Australian Indigenous hockey team makes international debut in Edmonton

Australia's first Indigenous ice hockey team is visiting Alberta to take part in a cultural exchange with Cree communities.

The Boomerangs have trained for two years

Australia's first Indigenous ice hockey team, the Kaurna Boomerangs, is visiting Alberta to take part in a cultural exchange with Cree communities. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

When Australian hockey player Michael Burgoyne stepped off the plane in Edmonton on Friday, the 50 C difference in temperature compared to back home was one of the first things he noticed.

The 22-year-old is a member of the Kaurna Boomerangs: Australia's first ever Indigenous ice hockey team.

The squad, whose players range in age from 13 to early 20s, travelled to Edmonton to take part in a cultural exchange with Cree nations in northern Alberta. 

On Saturday, the team worked through jet lag during a practice on the rink at Rogers Place.

Burgoyne said skating on the Edmonton Oilers' home ice was a "surreal" experience, and that its been an adjustment acclimatizing not only to the weather, but also to Canadian culture. 

"I rocked up and I got told 'we're in Canada, we don't say ice hockey here, we just say hockey,'" he said, explaining field hockey is the more popular game in Australia. 

Hockey player Michael Burgoyne is a member of the Kaurna Boomerangs, Australia's first ever Indigenous ice hockey team. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The Boomerangs were formed and began training two years ago, as part of the Ice Factor program: a longstanding initiative that gets disadvantaged youth involved in hockey.

Based out of Adelaide, Australia, Ice Factor was founded by Marie Shaw, whose own daughter had her life turned around after falling in love with the sport.

When Shaw heard southern Australia's only ice rink was set for closure, she got involved in efforts to save it, and ended up founding the now 15-year-old organization that has seen 3,000 young people participate, and is connected to 18 Australian high schools. 

Two years ago, a pair of young Indigenous men approached Shaw about the possibility of forming an Indigenous team. She threw her support behind them, and helped make possible the trip to Canada to play against and connect with Indigenous teams here.

"You need to have a dream, and you need to believe in it," she said. 

Burgoyne, who is Mirning and Narungga, is one of the 18 Indigenous players of the team. He said he was a bit of a "run-amok" when he entered high school years ago. He credits the Ice Factor program with helping him to stay motivated and stay the course through school. 

"The program has helped me out a lot. I've finished school, I've got a job, got a family," he said.

The team will gear-up for on-skates events in Edmonton, Maskwacis, and Calling Lake. In the city, they'll visit Amiskwaciy Academy, RCMP K Division, West Edmonton Mall, and bundle up for a skate on at the Ottewell Community League's outdoor rink.

The Boomerangs will take in some high level hockey as spectators during their trip: watching the Oil Kings take on the Prince Albert Raiders on Jan. 17, and the Oilers versus the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 18.

The hockey players will fly back to Australia on Jan. 19.

With files from Jordan Omstead