Like most of their friends, Austin McKenzie and Brendan McDowell joined sporting clubs away from school. But while their mates were interested in familiar sports like Aussie rules, cricket and basketball, the pair was captivated by ice hockey – akin to a religion in North America but decidedly underground in Australia.
“I’d go to school on a Monday and my mates were talking about their footy matches on the weekend and I was always off doing my own thing,” says McKenzie.
“It’s a nice change from being a regular footy or cricket guy, and my friends take a real interest in ice hockey now,” adds McDowell.
Despite their tender ages – 20 and 21, respectively – the pair are key players for the Melbourne Ice and Melbourne Mustangs in the Australian Ice Hockey League. ;The nine-team competition was founded in 2000. Ice joined in 2003; a rivalry was born in 2011 when the Mustangs entered the league. Both teams play home games at Docklands’ Icehouse, which seats 1,000 people and sells out well in advance when they meet.
“The rivalry is great for the sport, it’s definitely the best ice hockey atmosphere anywhere in Australia,” says McDowell.
Ice hockey is a full-contact sport full of big hits and collisions, and the players had their share of injuries (McKenzie alone has broken his nose 11 times). But McDowell says the toughest thing about the sport is the commitment required, especially as most players work or study full-time.
“We normally play two games on a weekend and it’s not recreational hockey, it’s competitive and it takes a lot out of you. We can come back after two games in Sydney, get home at 1am and some guys have to get up for work in the morning. It’s hard but it’s great fun.”
Although ice hockey doesn’t have a huge profile in Australia, the pair say the quality is high. McKenzie, who spent two years studying at Canada’s Ontario Hockey School, believes the league is developing quickly. “It’s already at the standard of a lot of overseas leagues,” he says. “It’s great to know that you don’t have to leave the country to play great hockey.”