Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

There’s a First Time for Everything

Some hockey games are bigger than the game (think Miracle on Ice) and sometimes, so is the player. Such was the case when Nathan Walker became the first Australian to play in the NHL. It followed a string of firsts that also include being the first Australian to be drafted into the league, play in the AHL and play professionally in Europe. Walker's road to the NHL was long and it wasn't easy, but that's exactly why it's the stuff sports dreams are made of. How could you not be excited for him? Or for his whole country, for that matter. This past week should have given me even more reason to get excited, as Adin Hill made his NHL debut and the Winterhawks winning streak hit seven. But it was tempered by the awful news that Gord Downie had passed away. I remember the first time I heard a Tragically Hip song as clearly as I remember the first time I watched a hockey game. There is some comfort in knowing that even now, whether I'm listening to the Hip's music or watching a game, it's still just like the first time. 

Number one for take off: When I traveled to Australia in 2016 for the start of the AIHL season, the first question I got was "there's hockey in Australia?" Indeed there is. Australian hockey may be small compared to the NHL, but it's mighty. Quite literally: their national team is The Mighty Roos. The AIHL season lasts just 28 games and it's comprised of eight teams, stretching from Perth to Newcastle and almost everywhere in between. Like the NHL, they have their own expansion goals. On tap for 2018 are plans to re-enter the Queensland market, followed by a potential expansion to the Tasmanian market in 2020. And hiding out among their talent pool, you just might find the NHL's next big thing.  Nathan Walker once played in the AIHL briefly in 2010, when he suited up for four games with the Sydney Ice Dogs. When he made NHL history, he paved the way for his fellow countrymen to follow their own dreams all the way to the NHL. Like the ones who helped their national team win a Gold Medal:

Please fasten your seat belts: About two weeks before I touched down in Melbourne last year, the Australian national ice hockey team won the Gold Medal at the IIHF Division II Group B tournament in Mexico City. Their opponents included Israel, Bulgaria, North Korea, Mexico and New Zealand. Hockey is everywhere, but the Australians dominated the tournament with seven of the ten scoring leaders and two of the top three goaltending leaders. This year, Melbourne was home to the AIHL finals, where the two hometown teams faced off. The Melbourne Ice ultimately won the Goodall Cup, but the Mustangs put up a good fight. If you're planning to travel Down Under next year, keep in mind that the AIHL pre-season starts in March, All-Star Weekend takes place in June and finals are held in early September. 

Tale of Two Cities: I returned to Australia this year just in time for the start of the footy season, the Australian Grand Prix and the hockey pre-season. And yes, I attended the Grand Prix, a hockey game and a footy game all in one day. There's a reason coffee rules in Melbourne and now I know why. But back to topic: along the way, I picked up a few new Twitter followers and friends, including Eric Brook. He discovered hockey on a trip to Portland in 2014, where he attended a Winterhawks vs. Medicine Hat Tigers game that ended in an 8-2 win for the Hawks. Eric was so inspired by the game, he did more than just become a hockey fan, he's learning how to play. You can follow him on Twitter, Harbour City Hockey or Grassroots Sports Australia for a whole new perspective on this game. 

Fancy footy work: If you live in Australia or have at least traveled there, then you know that Aussie Rules Football does indeed rule, in every way possible. For Americans not yet introduced to the game, you can find it in America too. The Australian season culminates in the Grand Final in late September, complete with a long weekend for a parade on Friday. This year's premiers are the Richmond Tigers, who played in that first game I saw this season. When I asked the owner of Proud Mary Coffee (now open for business in Portland) what he thought of the win, even he couldn't believe it. But I did, and it appears that I might have been the only one in the near vicinity who did. Why did their win seem out of reach to so many? It's the first time they've captured the AFL Championship title in 37 years. Last year, it was the Western Bulldogs, who hadn't won since 1954. Like Nathan Walker, good things came to those who waited. Or maybe it was just meant to be all along: 

#GdayNate: Australia Day is January 26. It's also Wayne Gretzky's birthday. If you saw the NHL article Paul posted a few weeks ago, you know that Nathan Walker met The Great One when both were in Australia last year.  Et voila! One year later, Walker makes history. Coincidence? I think not. In life and in hockey, some things are just meant to be. Speaking of destiny: 

The future is now:  After several seasons paying their dues in the AHL, former Portland Winterhawks are coming on strong in the NHL. Former Winterhawk captain Taylor Leier got called up for the Flyers' opening game. Goalie Adin Hill made his debut on Tuesday with the Arizona Coyotes and impressed enough to get a second start on Thursday. In Vegas, it seems like the Golden Knights have acquired half of the WHL, including Brendan Leipsic, Cody Eakin, Griffin Reinhart, Luca Sbisa and Brayden McNabb.

Two halves of one blog: I started writing this blog a few weeks ago and put it on pause, which is why it might read like it's two separate pieces. When I picked it back up and started getting excited about the things to come, I was reminded of the past:  

#RIPGordDownie: I don't even remember exactly where I was or how I first heard "New Orleans is Sinking." Thinking back now, it was fate; Gord Downie was also a former goalie and Bruins fan. I was only 21 when the CD "Up to Here" was released. I was still in college, not sure of where my own future would take me. And just like that, 28 years went by in the blink of an eye. A piece of my youth died on Tuesday, but I take comfort in knowing that every time I hear that song, even now it will always take me back to the first time I heard it. It's hard to believe Gord Downie is gone, but what he gave to this world in his short lifetime will live on forever. 

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com