“I want to see a kangaroo,” he said.
Keller is in Melbourne with the Coyotes for their NHL Global Series preseason games against the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 23 and Sept. 24 (12 a.m. ET, ESPN+) at Rod Laver Arena. He got his wish this week during a visit to a local zoo with his teammates: Coyotes, watching kangaroos, shouting in amazement as one bounded around its habitat.
David Proper, the NHL’s senior EVP of media and international strategy, had a similar request during his first trip Down Under — except his exotic animal of choice was a koala.
“The first time I went to Australia to meet with our partners for the games, I said there are two things I need to do: I need to tour Rod Laver Arena and I need to see a koala,” he said.
“And so we toured the arena. That was easy. And then I said, ‘OK, let’s go see a koala now.’ And they said, ‘OK, we’ll just go to the zoo.’ And, like, I can go to the zoo back home and see a koala. I wanted to see packs of roaming koalas. They’re apparently nowhere near Melbourne,” he said, laughing.
For the NHL, there’s been a lot of perception vs. reality leading up to the league’s first games in Australia.
There had been interest locally in having an NHL game staged in Melbourne, but the league was reluctant to commit because it didn’t perceive the market as one with long-term growth potential.
“We could have played games there at any point in time and sold them out and made a little money on the games — not a lot, but a little — but we wanted to see whether there was a long-term business plan. All the things that we think can grow hockey,” Proper said. “Because at its core, these international games and our international participation really is only successful if we can grow the interest in hockey in that particular market.”
The NHL spent around five years examining the market and researching its metrics for hockey. About three years ago, the NHL started to see some over-indexing from Australian fans visiting their website, using their official app, watching games on local broadcast outlets and purchasing out-of-market game packages. They were also intrigued by how many people were traveling from Australia to watch NHL games in North America, using ticket sales data.
“There’s no one big thing in Australia that said, ‘It’s time to go.’ It was a lot of these things all piled together that got us comfortable with it,” Proper said.
In 2023, the NHL decided it was time to go Down Under.
The NHL picked Melbourne because Visit Victoria, their tourism board, courted them heavily. The more the league looked at the market, the more they saw it as the epicenter of Aussie sports: Home to around two thirds of Australian Football League teams, the Grand Prix and the Australian Open. They had a facility in the Rod Laver Arena, home of the Australian Open, that the NHL thought had potential as a game site.
The Kings committed to hold part of their training camp and play exhibition games there. The Coyotes were booked to do the same when initial plans to have the Boston Bruins as the Kings’ opponent weren’t executed.
“Some clubs may have viewed it as a little disruptive to their training camp period,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, via NHL.com. “These guys embraced it as an opportunity, and hopefully everybody has a good time and the fans enjoy the games.”
Marty Walsh, NHLPA executive director, told ESPN that the Australia games are “a really good opportunity for the players on the Kings and Coyotes to experience hockey” in a different part of the world.
“Our game is a global game, evidenced by our NHLPA membership consisting of players from approximately 20 different countries around the world. I commend the players for recognizing the importance of continuing to grow the game internationally, and I am truly excited for the first NHL games to be played in Australia this weekend,” Walsh said.
Keller said he’s excited to bring the NHL to new fans.
“I think anyone that’s never seen hockey or been to a game, I think they’ll definitely get hooked right away with just of how fast and how fun it is to watch,” Keller said.
St. Louis Blues forward Nathan Walker was born in Wales but his family moved to Sydney when he was two years old. He’s the first Australian to be drafted by an NHL team and to play in the NHL, both with the Washington Capitals.
“I’m excited for the community to see an NHL game. I hope it grows more players,” he told ESPN. “There are so many passionate fans here, but with limited resources and the small amount of rinks, it’s tough to get people in the seats. But it’s going to be great for fans to see an NHL game for the first time ever.”
Rod Laver Arena had the seats. What it didn’t have was a rink, or any means to make one.
“It’s a tennis arena. That’s it. It’s not even a basketball arena, it’s a tennis arena,” Proper said.
