Australia to host preseason games in 2023 NHL Global Series Melbourne
by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist
The NHL will appear in Australia for the first time when the Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings play preseason games in the 2023 NHL Global Series -- Melbourne on Sept. 23 and 24.
The Coyotes and Kings will skate inside Rod Laver Arena, home of the Australian Open tennis tournament, on a rink the NHL will construct with many of the same parts used for outdoor games. The retractable roof will remain closed.
The League announced the event at 10 a.m. Wednesday (8 p.m. Tuesday ET) at a press conference in Federation Square in Melbourne.
It will be one of the boldest moves the NHL has made to grow the game, one of the most difficult projects the League has pulled off logistically and could be just the beginning.
"The intention would not be to come to Australia, play and never come back," said David Proper, NHL senior executive vice president, media and international strategy. "The intention is to make this a recurring set of games and help continue to grow hockey in the market."
The trip will be the NHL's first to the Southern Hemisphere, the farthest it has trekked from North America after playing often in Europe and making a few forays to Asia. Australia represents its fourth continent.
The Coyotes and Kings will report to training camp ahead of the rest of the NHL. Each will split into two squads, the primary traveling to Melbourne on Sept. 16 and the other remaining in North America.
The teams will practice at O'Brien Icehouse, a local rink, on Sept. 19 and 20. They'll take Sept. 21 off before practicing at Rod Laver Arena on Sept. 22. The Coyotes will be designated as the home team Sept. 23, the Kings on Sept. 24. They will depart for home Sept. 25.
The League sees potential in Melbourne and has extensive experience adapting to unique venues overseas and outdoors. This will be a product of almost a decade of discussions and more than a year of planning, including meetings around the world -- from Melbourne to Amsterdam to Hamilton, Ontario.
"We don't jump into any of this stuff without doing a fair amount of research and making sure that this makes sense," Proper said, "and everything that we're seeing is that this a good market for us and a market that is just going to be a lot of fun for the NHL and its players and hopefully for the fan base in Australia."
* * * * *
Melbourne, a city of 5 million people in the state of Victoria in southeastern Australia, loves sports and big events. Fans flock to watch rugby and Australian rules football, which combine skill and physicality like hockey does.
Rod Laver Arena is near the Melbourne Cricket Ground, an iconic stadium with a capacity of more than 100,000. The Coyotes and Kings will visit during the Australian Football League playoffs.
"If there's a game in Melbourne, we could see 150,000 fans in that area," Proper said.
Hockey has been played in Australia since the early 1900s but has much room to grow there.
The semi-pro Australian Ice Hockey League plays for the modern version of the Goodall Cup, for which hockey teams have competed in Australia since 1911. The original Goodall Cup is in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Australia has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1938 and played ice hockey at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, though it went 0-2-0, outscored a combined 30-2 by Czechoslovakia and the United States.
The country has 6,150 registered hockey players and 20 indoor rinks, according to IIHF.com.
Nathan Walker became the first Australian to play in the NHL when he debuted with the Washington Capitals on Oct. 7, 2017. Born in Cardiff, Wales, he moved with his family to Sydney when he was 2 and began playing hockey in Australia. Eventually, he left to play in Europe and North America, and now the forward has 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 109 games for the Capitals, Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues.
Event promoters have asked the NHL about coming to Australia since 2014, said Lynn White, NHL senior vice president, international.
"People approach us from all over the world about playing events," White said. "We're constantly getting pitched that we should play a game in 'X.' You fill in the city. We're fairly certain that with the right mix of teams and the right marketing and promotion that we would sell out games, because it's a spectacle.
"But one of the things that we're very cognizant of from an international strategy standpoint now is that we do not want to be the circus coming to town. We don't want to go in, make a big splash and leave. What we really want to do is grow the fan base, grow the brand and more generally grow the culture of ice hockey."
The NHL feels now is the time to visit Melbourne for several reasons.
Teams of former NHL and American Hockey League players from Canada and the United States have played exhibitions in Australia, including in Melbourne at Rod Laver Arena, and tickets have sold well.
ESPN broadcasts 3-5 NHL games per week on linear and digital platforms in Australia.
Australia accounted for 7.7 million visits to NHL digital platforms in 2022, seventh among countries outside of Canada and the United States. It ranked fourth among countries overseas in visits to the NHL App.
