The first of six different Men's World Championship tournaments is currently underway in one of hockey's southern-most outposts: Melbourne, Australia. It's the Division 2A tournament, featuring countries ranked as high as 29th in the world and as low as 40th. These are generally amateur level players: some play in semi-professional leagues but the highest level of league I found any player to be in currently is Branko Mamic of 29th ranked Serbia, playing in the Hungary-Romania joint effort MOL-Liga. And that's assuming the MOL-Liga is actually a better league than the Belgian or Australian leagues.
It's quite a different level of play, and what makes this tournament even more unique is that for hosts Australia and 40th ranked New Zealand, this is just the start of their hockey season. Australia's AIHL season starts in late April and runs through August, while New Zealand has an even later start date for the NZIHL, which runs from mid-May to mid-September. So while Serbia, Belgium and Mexico arrive in post-season form (albeit very jet-lagged), Australia and New Zealand have only had pre-tournament exhibition games to fall back on.
The venue for this tournament is The Icehouse, a one year old state of the art winter sports facility in Melbourne's Docklands district, an old industrial suburb that is undergoing an urban renewal that is also home to Docklands Stadium, a 50,000+ stadium used for Aussie Rules Football and rugby. The Icehouse is to Australian ice sports what the Olympic Park in Calgary is to Canadian amateur athletes (particularly sliding sports), hosting two Olympic size rinks for hockey, figure skating, short track speed skating, and even curling training. The rink played host to the 2010 AIHL champions Melbourne Ice, and potentially could become the permanent home of the AIHL Grand Final. The rink has shown much promise to the growth of hockey in the region that a second AIHL team will be playing there in 2011, simply known as the Mustangs. It also hosts a AWIHL team called the Ice that plays in the four team national women's circuit, although their schedule runs in the Australian spring and summer.
In short, for a nation ranked so low in the IIHF World Rankings, expect a lot of IIHF tournaments to be held there. And don't be surprised if Australian national teams start to improve.
The tournament was unfortunately hit with the news of North Korea's withdrawl from IIHF competitions this year. By doing so, North Korea will officially forfeit all their games by a score of 5-0, which means automatic relegation to Division 3 next year. That means the teams are only playing for promotion at the Division 2As, and none of the five participants will be relegated, which is particularly good news for New Zealand. However, it does mean that the teams flew all the way to Melbourne to play four games instead of five, but luckily there were some exhibition games as well.
One of the better stories of the tournament is 17 year old Australian forward Nathan Walker, who has been lighting up the Czech U20 league. He's one of, if not the best of the 1994 born players currently in the Czech Republic, and he's unlike anything that Australian hockey has ever seen before. He's making his international debut at this tournament, forgoing the chance to play for Australia's U20 and U18 teams the past couple of years to go straight to the senior team. In his first two games, he's already had two goals and two assists, and could already be a difference maker at this level as Australia pushes for its second ever promotion to the Division 1 level.
The main obstacle to promotion to Division 1 appeared to be Serbia before the tournament began. Serbia is the highest ranked country of the group at 29th, and were the team that was relegated from Division 1 last year. However, Belgium pulled off an upset of Serbia in the opening game of the tournament, a tight 3-2 win where Serbia outshot Belgium 38-22. Australia easily defeated Mexico 11-1, and followed that up by beating Belgium 5-3 earlier today (or yesterday if you're reading this from Australia). Meanwhile, Serbia got in the win column with a 6-4 win over New Zealand, where they outshot the Kiwis by a 56-28 margin.
The tournament ends with what could be the battle for first place, as Serbia plays Australia for a Sunday evening game (7:15 PM local). With the Icehouse attracting full houses of around 1300 spectators for the Australian team, it could be a big moment for the national team. And who knows, maybe that big 50,000 seat stadium nearby could be more appropriate seating capacity for tournaments in the not to distant future.
Remaining Schedule (local time is Greenwich Mean Time +10h):
- Serbia vs. Mexico (Thurs. Apr 7, 1:00 PM local)
- Belgium vs. New Zealand (Thurs. Apr 7, 4:30 PM local)
- Mexico vs. Belgium (Sat. Apr 9, 4:30 PM local)
- New Zealand vs. Australia (Sat. Apr 9, 8:00 PM local)
- New Zealand vs. Mexico (Sun. Apr 10, 3:45 PM local)
- Serbia vs. Australia (Sun. Apr. 10, 7:15 PM local)
Twitter follow: Sasky Stewart, AIHL Commissioner