The season after winning a championship is always tough. No different for the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) defending Goodall Cup champion Sydney Ice Dogs.
Cheshire, Connecticut native Rob Malloy, 27, is in his fourth season and third as its captain with Sydney who were the kings of hockey in the southern hemisphere last September where he has seen the high and lows.
This season saw the Ice Dogs get off to a rocky 1-5 start and then endured the sudden departure of their head coach Ron Kuprowsky, the only coach Malloy has known since he has been playing in Australia.
Kuprowsky, a Canadian native from Edmonton and his two assistants Colin Downie and Brad Andrlon left after just two games into the regular season on 14th April.
“We didn’t see it coming at all. It really wasn’t the way we wanted to start our season, especially after winning the championship. It left a pretty salty taste in our mouths for a while, but we moved forward.
“I don’t want to go into any details regarding the departure. I’ll just say there were a few disagreements with management and leave it at that,” remarked Malloy.
The team briefly went with a trio of interim coaches including recently retired Ice Dogs defenceman Anthony Wilson, the brother of second leading scorer David Dunwoodie-Dion and Mark Page, before hiring 13-year Australian coaching veteran Andrew Petrie on 8th May.
“He (Petrie) has been an awesome addition. He's perfect for the situation and he's earned the respect from the team. We have a great relationship which helps things as well.”
The Ice Dogs have dropped from second place to fifth in the eight-team circuit with a record of 11-10-1-1 (wins, losses, overtime wins, overtime losses) overcoming the early season blues, but still trail the Melbourne Mustangs by just eight points for the top spot.
The Ice Dogs have dropped their last two games. The Mustangs have an AIHL best 44 points prior to this weekend’s action.
The Ice Dogs play on the road in the 4th Battle of Sydney against the Bears on Saturday and host the Perth Thunder on Sunday.
The Ice Dogs and Mustangs don’t meet till the last game of the regular season in Sydney at the Ice Dogs home rink the Liverpool Catholic Club Sports Complex. Just three weeks are left in the regular season.
The Ice Dogs are led in scoring with 49 points by the AIHL’s third-best point getter, Canadian import Simon Barg (17 goals and 51 points) and the fifth-best David Dunwoodie (42 points). They kept the Ice Dogs in the hunt while they recovered from their porous start.
“Simon is one of the best hockey players I have ever played with. His vision and playmaking ability is incredible. Dave compliments him very well because he is a work horse. They were key elements on our championship team last year and they have continued to get better this year.”
What has been the key to the Ice Dogs turnaround?
“Obviously, we didn’t have an ideal start to the season. We lost our coach and the majority of our (early) games were on the road against good teams.
“We expected to pick up where we left off, but it took a while for things to click a bit as well. We found lines that worked and didn’t work. Our defensive game has gotten much better and our goaltending (Tim Noting) has been outstanding.
I can’t really say if there has been a key turning point. We have just gotten better as the season has progressed,” said Malloy.
Malloy is the team’s fourth leading scorer with 12 goals and 30 points in 22 games played and this season statistically has been his best thus far.
“Well, I moved back to defence this year. I had never really played forward until moving to Australia. Playing with guys like Simon, Dave, and John (Clewlow) have definitely helped me to get my name on the score sheet more,” he said.
The Ice Dogs and Bears are the two teams in Sydney in the Australia’s largest city and it doesn’t hinder things much for the local hockey fans.
“It doesn’t hurt the hockey, if anything it provides a rivalry. It’s fun to have a bit of bragging rights on the line, but there is definitely no love lost,” said Malloy, who have won all three meetings thus far this season.
Hockey in Down Under – how did that happen for Malloy a U.S. citizen from Cheshire, Connecticut to be there? He explained us his hockey odyssey.
“A friend (Adam Blanchette of Berlin, CT) came out here the year before playing with Gold Coast and Melbourne. I saw the pictures he posted on Facebook and asked who do I have to talk with to get out there! Once, I got the invite it was a no brainer,” said Malloy.
Blanchette currently plays with the Southern Stampede from Queenstown of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League (NZIHL).
Most players last just a year in part because of visa restrictions, but Malloy is entering year four in the AIHL. He didn’t play a full season his first two years in a league that only has a 29 game schedule.
“I lost time in my first year. I was still in Cheshire then in my second year with a broken jaw and my wedding. It was broken my second game back from the wedding. Good thing it wasn’t before!” remarked Malloy.
Malloy has gained permanent residence status and that will help him secure his hockey future in Australia.
