Lakehead’s sophomore forward Francis Walker has had quite a summer in the Land Down Under playing for the Newcastle North Stars of the Australian Ice Hockey League. Walker ended the 26-game AIHL regular season as the league scoring champion and his team placed second in the regular season. Walker potted 28 goals and added 26 assists in 25 games played for Newcastle. Walker caught fire at the end of the season scoring all of Newcastle’s six goals in their last two games; four in a 5-4 OT loss and two in a 2-1 win.
The level of the league had historically been at about the Canadian Jr. B level but the last couple seasons has seen an upswing in the level of playing talent with more players from North American and European pro leagues coming over for the experience. This year’s NHL lockout even saw Pittsburgh Penguins co-captain Steve Mckenna join the league to play for the Adelaide team.

The AIHL is an eight-team league that is rated as the best off-season (summer) league in the world and allows North American and European professionals and university players a chance to play hockey during the brutal Australian Winter; which means trips to the beach, snorkelling, and surfing depending upon which city you play in. Each team is allowed five imports with the rest of the squad being Australian nationals. The five imports play against each other while the Australians only match up against each other. The result is some pretty good hockey for the fans and high level competition for the visiting players.

The result for Walker is that he has gotten to play some intensive high level hockey; hitting the ice five days a week. “We play imports vs. imports so the level of hockey is very good. I learned a lot from the pros on our team and also from playing against pros like Pittsburgh’s Steve Mckenna. He has big reach and great skill but I even got two goals head to head against him so that was a great.” Walker’s linemates include Nolan Graham who played for Long Beach of the ECHL and Jordan Landry who skated for Fresno in the same league.

Walker had some struggles in his freshman season for the Thunderwolves adjusting to CIS hockey after playing for the Aurora Tigers Royal Bank Cup Champions team in 2003-04 and so felt he needed to work on his conditioning and sharpen his hockey skills. Therefore it was Exit to Oz. “It’s been a fanstastic experience. I came here to recharge and re-focus and I think I’ve done that. It’s a great league and I’ve learned a lot from the older pro players and from Newcastle coaches Don Champagne and Robert Barnes.” Barnes was a first round draft choice of the Toronto Maple Leafs, played in Europe, and served as an assistant coach in the NHL with the Florida Panthers.

Players in the AIHL, like Walker, are not paid, but their league airfare, room, and board are covered by the host team. The host teams also try to find players suitable employment to help make ends meet. Due to Australia’s size, all travel is by air. Most teams operate on a limited budget and get their income from sponsorship and ticket sales. Attendance for the AIHL ranges from 600 to 2000.

To say the Aussie approach to hockey is a little laid back may be an understatement. To prepare for games; players enjoy morning stretches while sun-tanning on the beach, going for a swim in the ocean, or taking in the sights in cities such as Sydney, Adelaide, and Brisbane. There is no curfew for the players, and post-game beverages are provided to both teams; regardless of a win or loss.

Walker said he has loved every minute of his stay in Australia and especially the people. “Since I got off the plane here on April 23rd, I’ve been made to feel so welcome and things have really just opened up for me. The fantastic people here at Newcastle help you both on the ice and off the ice. The weather is great, the beaches are fantastic, and I’ve even tried surfing though I think I’ll stick to bodyboarding. It has been an experience I’ll remember all my life. Now, I feel ready and focussed for the upcoming season at Lakehead and I’m really looking forward to getting back to Thunder Bay to start the new year.”

Walker’s Newcastle side will be hosting the four-team single game knockout Goodall Cup Australian championship tournament this upcoming weekend and play the Sydney Ice Dogs in their first game. Walker will be returning to Thunder Bay immediately after the completion of the Goodall Cup Tournament.

(Source: Mike Aylward, Lakehead University Sports Information)