The country has ranked fifth among countries overseas in purchasing NHL gear from Fanatics International since 2015, and Victoria ranks first among Australian states.
The NHL is receiving strong support from Left Field Live and TEG Sports, the event promoters, and Visit Victoria, the state's tourism arm.
"We think that we're poised in Australia to really grow the game and grow the brand, despite the fact that there are very few ice hockey rinks or players in that market, because they over-index in terms of their interest in all of our platforms," White said.
Proper said the NHL believes it will be a transformative experience for people in Melbourne to see the best hockey players in the world live.
"The truth of the matter is, if it weren't so far away, it's a complete layup," Proper said. "Nobody would be questioning why you'd go there. But it's the logistics hurdle that makes everybody question it."
* * * * *
The NHL has been working on clearing the logistics hurdle for a long time.
The League has invested in equipment to build two outdoor rinks for its tentpole events. Usually, it pumps glycol from a Mobile Refrigeration Unit in a semitrailer through aluminum pans in the floor of the rink to freeze the ice. But as it discussed potentially playing at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, it didn't want to ship that system to Australia because of the wear and tear of the trip.
So when the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs played in the Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario, on March 13, 2022, the NHL hosted the event promoters from Australia and a company called Ice World from Amsterdam, which has a different system.
"Hamilton was kind of the main deep dive, showing them how we do everything, how our boards and glass work," said Dean Matsuzaki, NHL executive vice president, events.
The Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets played regular-season games in the 2022 NHL Global Series at Nokia Arena in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4 and 5. Derek King, NHL senior director, facilities operations, stopped to visit the Ice World warehouse in Amsterdam on his way home.
In late November, Matsuzaki and King were part of an NHL contingent that traveled to Melbourne for a site visit. They spent five days dissecting every detail from the airport to the hotels to the local rink to the arena, trying to anticipate anything that could come up on the other side of the globe.
"Once you're there, you're isolated," Matsuzaki said. "We need to think through this five times to make sure we're checking all the boxes."
Rod Laver Arena was built for tennis and normally seats 14,820. A tennis court is much smaller than a hockey rink, but one end of the stands is retractable, allowing just enough room for a regulation NHL ice surface.
The NHL will use the same boards it used outdoors in Hamilton and a new set of glass. The League will build the rink tight against the seats on three sides, creating a horseshoe in the lower bowl. The upper-bowl seats on one end will be limited view, like when the Coyotes played at America West Arena in Phoenix.
"It's a very intimate setting," King said. "When I say we don't have much room to play with, that's an understatement. Our surface just fits."
The NHL will put down a layer of plywood over the tennis court. Instead of putting aluminum pans on top of that, the League will use Ice World's system. Pipes will sit inside a rubber liner, which will be filled with water.
After freezing an initial base of about 1 inch of ice, the NHL will build the ice much the same way it does for an outdoor game, painting it white, laying lines and logos made of fabric, and using a spray boom to mist fine layers to water to ensure a dense, thick sheet.
"It's exciting to see that there's another system out there similar to ours," King said.
Instead of shipping ice resurfacing machines, the NHL will borrow some from O'Brien Icehouse, the local rink.
The NHL will create two locker rooms behind the scenes in an area designed for individual tennis players. It will install a temporary center-hung scoreboard to give the games an authentic feel, even though that will add an extra day and a half of work and stretch the build process to 12 days.
"It's tradition in hockey rinks, so the locals want to do that," Matsuzaki said.
* * * * *
The trip is so long that time is already short.
Later this month, with all eyes on the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NHL will start packing equipment in 40-foot shipping containers in Toronto -- everything from the boards to the glass to the player benches to the skate sharpeners to the glove dryers. They'll need every last part and tool.
"Yeah, we need to do our due diligence to make sure that we have everything when it leaves, because we're not running out to the store to get dasher bolts or dasher screws," King said. "We'll have redundancy to what we need."
The plan is to ship the containers June 10. They will travel about 2,700 miles by ground to Vancouver, then about 8,000 miles by sea from Vancouver to Melbourne. The journey is expected to take 45-60 days.
"It's kind of like an outdoor game, but it's an outdoor game in Australia," King said. "We'll get there and unpack everything, build a rink, and then when it's all over, pack it back up and ship it home. So, it's exciting, right? To be involved in these games in Australia is pretty, pretty amazing."