There’s a feeling you get, right before a big hockey game begins.
It’s in the first view of the arena, looming large against a grey sky.
It’s in the security scrum, in the push and pull of the crowd in the lobby, in the thrum of mascots and merch stalls and event staff all around.
It’s in the endless hallways, food vendors around the rim, one after another, disorienting even before the beer buzz sets in.
Australian hockey fans don’t often get treatment like this.
In one of those tunnels, I hear a local hockey fan explaining the rules of the game to a security guard.
“You’re going to love it,” the fan promises. “And if you do, you should come to an AIHL game.”
The security guard is doubtful.
“I’m forty years old. I can’t become a fan of something new now.”
But that’s how it happened for most of us.
In Australia, we don’t grow up with hockey on television and peewee tournaments every weekend. Few of us grow up in hockey families. We come to know and love the sport on our own.
I found local hockey first, but that’s not how it happens for most Australian hockey fans. For some, it starts with a childhood movie about a scrappy young hockey team coached by Emilio Estevez. For others, it starts with a trip to a country that has lived large in the minds of Australians for generations.
Between periods, I speak with a Team USA fan guarding two Redbull-and-vodkas outside the ladies’ bathroom.
“I’ve been there [to the US]. I like it better,” she says, but her sister lives in Canada and is therefore supporting the other team.
They head back to their seats, laughing and joking, and through the tunnel I see the net rising over the ice. It hits me again. This is hockey, in a stadium worthy of an NHL game, in Australia.
The game itself is fast-paced and thrilling, flying from end to end, with players smashed up against the glass and pucks rattling along the boards.
At one stage a player falls to the ice, blood dripping, and a fan yells from the stand: “Any teeth missing?”
The line is brutal and irreverent, as fans of the sport often are, but it’s lined with respect. When the player climbs to his feet to be escorted off the ice by the med team, a towel pressed to his face, fans from both teams clap and whistle.
This may be an exhibition game, but it doesn’t always feel like one.
Fans are absorbed from whistle to whistle, only registering the booming voice of the announcer in breaks and between periods, where the tension is eased with Kiss Cam and Dance Cam mugging.
Tiny hockey players take the ice to show the pros how it’s done, NRL players wobble on skates, and a couple of lucky fans have the chance to shoot their way to San Jose in a competition sponsored by Hungry Jacks.
Two mascots from the AIHL, Australia’s premier hockey league, faux-fight and dance to fans’ delight, an incongruous sight. You can see the odd AIHL jersey in the crowd, and ads for one of Sydney’s two AIHL teams, the Sydney Ice Dogs, play on the jumbotron, but for the most part these are separate worlds.
I met a mother and daughter, from Orange and Newcastle respectively, buying beer from a stand in the lobby. This was their girls’ weekend and they travel here for the game every year.
Though both are huge hockey fans, supporting Team USA, only the daughter had been to an AIHL game.
“Yeah, I’ve been to a couple. The Newcastle Northstars.”
But like the local hockey fan trying to convince the security guard to come to an Ice Dogs game, the AIHL is making strides to reach a wider audience, and it starts with games like this.
Hockey is already in the veins of these 13,000 hockey fans. In the lobby, we meet a man with a temporary tattoo American flag on his forehead. In the halls, Rangers fans stand in line for hot dogs and poutine with Penguins and Flyers fans. In the stands, a woman wielding a Canadian flag cuddles up next to a man wrapped in stars and stripes.
These are people with team loyalties, affiliations, backstories and long-held rivalries. People willing to travel miles, interstate or even internationally, to see their teams play.
In the lobby between periods, I meet a young couple from Brazil decked head-to-toe in Rangers gear. They’re here to cheer on Team USA and experience once again a game they fell in love with on a trip to New York. You can see the light in their eyes as they take in the pageantry, the food stalls and mascots and the jovial, milling crowd.
When you’re in the midst of it, it’s not hard to see what draws people to hockey. They’re here for the game, but maybe even more than that, they’re here for the atmosphere. For a culture they love, a culture that prizes showmanship as much as talent, a culture for which a game is never just a game.
Outside those doors, perhaps, people might not understand what draws us to North American sport, or why we’re slowly making it our own. But hockey fans know: once you’re there, once you hear the anthem, once the lights dim and the music rises and the players come out onto the ice, you become part of the game. Part of the legacy these players from the United States and Canada represent.
You might say Australia isn’t a hockey nation, but in this corner of Sydney, for one night, you’d be wrong.
Maybe we don’t have a personal stake in Canada vs USA, or maybe we do. Maybe an exhibition game like this one doesn’t count for anything, or maybe it does.
It doesn’t matter.
We love hockey, and on a night like this, it starts to feel like hockey loves us back.