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Thank You, Australia: A Love Letter To The AIHL

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This summer, Chowder went down under to watch the Australian Ice Hockey League for the first time. We adopted the team that became the champions as ours. But more than that, we discovered one of the gems of the ice hockey world-a league driven by passion, optimism, and love of the game and all it brings

It is September now. The evenings are getting just a little longer, the baseball season is coming into its business end, and all over North America and Europe, skates, sticks and pucks are being taken down from the shelves and cupboards where they've slept all summer along with football helmets, lakes and beaches are slowly losing their crowds, and minds are turning from the long, lazy days of summer to leaves falling, pucks dropping and goal-horns sounding. Autumn is calling.

A new hockey season is drawing near . In Europe, it has already begun.

In another part of the world, though, they are saying farewell to hockey for another year. They are also saying farewell to winter.

Australia's hockey season ended last week with the Goodall Cup Finals, won by the Newcastle North Stars...a team who found the right mix of skill and grit and retained the title they won in 2015 with a victory over the Canberra Brave.

This was a win not only celebrated in New South Wales. It was also celebrated in New England, as the North Stars were one of the two teams that SCOC adopted this summer as their own (along with the Melbourne Mustangs) as we sought to fill the long summer hockeyless months in the Northern Hemisphere with...well, hockey.

We can be honest now. We began our journey into hockey Down Under with little real knowledge of the AIHL or any real idea of what to expect. When we first mentioned that we were going to watch the AIHL and we wanted Aussie hockey fans to sell us a team (or two, as it turned out) to support, we wondered what response it would get down under-whether the Aussies would even be interested in welcoming or saying hello to a bunch of Americans, Canadians and a Brit who were dropping blindly into their world with nothing more than a willingness to watch hockey and a little curiosity.

What we got was a welcome beyond our wildest dreams - a group of teams who joyfully brought us into their world and fought hard for our affections. We had mascot tweets, fan tweets, a poster campaign, and a news story on at least one official team's website urging fans to welcome these strangers.

We were blown away by the response - the passion, the friendliness, and the openness of teams and fans who asked us if we were likely to make it over to watch a game (or the finals), offers of hospitality, of information, of welcome. We found our Twitter regularly read and followed by AIHL teams, reporters and players even when we were tweeting about events half a world away.

Then the season started, and things went to another level.

The atmosphere, culture and professionalism in Australian hockey is unbelievable for a country that rarely enters many in North America's heads as a hockey nation. The team PR and social media, often run by volunteers, carries a professionalism that wouldn't be out of place in a far bigger league, along with a wicked sense of humor.

The fanbase are polite, friendly, and incredibly partisan-but there seems to be very little of the darker side of fandom which is found so often in North America and to a lesser degree, Europe. Openness and equality at rinks is encouraged, with fans welcoming and feting those away fans who make the trip to many games. The crowds are small but they turn many rinks into a bearpit.

But it's their willingness to engage outsiders and welcome them that is the most impressive-both the teams themselves and the fanbases. We've had contact with every team on Twitter at some point this summer - and most incredibly, every time we wished the North Stars and Mustangs luck - they and sometimes their coach and players always responded with thanks. To us. That's the kind of thing that stays with you and makes you feel part of something even if you're literally half a world away from the rink (we checked, by the way - TD Garden is 10,025 miles as the crow flies from the home of the North Stars at Hunter Ice Palace and 10,515 miles from OBG Arena, home of the Mustangs)

Most importantly from our perspective - the coverage is unbelievably well-run. The AIHL has a national TV deal (with FOX Australia) - and several teams (Newcastle and the Melbourne Mustangs included) stream their games for free - a godsend on dark North American nights or early European mornings. We may not have tweeted about every game - but we were there in spirit or sometimes, when the fog of sleep allowed, even in person...groggy, loaded on coffee and staring spellbound at a computer screen as the dark watches of the night or the morning birdsong passed by outside our window, sharing the experience and joy of the game we love with a happy band of people in an ice-rink on the other side of the planet.

We felt joy when the Australian national team opened the season by winning their division of the World Championships. We felt sadness when the Mustangs' brave fight against the odds after a bad start to the season to overhaul the playoff teams failed with honor. We quietly celebrated when Pat O'Kane or Connor McLaughlin found the net for their respective teams.

And we celebrated long and joyfully last Sunday morning when we awoke (the AIHL finals not being available on a stream meant we succumbed to sleep rather than being able to spend one last late night/early morning on Twitter) to find the North Stars are AIHL champions once again.

Now, though, the AIHL season is over - and our thoughts turn once again towards hockey nearer home - the Bruins and their travails will occupy us through the winter as the world spins and the Australians bask in their summer sun.

But before our thoughts turn, we have a message for you, Australia, and your hockey fans.

Your league, your passion, your welcome and love for the game have captured us. Next Northern Hemisphere summer, as the Stanley Cup is won again and the NHL ends another year, our thoughts will once again turn Down Under for another hockey season on the opposite end of the world.

You have been our summer romance this year, AIHL. And now, as your season ends, we give you our thanks.

Thank you to the Adrenaline, the Brave, the Ice, the Thunder, the Ice Dogs, the Bears, and most importantly the Mustangs and the North Stars.

Thank you to the fans of Adelaide, Canberra, the red and blue half of Melbourne, Perth, Sydney - and most of all, those from the orange half of Melbourne and those of Newcastle.

We hope you guys will keep a place for the Bruins somewhere in your fandom, too. You're all always welcome here.

To everyone involved with the Australian Ice Hockey League, we say this: You are all, whichever team you support and however you support them, awesome. We will be back next season.

In 2017, we will once again "bleed orange". In 2017, once again, "we are Newcastle".

Until then, one final time..."AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE!" "OI OI OI!"

See you guys next summer. And thank you.