Why Canadian Tyler Lovering invented Australian Ice Hockey League
AIHL showing signs of growth since established by Saskatchewan hockey player in 2000
Tyler Lovering did everything humanly possible to become the next Wendel Clark.
They went to the same boarding school at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask. He played junior hockey with the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League; Wendel played for the Saskatoon Blades in the same league.
Lovering even won a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts and after not getting drafted into the NHL, went back to his Moose Jaw Warriors team at the ripe age of 21 with his sights set on playing in Germany, hoping his agent could land him a contract.
In contrast by 19 years old, hockey legend Clark had won a gold medal at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships and was drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For Lovering though— and his varying skills aside — up until 21, the steps he took to become a professional hockey player like Clark were on point.
That's when things took an intriguing turn.
Move to Australia
In 1994, a Notre Dame alumni visited Lovering's dad who was the athletics director at the time. Lovering noticed he was wearing a Sydney Bears hockey T-shirt but thought it was some joke, some kind of novelty team that would only appear on a SEGA video game.
The man told Lovering about a hockey league that existed in New South Wales and mused that he should fax an application to the Sydney Bears to see what would happen.
Lovering did just that.
After receiving a call at 4 a.m. one morning from Bears' general manager Barry Robertson, Lovering was on a plane to Sydney two weeks later.
Australian Ice Hockey League is born
In 1995, Lovering's first season, hockey operated under the Australian Ice Hockey Federation where each province played among their own leagues.
It was then Lovering decided to create a national competition where the best players would be pitted against each other.
That's when the Australian Ice Hockey League was born, in 2000, with three teams competing for the championship.
Since then the AIHL has expanded into an eight-team competition, is broadcast to two million homes each week on Fox Sports and is watched by an estimated 100,000 ticketed fans annually, across Australia.
The Sydney Bears have won two AIHL Goodall Cups: 2002, 2007.
Wayne Gretzky Classic
This Saturday marks the end of a five-leg Canada versus U.S. series, also known as the Wayne Gretzky Classic, which had NHL All-Star MVP and captain of Team USA John Scott and a visit from "The Great One" himself: Wayne Gretzky.
"It's amazing to think where we came from to where it is now," the 44-year old Lovering said, who also represented Australia in 44 matches and acted as league commissioner for three years before retiring.
"Everything I have I can attribute to — in one way shape or form — to hockey. It's (AIHL) absolutely one of my proudest achievements and something I'll forever be able to look back and say that's kind of my legacy in Australia."
Interest in sport intensifies
Robert Bannerman, from Nova Scotia, took over from Lovering in 2012 as the AIHL commissioner when the league was described as "steady" — no hulking debts and a durable fan base.
We're now attracting talent from all over the world.- Robert Bannerman, AIHL commissioner
Since then interest in the sport has intensified: the AIHL has seen a 25 per cent rise in game attendance each year since 2012, high-profiled sponsors such as Air Canada have jumped on board and Australia now boasts the third highest NHL digital subscription behind Canada and the U.S.
"It all adds cache to our league," Bannerman said "We're now attracting talent from all over the world — Europe, Canada the U.S. — as our product continues to grow."
With team rosters capped at 30, which includes no more than four imports per side, Bannerman said the growth is in the quality of players which makes the league more appealing to fans from different sporting markets, sponsors and TV deals.
Even Australian hockey players are now starting to treat the sport more seriously, as an all-year round investment.
While other amateur sports look to grow participation numbers, Bannerman's vision is fixated on creating better fan experiences.
On the phone from Halifax, he said not only does he pay attention to local sporting organizations and how they treat their fans, such as the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League, he 's geared into the NHL's less traditional hockey markets like Florida. Challenges exist such as the hot weather and sports like surfing and fishing out muscle hockey.
Players are our strongest advocates.- Bannerman
Without any funding from state or federal government, the AIHL relies on its teams being self sufficient through ticket sales, sponsorship and in some cases player fees.
"Players are our strongest advocates. They get that first hand experience which helps putting those stories into context," he said.
"There's also the unexpected benefits of making a living in hockey as a state coach, running workshops — where the same opportunities might not exist for them in Canada or the U.S."
Canadians in AIHL
Bannerman said Canadians account for more than 50 per cent of the AIHL import limit.
Calgary-born Scott Swiston is one of three former University of Alberta players, making an impact on the ice for the Newcastle North Stars.
"One of my favourite things about the league is that all the coaches, players, GMs are just people who love hockey," he said.
"Sometimes coaches and players are doing it because they have to, like running a business. That kind of takes the fun away from it. When you play here you got guys that are super competitive but just love the sport. It's beautiful to be part of."
The 25-year-old forward used hockey as a means to pay his way through university and it wasn't until he heard about the hockey experiences Down Under from a friend that he even knew it existed.
In 2015, the six-foot-four goal-scorer jumped on a plane and within two weeks after learning about the league he was on the ice, became a top five point scorer in the league and won a championship — the AIHL Goodall Cup — all in his first season.
"Imports that come each year they all form a bond because they're all doing the same thing," Swiston said.
"It's a different lifestyle to part of the hockey down here. I could see myself coming back for the next couple of years now."
- A previous version of this story stated the AIHL has an estimated 100,000 ticketed fans weekly. However, the estimate is for annual tickets.Jul 02, 2016 7:28 PM CT