The AIHL season has ended on a high, an even competition vindicated by a suitably dramatic and thrilling grand final. In a season in which the bottom teams were never far from beating those atop the standings, it was apt that the margin was just a goal, and the result was in contention in the frantic final seconds.
Apt, but incredibly cruel to the Newcastle North Stars, a consistently outstanding club which has now suffered two one-goal defeats and an overtime loss in the past four years.
After the narrow loss, gun North Stars import Jeremy Boyer, named co-league MVP, described Newcastle as a "first-class organisation", saying the highlight of a great trip to Australia had been "just being around the guys" at the club.
"We’ve got such a great group. It’s a tough pill to swallow tonight. We did such a good job all year... Making the final, losing by one goal, one shot pretty much... that’s all it is. But it’s been a fun time all year."
He praised the "solid" Ice performance.
"Two even teams, the two best teams in the league, that’s how you want the finals. It’s only a 45 minute game and anything can happen, and they ended up having one more shot that went in than we did.
"To a man everyone played great, everyone gave it everything they had. Their team as well, they played excellent. They did a great job of getting in front of pucks. They controlled the play very well. They were a great team and we just couldn’t bury it as much as they did."
Boyer, who had been urged to make the journey to Australia by a former North Stars import, says he will also be passing on the message when he returns to Central Hockey League team the Quad City Mallards.
Fellow import Rob Lawrance, earlier named the league’s best defenceman of 2012, said the North Stars had started the grand final the way they had planned.
"I think our first ten minutes were executed exactly the way we wanted to play. We wanted to get pucks on the net, we wanted to get traffic, we wanted to get pressure on their D., and we did that. We moved our feet, we controlled the puck hard to the net."
Ice, however, were able to staunch the bleeding when trailing 0-2, in no small part due to the heroics of goalie Stu Denman, who blocked 13 of 15 shots in the hectic first period.
"They rode us out, they knew the storm was coming. They battened down the hatches and they waited for us, and they were able to make it work late in the second when our guys were tired, and then in third we were just out of gas."
Ice possessed greater bench depth, and had an easier pasage to the decider, having led their semi-final against the Sydney Ice Dogs 3-0 after five minutes. They were fresh compared to the Stars, who had battled the talented Adelaide Adrenaline all the way the previous afternoon.
Despite their exhaustion, the North Stars mounted a concerted assault to create the equaliser when trailing 4-3 in the last period. Inside the final minute, they pressed the Ice back into their defensive zone, but the puck did not reach the net.
"You always hear people say that time stands still, but it seemed like time was racing against us," Lawrance said of the thrilling finish.
The high-scoring defender was pleasantly surprised by the calibre of Australian ice hockey, saying it was "hard to play hockey in this league," especially on the road.
It is a refrain echoed by many others this year.
Adelaide coach Ryan O’Handley said last week that the biggest improvement to the league this year has been the level of play, and the most exciting thing about the league at the moment is that "Anyone can beat anyone on any given night".
Canberra Knights coach Donald MacDonald concurred.
"The quality of the play has increased again. The players are better, the coaching is better, and there are better facilities in which teams are playing. Most teams can beat any other team in the league on any given night. Increasing numbers of import players are staying in Australia and taking out permanent residency. This is having a very beneficial effect on the league and development of younger players."
Retiring Commissioner Peter Lambert says in 2012 the AIHL was "the most complete it's ever been, with nine teams all able to compete".
"We now cover more of Australia than the NRL and the NBL, and we have a well structured and well run competition to present to the public and sponsors. The most exciting thing about the AIHL is its continued improvement in quality and experience for sports fans in Australia."
The successful introduction of Perth Thunder, who just missed the finals in their first season, was a big highlight of 2012, as well as the impact of new media in providing live coverage of games and news for fans.
The upcoming documentary series "The Ice: Road to Threepeat", which is to be aired on Foxtel and overseas, will also be a landmark for the sport.
Not surprisingly, the amateur league still faces massive challenges.
Venue availability and junior development remain the biggest issues for clubs, with those unable to access a state-of-the-art facility such as the Docklands Icehouse finding it harder to improve their crowds or get enough ice time.
MacDonald says the "growing disparity" between big market teams and smaller market teams is the biggest issue facing the competition.
"In larger centres like Melbourne and Sydney they have a large group of junior players from which to choose. In smaller ice hockey centres such as Canberra and Gold Coast there is a lack of junior players to help make up AIHL rosters. There is a trend taking place across the country with fewer young people taking up the game while there are increasing numbers of adults taking up the game. Unless this trend is reversed soon the whole league will eventually feel the pinch. We are feeling it now."
