Aussie here to hone ice skills

ERIC BENDER -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

On the surface, she looks like a young woman having the time of her life.

Halfway around the world, a bi-colour hair-do, age 27, single. Playing hockey. Living with friends.

Robyn Hall insists there is a serious side to her hockey adventure and she's here in Canada to learn.

Hall is from a small town an hour and a half from Brisbane, Australia.

She's a hockey player, she said, because she wasn't very good at any other sport. "A bit of a sprinter and long jumper," she said. But not good at the usual Australian sports of soccer or swimming. "I couldn't run and kick a ball at the same time."

About 12 years ago, roller- blading became a craze in Australia and she got a pair of inline skates from her parents. Then she learned neighborhood youths were playing roller hockey in the local car park. They played with a ball and she scrounged up soccer shin pads and a bicycle helmet to join in.

"Everybody likes to be good at something," she said.

By 1995, she was good enough to make the Queensland women's open team and then moved "to the snow" in New South Wales where she was introduced to ice hockey. She had joined the army and rarely got to play ice hockey at some of her postings but while stationed in Sydney, where there were enough players to form a league, ice hockey took hold.

"I spent that first season crashing into people," Hall said. "I kept falling down. Someone asked when I last sharpened my skates. 'You sharpen them?' " was her puzzled reply.

Life changed for Hall this year. She was invited to an inline selection camp in Canberra in February in preparation for the World Inline Cup championships to be held in London. During practice with the Australian national team, she was awarded the prize for having the fastest slapshot in the country. She was discharged from the army, transferred to the reserves and was off to North America.

Hall wanted to stay in Canada for a year, got a permit, rounded up the funds and first played in the Can Am Cup, in which the Australian team won silver and then lost the bronze-medal game 2-1 in the World Cup.

With thoughts of spending her year in Vancouver, then Calgary, she liked London when she got here and had friends in the city to boot.

"I heard about how good the women's league (ice hockey) is here," she said. She joined the Forest City Rebels team in the Southwestern Ontario Women's Hockey League, a 13-team loop that stretches from Sarnia to Milverton to Guelph.

In addition, she joined a London rec team and goes to coed pickup games and to a weekly Larry Gadzig skills school and to power skating classes.

Hall's hockey habit isn't cheap.

Just coming to Canada for the inline tournaments cost $8,000. Air fare, food, accommodation, equipment, work permit and tournament fees all were added costs. There was little to no support for the sport from Australia.

Then there was the matter of ice hockey transfer fees. The International Ice Hockey Federation wasn't forgiving of its $900 fee to have a woman move to Canada to play. It could have been worse -- $2,500 worse -- but Hockey Canada and the Australian ice hockey federation waived their fees. After all, this was not Mats Sundin transferring from Sweden to play in Toronto.

The Rebels' fee was $400 and it's $500 to play for the rec league team plus cash per visit to each skills or pickup session.

"My brother gave me $1,000 and my dad is looking after my dog for free," Hall said. "That was a big help."

Still she has to work two jobs in London to keep herself on ice. "The minimum wage here was a shock," she said. Especially after being used to a healthy army salary. Two retail jobs provide her with 40 to 45 hours work a week.

As a right-winger, Hall believes her speed is her greatest asset but her slapshot is hot if she gets the time and space to use it.

"With the Rebels, I'm a little apprehensive in my play. It's a disciplined game. I have to play my position. I don't want to make mistakes that cost the team. With the rec team, I'll try more things," she said.

"The girls are so welcoming. Even in some games when I thought I couldn't set a foot right."

Forest City goalie Deb VanBrenk said Hall is a lot of fun and is full of enthusiasm. "She has nice hands, good wheels and a decent shot. She works really hard. A real motivator on the bench too," said Van Brenk.

Rebels coach Gary House is "really, really patient with me. He never gets mad at me because I do something stupid. I told him I'm here to learn. When I came here I never really had a head for hockey, positional play.

"I want to improve my game. I want to go home a better player. Wipe out bad habits. I want to be on that Australian (national) team. Make the Queensland team first."

House said Hall has a natural ability for skating and shooting. "She's very interested in learning how to play hockey and she's fitting in well with the team and the league. She has more to do to learn about positional play and anticipation. She listens to constructive feedback and each week we see change in her play for the positive."

Hall said her "best mate" and linemate Melissa Oliver, who played U.S. college hockey, is a big help in her learning curve.

Hall plans to return to school when she goes home but she hopes to inspire more girls and women to take up ice hockey. She'll try to obtain precious ice time for female hockey at home and organize teams and leagues. Playing coed hockey in London is just fine, she said. In Australia, men simply won't pass the puck to a women so all-female ice time is essential.

Aside from improving women players Down Under, Hall aims to improve refereeing. She plans to take a refereeing clinic in London.

"When my playing days are over I'd like to move to coaching," she said.

Sounds like Hall wants to take the complete package home.

To show how small the hockey community is in Australia, Hall is acquainted with fellow countryman and goaltender Matt Ezzy, who took the London Nationals to the Western Junior B Hockey League championship round last season. Ezzy didn't return to London this season after honing his skills in hopes of making the Australian national men's squad.


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