It is 40 years this week since the coolest of sporting pursuits — ice hockey — found a warm welcome in the national capital.
In August 1980, with a home nearly ready to go on a $1 million ice rink development in Phillip, support for an ACT league peaked.
With the backing of the High Commission of Canada and the Finnish Association of Canberra, former A-grade Melbourne player John Slater led a committee tasked with recruiting teams.
When player registrations opened five months later, three were formed: a mix of seasoned players and keen amateurs who made up the Polar Bears, the Grizzlies, and the Knights.
By 1982, playing for the under 13 Grizzlies was Stephanie Wheaton, aged nine and the only girl skating in the Canberra league.
These days Stephanie is known as Steph Boxall, a founding member of Australia’s first national women’s team, and captain at its first international qualifying event.
A regular at the Phillip pool as a child, she remembers the rink being built next door, and even resenting how it took over the “nice, big, open grassy areas”.
Her father undertook the building’s engineering inspection, where he saw a sign recruiting skaters, but “my parents wouldn’t allow me to play ice hockey,” Boxall said.
“I had a go at figure skating, but it wasn’t really for me. I was a bit of a tomboy.
Her parents relented in a decision that would be later vindicated by Boxall’s induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in 2019, the first Australian woman to achieve the honour.
‘Love of the game’ spans generation
Steve Clyde-Smith coached a young Boxall “way back in the day” when he also skated for the senior Grizzlies.
“Some of the kids in that team are still playing today, which is really quite exciting in that, you know, I’ve instilled the love of the game,” he said.
“But my interest goes way back further than that. My father played ice hockey in Melbourne for the Tigers in the late 1940s and ’50s.”
Clyde-Smith ice-skated at the Canberra Showground’s Paradice rink before it was destroyed by fire in June 1979.
“I knocked myself out at that rink,” he recalled, adding with a laugh: “That’s why I went into ice hockey, with all the associated padding.”
Clyde-Smith still plays ice hockey, and these days is a teammate of Boxall’s in the Canberra Senators, the over-35 masters.
He also refereed for more than 30 years, internationally as well as the national league in which the Canberra Brave now play.
He said he was proud at how far the sport had come in Canberra since 1980, up against more traditionally Australian pastimes.
“It has come full circle and [is] a great enjoyment from that perspective,” he said.
“That [Phillip] facility is used all year round.”
Canberra still a ‘strong base’ for ice hockey
There are now 4,700 registered ice hockey players in Australia, but Boxall says it is “still a fringe sport, and it always will remain that way”.
“It’s not accessible to everyone, even in Canberra,” she said.
She credits the strong community set up in those early years as part of the reason she fell in love with the sport, and why it still exists in the ACT today.
“They created, like, an instantaneous rivalry between the three clubs,” she said.
“That’s how I saw it evolve: Finland versus Canada versus the rest of us.
Indeed, the Canberra Brave won the national league in 2018 against the Sydney Bears, and the Phillip rink — dubbed the Brave Cave — was due to host the season opener this year.
That was delayed — as was the whole season — by COVID-19, but both Clyde-Smith and Boxall choose to see the positive.
“It’s just like a long off-season, but this is a good opportunity,” Boxall said.
“The ice rink is getting little improvements and done up, and it’s sort of a silver lining on everything that’s happening.”