The NHL had to ship boards, a center-hung scoreboard and other rink-related items from both Toronto and the Netherlands to Australia. Everything started arriving around Sept. 15, with a Sept. 21 target for rink completion.
It’s a bit like when the NHL converges on a football or baseball stadium for an outdoor game, but Proper said the Australia build was even more challenging.
“The significant difference is that at least when we do a Stadium Series game, we’re working with a pretty strong local infrastructure for maintaining ice in the [local] arena,” he said. “Here we had to build a team that’s based in Australia. We’re basically sending our people to work with the locals that have some knowledge about building it out.”
Bringing the Global Series in Melbourne to life was all about local partnerships. That goes for building the rink to creating hype for the game through local sports dignitaries.
In the lead up to the Kings vs. Coyotes matchups, Los Angeles defensemen Drew Doughty played tennis against Thanasi Kokkinakis, the 2022 Australian Open Men’s Doubles Champion. Australian Football League star Mason Cox gave Kings center Pierre-Luc Dubois a tutorial on how to punt. Players from both teams were due to watch an AFL preliminary game on Friday.
In the latest jersey swap news from down under: 🇦🇺
— LA Kings (@LAKings) September 21, 2023
“We’ve been talking to the AFL for a number of years, even before we were planning to do games. We’ve had an open relationship with them. It’s been a nice message we’re getting from them,” Proper said. “Clearly, we’re not a threat to the AFL in Australia. We view them as a great partner to have. If their value can rub off on us and our event some way, that’s great. But also, we just think it’s good to get ingrained with the culture and what’s really important down there.”
It’s all about connecting with the community. For example, a recent initiative by the league has zeroed in on the grassroots of hockey in global markets.
NHL Street Hockey, the international version of the ball-hockey experience NHL Street, was first introduced in China and currently has around 10,000 young participants. The league’s goal is to expand NHL Street Hockey to six key markets by the end of the 2023-24 season: Australia, China, Czechia, Finland, Slovakia and Sweden.
In addition, the NHL Players Association donated 50 sets of hockey equipment to Ice Hockey Australia, and will be distributed to the Kaurna Boomerangs ice hockey team and Ice Hockey Victoria.
Proper said the league’s already seen results in Melbourne. The International Hockey Federation for Australia piloted the NHL Street Hockey School in South Melbourne, holding three sessions with 70 students participating. It proved so popular that the NHL was asked if it could continue the program for an additional three months.
“These are the kinds of things where the principal behind it is to get kids out and exercising, but to get them doing our sport too,” he said. “And once you start playing or watching the sport, you pick it up pretty quick.”
Proper approaches the Melbourne event with both short- and long-term goals in mind. In the short term, he’s hoping for an event in which ‘the players come back and say, ‘That was fantastic, we love it and we want to go back'” to Australia.
“That’s the absolute primary, main thing. People always say, ‘Oh, it’s about a money grab.’ But we don’t make a lot of money on these events,” he said. “So it’s not about how much money we make. It’s really about whether the experience was, in some degree, replicating what it’s like to go to a game here in North America.”
In the long term, Proper wants to see growth of the game and of hockey fandom in Australia, “so we see more of an interest when we go back again” for another event.
“Ultimately, if we are looking back 10 years from now, even five years from now when we’ve got a nice roster of sponsors, a good media deal, and we’re seeing participation numbers grow and the federations get stronger, and then that means that this was the first step in a successful idea,” he said. “And if the game itself is successful, but we find it doesn’t take hold? Then you live and learn. You got to try some things to make it work.”
As the NHL continues to explore different markets, those markets are pursuing the NHL, too. In particular, Proper said there are European stadiums that want to host the first NHL outdoor game outside of North America. Proper thinks the probability is “high” that we eventually see one.
“From a general standpoint, it’s something we have looked at. We haven’t felt ready to do it yet, but I wouldn’t say that that’s very far away. That’s probably likely to happen in the near term,” he said.
The NHL is also looking at another outdoor game in North America, although not in the U.S. or Canada.
Mexico City, to be exact.
“It’s certainly something that we are looking very, very carefully at,” Proper said. “There’s some things we got to figure out if we’re going to make it work.”