 8 assists for 24 points in those six games. He also represented the North All-Stars in the AIHL All-Star game played in Sydney on Saturday, June 15th. Gabrielle showed off his speed in taking out the Fastest Skater leg of the All-Star Skills Competition with a winning time of 12.97 seconds.
This week, is there a national refereeing crisis in the #AIHL.
Is Jesse Gabrielle the best import the league has ever seen?
— Fifth Liners Podcast (@FifthLinersPod) June 3, 2019
The road to the AIHL for a player like 22-year-old Gabrielle is not the one he had planned on taking, to say the least. Gabrielle skated in pre-season NHL action for the Boston Bruins as recently as this past September, and he likely didn’t envision a stop Down Under as the way he would spend this summer. As Bruins fans would be aware, Gabrielle had an injury-interrupted season in the East Coast Hockey League with the Atlanta Gladiators and eventually on loan with the Wichita Thunder, before his entry-level contract was terminated in April with a year to run. Gabrielle is treating the opportunity to play in Australia as a chance to re-establish himself as a capable player in the hopes of landing another contract to play in the professional ranks for the 2019-20 North American season. Only time will tell if the move will pay dividends for Gabrielle.
One of the biggest names to ever play in the AIHL is another ex-Boston Bruin who finished his playing career in Australia with a five-game stint in the 2006 season. A veteran of 789 NHL games, including 178 in the black and gold, Rob Zamuner scored 13 points in five games as a member of the Brisbane Blue Tongues. His stay may have been brief, but he certainly helped lend credibility to the AIHL as a developing league at the time.
There exists a third Bruins connection to the AIHL. Former Bruins goaltending prospect, Mike Brown, selected by Boston in the fifth round of the NHL Entry Draft in 2003, played a 17-game stint with the Canberra Knights in 2012. Although he never played for the big club in Boston, Brown did play games at the AHL level for Providence before becoming a journeyman minor league keeper.
It’s all well and good to have a few ties to the Bruins make appearances in the AIHL, but surely nobody from Australia is good enough to play at the highest level in North America, right? Well, actually, the growth of the game in Australia over the last two decades has seen a marked improvement in the quality of Australian players being produced, and that has stretched all the way to the National Hockey League. Nathan Walker was drafted in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals and became the first Australian player to win the Stanley Cup in 2018. Walker played in one game on the Caps’ playoff run and contributed an assist. Nice to be able to say you were a point a game player in the playoffs on a Stanley Cup winner!
Congratulations to Nathan Walker and the Washington Capitals for winning the Stanley Cup! pic.twitter.com/kSClAJv7qi
— Sydney Bears (@sydneybears) June 8, 2018
With today’s news of #NHLBruins prospect and #AHLBruins forward Anders Bjork recovery time from shoulder surgery, Here’s the hit from @TheHersheyBears forward Nathan Walker back on December 30th, 2018 that put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season and months to follow. pic.twitter.com/X8vNAtR7lc
— Mark Allred (@BlackAndGold277) January 18, 2019
Now I wouldn’t bring up Walker in this forum without a Bruins connection. For B’s fans who may not be familiar with Walker, he is the player who, back in December, delivered the season-ending hit on Anders Bjork in an AHL tilt between the Providence Bruins and Hershey Bears.
Only time will tell how big hockey may become in Australia, but for now, the league continues to build momentum and grow at a steady rate. For die-hard hockey fans looking for an off-season hockey fix, AIHL games are, for the most part, played on weekends and live streams are often available through individual team Facebook pages or YouTube channels. You can also learn more about the AIHL at their website: https://theAIHL.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @73johnnymac for regular updates on the Perth Thunder.