Adrian Esposito, like many who discover the sport down under, did not pick up the game he loves until well into his teens. “I started playing hockey as a late bloomer, for the Bears, when I was 14. So 15 years now,” said Esposito.
A dual citizen of Australia and Italy and a Talent Acquisiton Specialist for an Oil and Gas company in his “real” life, Esposito has won a number of accolades but there is one that stands out in his mind as the ultimate to date. “Being chosen to represent Australia in the senior men’s world championship held in Newcastle. Winning gold that year was kind of cool too!” said Esposito.
Esposito is one of a now growing number of Aussies who have been fortunate enough to ply their trade on the ice overseas. A stint with Real Torino in Italy’s Serie B was followed by a spell with the Bristol Pitbulls in the English National League.
However, life playing hockey overseas, as the Germans once said to Mr Burns, “isn’t all smiles and sunshine”, as Esposito recounts.
“I think one of the toughest memories of my hockey career is being cut from a team and that happened when I played in Italy. I had been playing there for about 6 months and like usual after training we’d go for a run. I remember getting ready and being pulled aside and being asked to leave as soon as I could because they had signed another player, and needed both the stall I was using AND the house I was living in. It takes the wind out of your sails a bit.”
Esposito is one of a handful of elder statesmen in the AIHL who have been around the league since the beginning. He gave his unique take on the evolution of the Bears in their AIHL life cycle.
“The Bears in the early days were the top team or at least one of them to beat. I remember as a 16 year barely getting any ice time, watching all the skill of the older guys and being proud to be on the bench at least,” said Esposito. “But the issue back then was the big age gap and the lack of talent pool coming up behind them. As years progressed and great players retired, we started inevitably losing and eventually hit rock bottom for a few years.”
That, as one can see, has changed. The Bears’ early season success is the result of a number of factors, and not something many would have picked at the beginning of the season.
“This year we’re doing very well and we want to keep that going. It’s comforting knowing that we have the skill and team work mixed with great chemistry to compete,” said Esposito. “I think we’re going great. There’s plenty of season left and anything can happen. We’re off to a good start and we want to keep that rolling. We had our first test against the top teams last week and the results weren’t that bad. We didn’t win but we know we’re only a goal difference between being the best in the league. Now we have to raise our game and adjust to another level. If we can do that, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t stay where we are or be on top of the AIHL standings.”
Being a Sydney Bears veteran means a close relationship with club stalwart Vlad Rubes. Esposito has nothing but praise for the Sydney legend who has been his long time personal mentor, but also does admit not having Rubes on the ice anymore took some adjustment.
“I will say it’s strange. Great, but strange! Vlad was one of my first coaches as a 14 year old. He took me and a camp full of mixed levelled kids and age groups over to the Czech Republic and worked on our game every day for about 3 weeks. After doing that camp, he inspired me to train and embark on my hockey journey,” said Esposito. “He has always been a great coach and mentor when it comes to this game. But coming back this year and seeing him not play made me feel two ways. Firstly, old due to the sad realisation that I’m not one of the young ones anymore due to his retirement from playing. Secondly, a little disappointed that a great player can’t play the game anymore. I know how much he’d like to still contribute on the ice. But we as players now have a responsibility to listen to him and work hard for ourselves and the coaches so that we all revel in success.”
With his plethora of experience in the AIHL and abroad, Esposito’s perspectives on the league from both the outside looking in, and the inside looking out, remains grounded but positive. He provides some key insights which are not often discussed amongst the wider AIHL community.
“After being away for a few years, I came back to a pleasant surprise this year. The AIHL had evolved into a true national league with the expansion of Perth and televised games on Foxtel,” said Esposito. “The fact that we get to fly everywhere to play teams across our nation is quite uncommon for the level of league we play at. It’s great that we have that option. I’ve played in a lot of leagues all around the world, some at a higher level, and all we did is bus. So that’s one of the great perks. Another positive is playing on your home soil. Nothing compares to that kind of comfort.”
“I think the AIHL is doing a great job of continually evolving, although the cost per player to play has been increasing too. I’d love to see the day where ALL players got to play for free in this league,” said Esposito. “That hasn’t got anything to do with the AIHL, but more so the individual teams. But it would be great to have packed out stands and screaming supporters every game, as well as funding from sponsorships, so we as players just have to worry about playing.”
“Another part of the league I would comment on, and it’s an obvious one and one of the oldest issues to date, is the quality of the officials. If we had better standards I believe our game in Australia could be even faster and greater. And one more issue which needs to be raised is glass in all rinks. As the game gets more aggressive it gets a little unsafe along the boards to take a hit.”
As discussion around the future of Sydney Ice Arena and the push towards solutions has become a major talking point around the league, Esposito provided an interesting insight into the past struggles and potential future of the Sydney club.
“It’d be a shame if that rink was torn down but we have been moved around all over this city. I would love for us to stay there and make that our home officially but in the past we have never let the location affect us,” said Esposito. “We moved to Penrith in ‘07 and barely could make ends meet within the club, not knowing if we were going to have a team that year. There were a lot of uncertainties but we played one of our best seasons and came out on top and won that season.”
The way things are currently shaping up, history may indeed repeat itself.