“I’m currently a permanent resident and I need my citizenship to play for the national team. I’ll be eligible for my citizenship this November, but I’ll retain my USA citizenship as well. Hopefully, I’ll go to Iceland with the boys next April to play in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship (Division II Group A),” commented Malloy.
Malloy captained his hockey and baseball teams at Cheshire High, then captained two years of junior hockey with the Hartford Junior Wolf Pack in the Eastern (Junior) Hockey League and he played college hockey at Lebanon Valley (PA) College, an NCAA Division III program in the ECAC West conference where his assistant coach was former NHL and AHL star Mitch Lamoureaux.
Like many hockey players in Cheshire growing up he wanted to be like the greatest player to come out of Connecticut.
He also had a very close Cheshire High sports teammate, Greg Schena, who made a major impact in his early playing days.
Schena, died tragically a little over four years ago in a car accident in Southington and played hockey at Central Connecticut State University (ACHA) after playing on the Rams squad with Malloy.
“Greg was a great teammate (hockey and baseball), but he was an even better role model. Greg was one of the older guys we always looked up to. He was always approachable and treated others with respect. It was nice, especially in high school, to have an older guy take you under his wing. I hope I pass on similar qualities that he taught me (to others),” remarked Malloy.
In the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Australia is rated as a Division II nation although the country played in Division I in 2009 and 2012.
“The imports (Canadians-31, Americans-11 and other countries 19) that come out here are legit and the local talent is pretty awesome. We have seven guys on our team who played for the national team last year.
“The sport is definitely growing. The social media outlets help promote our league and give the league exposure to the rest of the world. We get hockey resumes from players around the world every day,” said Malloy, “and there are just 20 rinks in all of Australia.”
The AIHL teams are mostly centred along the East Coast of Australia and just one team on the West Coast, Perth. Melbourne also has two teams (the Ice and Mustangs) and was named the host city for AIHL championship series again this year in early September.
“My parents came out here last year and I flew my dad out to Perth which is kinda like flying from New York to L.A. It’s pretty cool flying around a country like Australia. It’s such a different place. Melbourne is a beautiful place, with a world class rink. They have two teams that sell out every game. It’s always fun going down there. Gold Coast had a team that played out of surfer's paradise up until two years ago, that was also a trip we looked forward to every year,” said Malloy.
Other countries in the southern hemisphere that have leagues operating are New Zealand and South Africa.
New Zealand is just East of Australia and there was talk of playing an interlocking schedule to increase the number of games for both leagues in the future.
“The talent is much better than many people would think. High-calibre imports come from all over the world and the Aussies match their level. They had a Trans-Tasmanian Champions League with the NZIHL a couple years ago, but it got too expensive. I hope they eventually bring it back, it would be awesome for hockey in the southern hemisphere.”
The limited regular season schedule makes for a different training regimen.
“We play mostly on weekends because most guys are working full time and 29 games is still a long season. We practice once or twice a week, which is different from North America, and most of the rinks are Olympic size, which are wider than the rinks in North America. Most imports who come here do it for the experience, not to get better. It’s an opportunity to stay on the ice and a chance to see the other side of the world,” said Malloy.
Malloy is not looking to relocate hockey to play in North America or Europe.
“I’m very content to play in AIHL. I have a very good job, my wife and I don’t want to leave.”
He and his wife Asmara live an hour north of Sydney in New South Wales right on the beach and the beaches he sees on a daily basis are not like beaches that he grew up with.
“The beaches here are absolutely amazing. We in live in a surf town like Malibu. The rip is a bit stronger, the beaches can be way more dangerous. The colour of the water is a beautiful blue and most beaches are sand bottom. It’s a surfer’s dream. I have seen a few snakes, a million spiders and kangaroos. I’ve never seen a shark, but there have been a few attacks around the area I live in.”
In addition to the 10-hour time difference he has had to get used to the Aussie slang while they speak English and other culture differences that were a challenge.
“A weed whacker is considered a whippa-snippa, cotton candy is fairy floss, a beer cooler is an eskie, the list could go on for days. The time difference didn’t take too long to adjust to... driving on the other side of the road took the longest. The seasonal change is a bit of a culture shock especially around Christmas time when summer is just starting. It feels a bit odd to go to the beach on Christmas morning,” said Malloy.
The sport of hockey has given this Cheshire, Connecticut native a chance to not only play the sport, but truly see the world and a second chance at a championship.
The season continues this and the next two weekends before the finals in Melbourne on 30th and 31st August.