It is a tradition of Australian ice hockey that players, no matter how talented, train at ungodly hours. Ice time at Australian rinks is always at a premium, sought keenly by competing sports. Hockey training, expensive to clubs, can be a low priority of rink managers, who can make more money from public skaters.
In the old days, local clubs were granted the salubrious hour of 6am Sunday morning to practice, a bracing prospect for Saturday night socialisers.
The usual outcome these days is late night midweek practice sessions. Melbourne Ice and Mustangs swap rink time on Thursdays, with the second team not hitting the ice until 9.30pm. Some pre-season editions started well after 10pm, meaning many players and team managers did not get home until 1.30am. It is easy for them to remember they are unpaid at times like that.
Adelaide Adrenaline goes to another extreme. Their main training session is Tuesday night, but their second session is Thursday morning, 6am.
Coach Ryan O’Handley, a Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Parasitology at the University of Adelaide, says the early hour is the choice of his team, which consists mainly of tradesmen.
“They’re used to getting up at 5am! These are plumbers, electricians and carpenters and that’s the hours they prefer.”
He says if prime time was available, he’d take it, but he understands the competing needs of other ice sports stakeholders sharing the Thebarton Ice Arena. The rink is owned and run by the South Australia Ice Sports Federation, formed by the figure skating, broomball and ice hockey communities in 2004, when the rink was threatened with closure.
Like Canberra Brave this year, Adrenaline was forged amidst crisis, in 2008, when the Adelaide Avalanche club folded, after being unable to meet the cost of playing on the road. An interim club, the As, played out the season, and the Adrenaline were born in 2009. Despite the upheaval, Adrenaline won the championship in their first year. Adelaide, there when the league faced off in 2000, has always been competitive, winning the title three times and topping the regular season standings five times.
But the cost of travel remains a major challenge for the only South Australian team in the AIHL, and the club is looking to spread the administrative load - “A lot of us have too much on our plates,” says Ryan - and to lessen costs.
Adrenaline is currently becoming an incorporated entity, making it responsible for its own budgets.
“The Ice Sports Federation supports us financially, which is great, but to have an incorporated structure that has a little more independence, it allows us to operate more efficiently,” O’Handley says.
“In our sport with the amount of travel we have, if you don’t have efficiencies in place it ends up costing you a whole lot of money. If you’re late booking flights it’s not a trivial amount... especially for us where we have to fly to every road trip.”
As Adelaide looks to follow the lead of other clubs in delegating its administration and its promotion via social media, O’Handley is looking for volunteers with expertise. But he is careful.
“We’ve had a good start, there’s a bit of a buzz around the club, that’s always good, that’s a good way to get people involved.
“But you want to make sure you get the right people too, because in the AIHL, things can go south pretty quickly! And that’s when you need people, when things get tough. You need to have those motivated people who will get you through the tough times, not just the good times.”
Such a measured outlook is not surprising for a man from the Saskatchewan town of Kenaston, population 300, where hockey is a “religion” and played at a good level. The town proclaims itself known for “our snowman mascot, Super Draft Hockey Lottery, Kenaston Dinner theatre, Bonnington Springs walking trail”.
Early in life, Ryan had to decide between pursuing the sport he loved and following his mother’s advice to capitalise on his academic abilities. Choosing the latter took him to the University of Calgary; a six-month stint in Perth, Western Australia, where he met his future wife; Maryland in the United States; and Canada’s easterly Prince Edward Island province.
He subsequently lived and coached in Perth for six years, working with now Perth Thunder coach Stan Scott, before a new veterinary school brought him to Adelaide, and an opening as an assistant coach brought him to Adelaide Adrenaline.
He said when he arrived in Adelaide in 2010, his wife told him: “Find a team to coach or you’re going to drive me nuts!”
It seems the affable Canadian has been able to balance sport and study, then work, everywhere he has travelled.
However, he admits there is a time not too far off when he will have to step back.
“Someday I probably wouldn’t mind moving into more of the administrative role. Obviously you want as a coach to have that contact with the players and the teaching - that’s something that really drives me in sport.
“But with respect to the AIHL with the amount of travel, there will be a time when I have to say ‘that’s enough’ and get someone else to take the coaching rein.
“But I would still want to be involved. Once you start building something, you want to see it through to fruition.”
In 2014, Adrenaline is in the sort of form which could see a championship come to fruition. Until coming a cropper last Sunday in a 4-10 loss to reigning champions the Sydney Ice Dogs, the Adrenaline had picked up points in every game. They remain firmly entrenched in the top four, searching for a return to the winner’s list at home against Newcastle this weekend.
O’Handley says the Adrenaline’s superb start to the season was a result of a strong defence crops, running six deep and “really committed” forwards. After the Dogs loss, he told the AIHL site that said the second day of road trips was a problem for his charges. The New South Wales journeys take more than a lot of money out of teams travelling from interstate, with flights, then long bus trips.
O’Handley is confident about his team’s prospects, but respectful of the competition this year in the AIHL.
He says he is not surprised by the early success of the Sydney Bears, who are second in the standings after finishing second last in 2013. He says they were “always going to be tough” because they have good young players, “good, solid imports” and run three lines.
“Newcastle will get it together. The Mustangs are strong. The Ice are strong...
“If any team looks past another team, it will get the short end of the stick... Anybody can beat anybody on a given day; it’s exactly what we want as a league.
“The teams that are not prepared to work; they’re not going to have success. It’s going to make for a higher pace, a higher tempo hockey and I think the fans are going to be the big winner.”
Considering the AIHL’s bigger picture, Ryan says the limit to further growth is the dearth of good enough facilities.
“If everybody had a rink that seated 1000 to 1500, who knows, you might be talking about professionalisation. But we can’t do that unless everyone can bring in that revenue.
“I think the level of play will continue to grow, we have some very good young players coming through and we seem to be getting a higher and higher level of import coming every year now.
“We’re getting guys who have experience from the AHL, the ECHL and very good leagues in Europe. The level of players can increase over the next five years certainly, but the facilities are something ice hockey something as a community in general must look at.”
Ryan works closely with USA Hockey, which has overseen a massive increase in the popularity of hockey in the non-traditional market of California.
He believes the example of the Icehouse in Melbourne shows that there is also “huge room for growth” in Australian hockey.
“It’s a fantastic sport and Australians love sport and I think they love fast sports and highly competitive sports...”
But there's a simpler reason he has faith in the AIHL
“Hockey is the most exciting sport that humans have created”.
That’s enough reason to get out of bed at 5am every Thursday.