The Australian Ice Hockey League is an amateur league.
If you’re wondering, “Who is the idiot that originally wrote that it’s a semi-professional league?” It was yours truly, and I regret it.
My intent was to convey the level of hockey, sponsorship and exposure our league gets, and I admit to being a little ignorant of what constitutes an amateur league and a semi-professional league. I am mainly referring to North America here, because that’s where the distinction becomes significant.
While there’s a few obvious reasons why it would be nice to pay AIHL players to play, there are several arguments to why the AIHL should stay amateur for the foreseeable future.
Let’s start with the collegiate systems.
Wahebe Darge, Todd Graham, Beau Taylor, Jamie Woodman, Timmy Newmark. These guys and many others before them are key players in the AIHL. What’s significant about them?
The North American college system is one of the reasons these talented players are of import quality. If AIHL players are paid, that door slams shut.
The model that the AIHL runs under – players are not paid but are supported in regards to flights, food, accommodation and a share car – fits the acceptable conditions by the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
This means that today’s Aussies and the kids of the future can aspire to impress colleges in North America in order to get one of the best leg-ups an Aussie hockey kid could aspire to:
Get your college education in North America, get your Bachelor degree paid for and get the opportunity for a ton of ice time at a high level against future professional players.
If you’re one of the stars, a college career is a gateway into a professional career, as a small but significant proportion of the NHL’s players were not drafted by picked up from the collegiate systems. The ECHL and European leagues are heavily populated by ex-college players.
The AIHL has already been faced with the threat of being locked out of the CIS.
In 2010, the CIS created a blanket rule that all European teams were to be regarded as professional, whether they were or not.
Bizarrely, the CIS considered “Europe” to be anywhere outside of USA and Canada.
The AIHL was suddenly being labelled with being both professional and European, both untrue, and appeals to the CIS by the AIHL were largely ignored.
Continued appeals by the Commissioner of the time Tyler Lovering were eventually heard, but the matter was never truly resolved.
Effectively, the CIS agreed to ignore the AIHL, and guys who were in the CIS system at the time (Wahebe Dharge and Beau Taylor) were able to continue on with their college careers.
As an aside, going pro would also prevent imports from returning to college hockey after playing in the AIHL.
As Hockeywise, Fairfax Digital and many others have explained, one of the significant limitations on the Australian Ice Hockey League (and therefore on the possibility of going professional) is the size and quality of our rinks.
If you increase the financial burden on AIHL teams by 50%, there’s no way for most clubs to increase their income by the same amount.
If AIHL clubs currently run on say $70000 a year, then 50% = $35000. If you have 30 players on your roster (you’ll need about 30 if you’re playing 3x20min periods) that’s $1166 per player per season, or $58.30 per week.
That $58.30 per week won’t mean much to the players, but it will preclude them from playing college hockey, and it will likely break the backs of several current AIHL teams.
Currently around half of the AIHL teams require their players to contribute to the team costs. Long before we can look at the challenges of a professional AIHL, we need to build the league to a point where there is no longer a need to “pay to play”.
Invariably, the teams that struggle the most financially have either the biggest rink problems and/or the smallest staff of key volunteers (I’m talking business people here).
In North American leagues the SPHL, CHL, ECHL and even the AHL, your days are spent on a coach (the bus kind). The AIHL is an enigma to many of our imports, in that it’s an amateur league but players are flown around the country on jets each weekend.
Once “pay to play” is eliminated, things aren’t really so bad for the AIHL hockey players.
So far all the talk on going professional has been about paying players, but what about coaches, physios, scorers, media & marketing people, mascots and officials?
Coaches can be very influential on how successful teams perform. Marketing people directly influence how much income and sponsorship a team generates, and scorers and officials are all necessary to run the game and sport.
To employ another 30 people doubles the payroll of just paying players, and that assumes you’re not paying these people, often professionals, an actual living wage.
Finally there’s the other side of the coin; responsibility of players to the clubs.
If a player is paid, there’s no mid-season get-aways for weddings, holidays or WAG’s or kid’s birthdays.
A signed contract to play and practice means you play and practice or you don’t get paid. Much of the flexibility and goodwill of the current team/player relationship is at risk in a professional arrangement.
Professional sports can be brutal. Players not performing can be quickly dropped and forgotten, where an amateur team may persist longer with a player in a slump.
The benefits of a professional (semi-professional basically indicates a part-time or casual employment) AIHL are real and plausible, but while the current barriers remain, the current path remains the best path.
Securing the facilities for the future, developing further the grass-roots opportunities to play hockey and develop, and strengthening existing AIHL clubs to where no players are required to pay to play remain the priorities for now.
A professional AIHL is too big a risk and imposition for at least the next five years unless many of the existing barriers are overcome.