They’ve won more national titles than any other team in their competition and regularly play in front of capacity crowds. But unlike the stars of Newcastle’s highest profile teams – the Knights and the Jets – the players responsible for bringing more silverware home than any of the city’s other red and blue representatives are far from household names.
Thankfully it is a situation that is beginning to change according to Newcastle Northstars General Manager Garry Doré, who has been at the helm of the club since its inclusion in the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) in 2002.
“I think it’s getting now to a stage where people know that we’re here, they know what we do, and they know about the sport of ice hockey, whereas ten years ago you’d walk around Warners Bay and people wouldn’t know who we are,” he said.
“I think you could be in a lot of conversations around the city now and mention the Northstars and people would know who you’re talking about and that’s a great thing.
“In the early years, you were probably lucky to get 200 or 300 people to a game, and I always said that after ten years I hope we have our real base of fans. Now we sell out every game; we’re getting 700 or 800 people because the stadium only holds that sort of number, and we’ve got some great sponsors that have been supporting us for many years.
“They obviously like what we do, and they enjoy the atmosphere of coming to a game, you get the music, you get the excitement, you get the speed, there’s a lot of hard hitting and great sporting activity on the ice.
“It’s a sport a lot of people have never really seen or engaged in, and they love it; it’s fast, it’s hard, it’s exciting.
“A lot of people walk out and go ‘Geez, what was that I just watched?’ and hopefully, they come back again and watch it.
“We know where we are in the whole scheme of things. We’re a tier two or three sport in this country but we’ve got a national league, we’ve got Perth, we’ve got Adelaide, we’ve got two teams in Melbourne playing out of a fabulous venue down there. You’ve got two teams in Sydney, you’ve got Canberra, you’ve got Newcastle, it is a legitimate league.”
Top and above: Photos by Wulos at Hunter Stadium
The Northstars are six games away from the end of their 16th regular AIHL season and another opportunity - depending on how results pan out – for a shot at the title. The team has already won the Goodall Cup a record six times, including two back-to-back championships in 2005/2006 and 2015/2016.
Their first title came in 2003 at the conclusion of their second year in the competition and still ranks, as far as Doré is concerned, as one of the greatest moments of his ice hockey career.
“The rink (Hunter Ice Skating Stadium) was built in 2000, and in 2001 the (Australian Ice Hockey) League only consisted of three teams, Sydney Bears, Canberra Knights and Adelaide Avalanche (now Adrenaline).
“They did a couple of exhibition games up here as it was the newest rink in the country and then we did a major tournament at the venue.
“We had a number of ex-pats living in the area, some Canadians who had moved out here for other reasons. We spoke to the League, and they asked us if we could put a team in. We said the problem is we’re low on numbers, so we got some guys that were going to come up from Sydney to play with us and they allowed us a couple of extra imports.
“With that, we put a team in, and that year was also the introduction of the Melbourne Ice and the Sydney Ice Dogs, so all of a sudden it became a six-team league.
“We weren’t all that successful that year, I think we finished second last, and then in 2003, in our recruiting process, we decided to bring out a coach, and we went on from there.
“We had a really great group of people, (coach) Don Champagne, myself, (coaching director) Rob Barnes and we sat down and decided how we were going to make this work, and we ended up with the Goodall Cup that year - that was a huge year.
“We worked so hard that off-season to develop a program, not a team, and with that, the 2003 championship was pretty special.”
And the Northstars have carried on just as they began, with their focus on hard work, player development and a positive team culture paying dividends over the years in the form of six titles and six other grand final appearances.
“It wasn’t just to go through the motions. We really wanted to develop a program and a culture and an organisation that would always be reckoned with,” Doré said.
“I always wanted to be that team that packs the other rinks. We are the Northstars, and it doesn’t matter where we go we’re never going to lay down, we’re never going to be an automatic beat and we haven’t been. We’ve been extremely successful because we believe in ourselves and we believe in each other; we’re here to be extremely successful.
"We made some decisions in the early 2000s; we knew we were going to be around for a long time, and we wanted to be a premier organisation."
“We brought out some professional coaching in the early years, a fella by the name of Rob Barnes, which we knew would take us to a new level, not only with coaching the team at the time but for our future.
“We went along that pathway, and it was great for the team, it was great for the club, it was great for the community.”
The use of import players from ice hockey powerhouses such as Canada and America has also had a substantial influence on the development of the team and its success over the years.
But Doré said the Northstars have always been committed to fostering home grown talent as well.
