Australia - Toronto - Vilnius

Pure amateurs from “Down Under” pay to play Division I

10.04.2009
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NHL veteran Steve McKenna prepares his Aussie squad in a community rink north of Toronto. Now it's off to Division I Worlds in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo: Mike Wyman

TORONTO – In a country where ice hockey has survived for a century despite being completely ignored by most of its citizenry you’d think that simply taking part in the IIHF World Championship Division I would satisfy the Australian team’s centennial aspirations.

You’d be wrong. After reaching the highest level they’ve competed at in nearly 50 years, the Aussies want to stick around.

“I want to win,” states head coach, Steve McKenna.

“I wouldn’t mind coming out of there with a medal. I’m under no illusion that is going to happen, but that’s my goal,” continued the veteran of eight NHL campaigns (373 games with Los Angeles, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers), during his team’s week-long training camp at Teen Ranch in Orangeville, Ontario, an hour north of Toronto.

Designed to prepare the squad for the rigours of playing four games in five nights to open their visit to Vilnius, Lituhania, (April 11-17) the daily routine began with breakfast at 7:00 AM and concluded with lights out at 9:00 PM. Morning and afternoon practices lasted two hours each and were separated by lunch and an hour of dry land training.

This year’s team is significantly different from the one that went undefeated to capture the 2008 Division II title on home ice in Newcastle. Several veterans are no longer able to literally pay the price to perform at the international level.

“Several players from last year had to drop out due to lack of funds or not being able to get time off work,“ said McKenna. “These guys have to pay a couple thousand dollars out of their own pockets plus they have to get time off work. It’s a pretty big commitment and some guys couldn’t make it but we’ve had a couple young guys step up and we’re ready to go.”

Matt Ezzy and Stu Denman will divide the duties in nets but the trip to Canada revealed a prospect for the future, 19-year-old netminder Anthony Kimlin, who spent 2008-09 playing in Ontario with the Junior A Dixie Beehives.

A big but mobile blue line corps is anchored by captain Rob Starke, who also led last year’s edition of the team.

“Starkie brings a veteran presence and he has a great mind for the game,” declares McKenna. “He’s unquestionably our leader and he has the ear of the team, both on and off the ice and he plays any role we ask of him. If you could get 20 guys like him on a team you’d have no problem.”

Also patrolling the blue line for the Aussies is Jarred Seymour, headed to Cornell University next fall, the first Australian to break into the Ivy League

Up front the first trio features the speedy duo of Greg Oddy and Mitch Villani and is completed by Liam Webster. Backing them up will be Vladimir Rubes, Vladan Strasky and Roberto Franchini while Scott Stevenson, one of last season’s top defensive forwards, is expected to repeat in that role.

The team had its first taste of action on Monday, April 6th, taking on a pick-up team of local Junior and college players in a match refereed by 2008 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, Ray Scapinello, who carried a whistle for 33 NHL seasons.

The evening ended with the Australians on the winning end of a 6-1 game and provided both a sense of satisfaction and a list of things to concentrate on during the next morning’s practice.

“It was a good first step. By no means does it show us what we can do but we made some good strides,” said McKenna before moving on to tasks yet to be mastered.

“We have to get more in synch and we have to make decisions quicker because it’s going to get a lot faster than it did last night. We just have to keep raising the bar,”

Tuesday was the last full day of workouts. With the team flying to Europe on Thursday (April 9), a part of Wednesday was devoted to a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which includes Australian, Thomas Dunderdale, among its honoured members.

The Australian team’s objective for Vilnius is to finish high enough to avoid being relegated and returned to Division II status but no matter what the outcome of the tournament and despite his earlier expressed desire for a podium spot for his team, McKenna’s men have done well in his eyes.

“Just the fact that the driest continent in the world has a hockey team in Division I is an achievement in itself. People don’t realize who some of the teams that are ranked below us are,” he said. “We’re going to be playing against guys who make a living from hockey and that in itself is another victory. If we have a good tournament a few of our guys are going to have opened some doors for themselves. It’s going to be very exciting.”

MIKE WYMAN

Footnote: Australia will be competing in the Division I, Group A with host Lithuania, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Japan and Croatia. The teams in the other division I group (at Torun, Poland) are: Poland, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Romania and Ukraine. The winners from each group earn promotion to the 2010 IIHF World Championship in Germany (Cologne & Mannheim).


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