Promoter Craig Douglas (left) presents the series trophy to ‘Canada’ captain Kyle Quincey, alongside tour manager Kerry Goulet.
The sport of ice hockey is far from mainstream in sunny Australia – there are only 1800 registered players – yet promoter Craig Douglas has just managed to sell out Sydney’s Allphones Arena once and Melbourne’s Hisense Arena twice for three USA versus Canada exhibition games.
Douglas has form in taking American sports beyond the fringe, working with Fleshwound Films to build the Crusty Demons motorbike daredevil franchise in Australia and New Zealand.
The American-born, Kiwi-raised Douglas says he saw a short clip of ice hockey on television about six years ago, and it occurred to him that the sport could resonate with rugby-loving audiences.
“The athletes in ice hockey and rugby are similar – it’s kind of like taking your national sport and putting skates on it,” says Kerry Goulet, a veteran of the German ice hockey league whom Douglas hired as tour manager for the three June games.
“There’s a following for extreme sports in this part of the world and that’s ice hockey - guys putting blades on their skates and travelling around at 30 miles an hour.”
Goulet has become a campaigner for greater awareness of the dangers of concussion, and this good cause helped him attract several top players from North America’s National Hockey League (NHL) to tour Australia during the off-season.
Kyle Quincey from the Detroit Red Wings captained Canada, and Zenon Konopka from the Minnesota Wild captained the US.
Douglas started a below-the-line promotional campaign for the tour last November, approaching the Canadian embassy and getting a list of the “tens of thousands” of Canadians living in Australia.
“I also knew that Ice Hockey Australia has 1800 current playing members, they’ve got friends and family, so I always knew that would account for about 5000 ticket sales,” he says.
Direct marketing meant he had sold about 60 per cent of the tickets before the above-the-line TV, print and radio campaign commenced in February.
“There are a lot of Canadians in Australia who are passionate about ice hockey but haven’t seen a live game in a long time,” he says.
Not just for North Americans
Douglas admits it was mostly expatriate Canadians and Americans who filled the 9000-capacity Hisense Arena twice and the 20,338-capacity Allphones Arena on the Saturday night of June 22.
However, he insists there was a “curiosity about the gladiatorial aspects” of ice hockey from the wider public, which he plans to build on in a 2014 tour that’s already been launched.
Games in Perth and Brisbane will be added in 2014, the Melbourne games will graduate to the 14,500-capacity Rod Laver Arena, and Douglas will invest in a second portable ice rink.
Requiring “nine 40-foot containers” to transport, the portable rink was one of the biggest costs of presenting the 2013 series, but venue hire was by far the largest.
“For example, at Hisense, we dropped off our containers on Monday to begin packing in on Tuesday, in time for a game Friday night. So we had to rent the place for the whole week,” he says.
“Next door at Rod Laver Arena was Jesus Christ Superstar – a big production. Yet for their Saturday night show they packed in at six on that Saturday morning.”
Douglas says Sydney’s Allphones Arena “cost us roughly $50,000 a day to be there”, and the Nine Entertainment-owned, AEG Ogden-operated venue then takes “a big percentage of everything you turn over”.
At least the players did not cost as much as their counterparts from the National Basketball Association or Major League Baseball.
The star players did not charge appearance fees because of the concussion-awareness campaign behind the series, and Douglas confirms they were happy to fly in ‘premium economy’ rather than further up the planes.
“Ice hockey players tend to be down to earth, a lot of them have come out of farming communities, they’re closer to the fans than most baseballers or basketballers, who are often far removed,” Goulet says.
All in all, Douglas claims the 2013 series turned a small profit. He is even in talks with AEG Ogden about taking his “International Ice Hockey USA vs Canada” concept into China. AEG Ogden operates three venues with a total 68,000 capacity in the country. Douglas says the potential expansion to China is a three to four-year project.
A proportion of merchandise sales from the recent tour went to stopconcussions.com, a cause co-founded by Goulet and 15-year NHL veteran Keith Primeau, which educates about the danger of concussions and advocates ways to prevent them, particularly in junior sport. Quincey and Konopka are ambassadors for the cause.