“We travelled over 20 hours to get here,” said forward Sharna Godfrey, who is about to embark on her sixth World Championship. “Every year, we spend a full day just to get to our training camp.”
This year’s camp was in Liberec, Czech Republic, where the women from Down Under spent a week getting acclimatized to the nine-hour time change, practising and playing a couple of exhibition games against the Czech U18 women’s national team. On Sunday, the team then flew from Prague to London, then to Dumfries in Scotland by bus.
Travel, however, is something the Aussie women are used to. The Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League has five teams spread far apart on the continent’s eastern, southern and western coasts, with the new expansion team from Perth travelling by air to regular-season games in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
“And we’re not professional,” said Godfrey, a member of the Sydney Sirens, who has played in the league since it started in 2007. “We all have to pay to play.”
With ice time scarce, and with players often not able to commit huge amounts of time or money, the AWIHL plays just a 12-game schedule, plus playoffs, in the Australian summer, which ranges from October to March. The men’s AIHL plays in the winter from April to September.
Playing women’s hockey is a challenge many places in the world, but those are the extra hurdles to overcome in a country that is geographically isolated from the rest of the hockey-playing world; one of 7 million square kilometres and 23 million people, but only 4,500 registered hockey players and 20 sheets of ice.
“But we have 44 million kangaroos,” Godfrey assured. The ones on their national team jerseys not included.
The Australian women’s national team first competed in a Division I Qualification tournament in Hungary and lost all three of its games. Since 2012, the Aussie women have been consistently in Division II – either Group A or B – and have improved steadily over the past few seasons. Last year, they finished fourth against most of the same teams they will face this year, but the high player turnover makes it hard to handicap. However, everyone seems optimistic.
“Anything higher than a bronze medal will be the best we’ve ever done,” said Godfrey.
As for winning the tournament and gaining promotion to the Division I Group B for the first time?
“I definitely think it’s in our sight. I’d love for it to be this year. I don’t know how likely that is until we get up there and see the competition, but if not this year, then hopefully next year we can move up a division.”
“For us, it’s very hard because which players we have always varies due to availability from work and being able to afford to come away,” said head coach Stuart Philips, who is in his fifth year behind the bench. “Plus, you’ve got girls who are starting families and coming back from that, so each year the team’s gonna be a little bit different. Sometimes you lose veteran players and that opens doors for the younger players to come in.”
This year’s Australian team has seven new players, the youngest being 15-year-old Marnie Pullin, who has already played in two U18 Women’s World Championships.
“My first year of U18s (at 14), we were playing against France and Poland but, to me, it seemed like the U.S. and Canada – the level seemed so high,” said Pullin. “Now moving to the senior women, I haven’t seen the level of the competition yet but just playing with these women, there’s just an older mentality. I’m just trying to soak it up and maybe when I become an older player, I can pass that down to the younger ones.”
Compared to Pullin, 18-year-old Sara Sammons is a veteran, with four U18s and one senior women’s World Championship under her belt. Sammons has played the past two seasons for the Newbridge Academy in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, from which she will graduate this June.
“I just think that the exposure and the ability to learn systems and really be engulfed in a hockey community is something you just can’t get in Australia yet. It’s an opportunity to improve.”
Philips has noticed the improvement in Sammons and other players who have gone to North America to hone their craft. “Not only their skills but their hockey sense, and that’s the biggest thing in Australia because we don’t have hockey on TV. We have (Australian) football, soccer, rugby and cricket, but unless you buy an internet subscription, you’re not going to see professional hockey.”
Sammons agreed, saying that in Canada, “It’s always on TV or you can just hop down to the rink and watch it.”
Compared to the light schedule or games in Australia, players such as Sammons who go to North America are on the ice every day and in the gym several times a week as well. “The way I think has changed a lot. Instead of just rushing, I put my head up and have a look around. I’m also a lot fitter and stronger.”
Philips continued: “We try to encourage our girls to go overseas – and our boys as well – to get their experience over there because we just don’t have the ice time or level of competition in Australia. It’s great for us as a national team for player development, and it’s also great for them to get an education and play the sport they love.”
While Sammons admits that some of her schoolmates in Canada were initially surprised that she was a hockey player from Australia, that’s a perception that’s beginning to change. That’s thanks in large part to Australian hockey now having a recognizable name in Nathan Walker, who last season became the first player from the country to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals.
“I don’t know if it’s gotten so many people into hockey in Australia, but it’s definitely benefitted us as far as getting us on the world hockey map,” said Godfrey. “People don’t think ‘Oh, they can’t play hockey there’ anymore. We’ve got a name for ourselves now.
“It’s helping with our national leagues too. We’re getting more funding now because we’re more well known.”
That funding may be part of the reason the team has crept higher and higher the past few years in Division II Group A, from sixth in 2016 to fifth in 2017 and fourth in 2018. That has also meant an improvement in their IIHF World Ranking – the Australian women are currently ranked 29th in the world, while their men are ranked 36th.
Does that give the women bragging rights?
“Absolutely!” Godfrey smiles.
The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group A runs 2-8 April in Dumfries, Great Britain. From the six-team tournament, the top team advances to Division I Group B in 2020 and the bottom team drops to Division II Group B.
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