In short, the league needs both more "grassroots" rinks to accommodate newcomers, and elite facilities to help the AIHL teams fulfil their potential.
Such desires may seem unachievable - they were for most of ice hockey’s long history in this country, in which poor venues at the mercy of business pressures have sometimes barely tolerated the sport - but extraordinary things are becoming realities in modern Australian hockey.
In the past three years the standard of the league has continued to improve, live broadcasts have begun, the Icehouse opened, uncovering a large latent audience, and a dedicated hockey venue has become a possibility.
The finals series just completed, of such high quality, played in such an electrifying atmosphere, should serve as a reminder of how far the sport has come and can go.
Newcastle North Stars 5 Adelaide Adrenaline 4
Melbourne Ice 6 Sydney Ice Dogs 2
Melbourne Ice 4 Newcastle North Stars 3
11.59 Newcastle 1-0 North Stars goal: Kevin Day from Robbie Lawrence
2.01 Newcastle 2-0 North Stars goal: Nick Orford-Quick from Robbie Lawrence and Brian Bales
1.44 Newcastle 2-1 Ice goal: Matt Armstrong unassisted
10.00 Newcastle 2 Melbourne 2 Ice goal: Lliam Webster unassisted
0.51 Newcastle 2 Melbourne 3 Ice goal: Jason Baclig from Greg Sturrock
9.39 Newcastle 2 Melbourne 4 Ice goal: Lliam Webster from Matt Korthuis
5.44 Newcastle 3 Melbourne 4 North Stars goal: Kevin Day from Jeremy Boyer (powerplay)
2012 AIHL award winners
Aaron Barton #29 for the Adelaide Adrenaline (Goals against average 2.84%; Save percentage .905)
Anthony Kimlin #1 for the Gold Coast Blue Tongues (Goals against average 2.25%; Save percentage .935; Finishing top in the league)
Kiefer Smiley #31 for the Perth Thunder (Goals against average 3.07%; Save percentage .893)
Winner: Anthony Kimlin
Adam Blanchette #44 for the Gold Coast Blue Tongues (9 Points; 2 Goals; 7 Assists)
Scott Levitt # 44 for the Melbourne Mustangs (12 Points; 6 Goals; 6 Assists)
Rob Lawrance #13 for the Newcastle North Stars (33 Points; 5 Goals; 28 Assists)
Winner: Rob Lawrance
Rookie of the Year
Charlie Huber #5 defenseman for the Adelaide Adrenaline (10 Points; 4 Goals; 6 Assists)
Grey Bay #4 defenseman for the Gold Coast Blue Tongues (11 Points; 5 Goals; 6 Assists)
Brendan McDowell #29 forward for the Melbourne Mustangs (12 Points; 5 Goals; 7 Assists)
David Kudla #3 defenseman for the Perth Thunder (15 Points; 3 Goals; 12 Assists)
Winners – tied: Charlie Huber and Greg Bay
Most Valuable Player
Matt Armstrong #16 for the Melbourne Ice
(51 Points; 23 Goals; 28 Assists – giving him a third place finish overall in the league)
Jeremy Boyer #12 for the Newcastle North Stars
(58 Points; 25 Goals; 33 Assists – Tied for a first place finish overall in the league)
Kenny Rolph #6 for the Perth Thunder
(47 Points; 21 Goals; 26 Assists – giving him a sixth place finish overall in the league)
Tomas Landa #33 for the Sydney Bears
(58 Points; 19 Goals; 39 Assists – Tied for a first place finish overall in the league; Top Assists in the league)
Winners – tied: Jeremy Boyer and Tomas Landa
Australian Ice Hockey league at a glance:
- There are nine teams, playing in two conferences
- The top two teams from each conference make the sudden death finals on the first weekend in September, in Newcastle. The semi-finals are played on Saturday, with the grand final played the following day.
- Each team is allowed four imports, usually professionals from European or junior North American leagues. The league is completely amateur, though imports are allowed to receive assistance to help with accommodation etc.
- Melbourne Ice has won the past two championships.
* Gold Coast is playing the remainder of its home matches this season in Brisbane at the Acacia Ridge rink.
Full Standings - click here
Leading scorers - click here
Melbourne Ice (including live webcasts of Ice games) - click here
Melbourne Mustangs - click here
AIHL - click here
Melbourne Icehouse - click here
To check out Resolution Media's Melbourne Ice doco: click here.
A crash course in hockey rules, courtesy Newcastle North Stars: click here
Hewitt Sports Network AIHL news - click here
For a great read on the voyage of a new hockey fan - Nick Place's hockey blog
River Road hockey blog - click here