“We always felt we recruited well; we always tried to bring out the best import players that we could. It wasn’t just so they could lead the way to win a championship or be successful, it was so they could also develop and show our local players how to train and develop and how to want to be at that team level,” he said.
“I think that has instilled a lot of professionalism in our organisation and it developed a really good culture of having to perform.
“And what’s happening is that years ago in the 2000s the import players used to just dominate. But now what you’re seeing is that the Australian players are competing at that level, and they’re competing well.
“We’re at a stage now where we’ve got a number of players that we don’t hesitate to put out against another team’s top line and vice versa.
“Our biggest goal over the last five years and the next five years is to be able to develop a local team to a point where we’re recruiting our imports to suit our team, whereas before we had to find players to fit in with the imports.
“The imports won’t go away, they bring a great, new level to the sport and it’s no different to basketball here, or when the English rugby league guys get the Aussies to come over and play for them.
“People want to see a sport played at the highest level we can provide, and we believe we’re doing that by bringing out the four imports every year.
“But our team is growing just because of our own talent as well, and it’s a wonderful achievement.”
If having access to quality overseas players is beneficial for the Northstars, then the Newcastle team surely got an extra shot in the arm earlier this year when they hosted a special charity exhibition match between touring Canadian and American players.
The Ice Hockey Classic featured professional players from the top leagues in America, including the elite level National Hockey League (NHL) and Doré said it was an invaluable experience for local hockey players and fans alike.
“To have those players on our ice, there was about six players that have played at the highest level in the world in the NHL and then a lot that were on the fringes, it was amazing,” he said.
“It was fabulous to meet them and to talk to them, just to get that level of professionalism on our ice for our people to be able to go and see.
“They want to come back again next year, they loved it, and the response was great.
“It was a feather in our cap too because you always look in your own backyard and say ‘Well how well are we really doing? How much are we appreciated?’ and for that organisation to ask to come to Newcastle, it was a pretty good feeling, there was a lot of pride.
“They did a camp with our junior kids for an hour-and-a-half before the game - so we had about 60 kids on the ice with a bunch of those guys. They actually bring a fellow on the trip that does this, he’s a professional junior coach for this age group, and we had some of our coaches on the ice, it was just a great experience for our kids to be out there with these guys.
“Then they all got to stay back and watch the game and meet them. It was wonderful. There were a lot of excited kids I tell you - and a lot of excited big kids too.”
Photo by Wulos at Hunter Stadium
Doré himself knows all about meeting ice hockey idols, after getting the chance to play alongside the undisputed king of the ice, Wayne Gretzky, as part of a charity match in Sydney during 2016.
“I was invited to play in a charity game where Wayne was going to be on the ice and play with both teams,” he said.
“It was very exciting for me to be anywhere near Wayne Gretzky because in Canada I would never meet him in a million years. I’d never been in a position to meet him that I could think of and here I am in Australia 30-odd years down the track, and I’m sitting on the bench and playing ice hockey with Wayne Gretzky, it’s just phenomenal.
“After the game, I had a great opportunity; I was in the right place at the right time where we got to have 45 minutes having a chat about stuff. I got to tell him all about our league. He really didn’t know. He’s such a kind man; he’s very thoughtful, he was asking all about the hockey here and when it developed and where it’s going.
“I had the Goodall Cup with me, and he was intrigued by where we were with ice hockey in the country, he just loved it and had lots of questions. It was great, and I hope he took that home with him and he tells people about us because there’s a lot of people who do a lot of hard work for the sport (in Australia).
“The Goodall Cup that we play for is the third oldest trophy that is played for in ice hockey in the world that is still current. The (NHL) Stanley Cup (1892) is the oldest, then there’s a cup called the Allan Cup (1908), which is for the Canadian National Championships and then it’s the Goodall Cup, which is magnificent.
“A lot of people are shocked, but we’ve been playing hockey here in Australia since 1907, and the Goodall Cup goes back to 1909 (when there was an Inter-State Series).”
With the passionate team driving the Northstars forward, it’s clear people will be playing – and watching - hockey in Newcastle for many years to come as well.
The Northstars will round out their 2017 season with four home games at the Hunter Ice Skating Stadium in Warners Bay this month. The puck will drop on their match against the Melbourne Mustangs at 4pm on Sunday, August 13, followed by a clash the following Saturday (August 19) against CBR Brave from 5pm. Newcastle will back up the next day against the Melbourne Ice (4pm, August 20) before hosting the Sydney Ice Dogs in the final round of the season at 5pm on Saturday, August 26.
Tickets are available for purchase at the rink or over the phone by calling 4954 4499. Get in early, they do sell out!