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Culture Edition, Sports Brad Vigon

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By: Brad Vignon •  4 years ago •  

I grew up in Los Angeles and started playing on old-fashioned roller-skates with the neighbourhood kids at 5 years old. It was not a popular sport, very atypical for the area, like it is currently in Australia. I only started taking ice skating lessons and playing organised games when I was 7.

The first team I played for was Culver City, which later merged with Santa Monica. I played with them until I was 15. Because ice hockey was not popular, it was easy to be one of the better players there. I would play on the all-star or representative teams often, but when we travelled to Canada, we would get smashed. California did not compare to the real US hockey states, or anywhere in Canada.

When I graduated High School, I moved to British Columbia, Canada to further my hockey career. There was no level high enough in California, so I had to play Junior Hockey in either Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts or Canada. I was a smallish player, skilful and fast but small, and Canadian hockey in those days was brutal. I soon learned that they played a much tougher brand of hockey.

At every exhibition game, there was probably about 10 fights. The coaches even encouraged it. It was brutal and with no penalty – you would just get sent back to the bench. I was scoring well, so I avoided any fights through training camp until the last game. The coach pulled me aside on the last day and said I was good, but if I was scared, I wouldn’t make it. I knew I had to get into a fight. I was pretty nervous, chose a player at random, and he beat me up pretty good! The coach tapped me on the shoulder and said he was happy. Once in the team, a player like me doesn’t have to fight very much. It has improved over the years, but back then it was pretty tough.

Once I made the team, I was playing with the Rossland Warriors in a town of about 4000 people on top of a mountain in British Columbia. This was a really small town compared to LA and there was so much snow. You could get a minimum 2 metres of the stuff in your garden that you have to shovel through and sometimes even tunnel out of your house.

I have moved around a lot and each move was really an experience. There was a huge cultural shift with every new place. I guess that is the life of a Californian Ice Hockey player. You have no option but to move away if you want to play. When you’re going from one of the biggest cities in the world, to a tiny town on a mountain, it’s a big culture-shock situation. However, I was so focused on hockey that I was happy to be immersed in it. We skated all day, every day. I played with them for one season before moving back to California to join the Lytes Rustlers in the North American Hockey League.

A wealthy businessman had started the team in California but we actually played in a league in Michigan. Every weekend we would fly at 4am to Detroit, Michigan, play two games, then fly back. Another year later, I was playing for the Minot Americans in North Dakota.

I then had a connection in Finland, a Finnish guy who played professionally. Each professional Finnish team was allowed two non-Finnish players (“imports”), so I called and asked about opportunities. They said: ‘Pay your own way to fly over and you can try out. If you make the team, we will get a contract signed and reimburse you’. I did make the team, so it was another giant cultural shift. At that time, English was not widely spoken and I had zero Finnish. I roomed with two other guys – one spoke very broken English, the other none! The head coach spoke no English either, so I sat next to the guy who had introduced me and he would pass on the instructions. He would also act as an interpreter if I needed to talk to the coach. It was great and one of the highlights of my life.

It is one thing to visit a place, but to go and live in a place, you get a real feel for the people and culture.

One reason I decided to go to Finland was because of the style of ice hockey they played. The European game is very technical and fast. In Canada I would take a lot more of a beating – more brute force, more intimidation and body contact. My style of play was more conducive to European hockey and the training was much more technical.

I had a hard time adjusting though, coming from a tougher hockey background. I had learned to always make the first punch, so when I got kicked out of the game early on, even my own team smiled. In a way, they also liked it. They felt it was interesting that the North American players had this valuable fighting spirit, that we played the game with a lot more emotion.

After a year, I could hold a rudimentary conversation in Finnish. Having lived in Finland, Holland and Sweden, I don’t speak any of the languages well. I did pick up a small amount in each country though and have seen how people appreciate seeing you at least try to converse.

Unfortunately, the Finnish team were not very economically sound, so after a season I got a contract in Holland, the Dordrecht Lions, near Rotterdam. This was very different again. The level of hockey in Holland was not as high, and the expectations on imports was not as high. In Finland they have very few import slots, so they want someone that fits into the team in skill and style.

In Holland, you have to be a dominant player on the ice. Luckily I was the top scorer in the team and one of the top league scorers. Although the team just missed the finals, they wanted me to re-sign for another season, but at 22, I wanted to move on again.

Next I went to Sweden. This was another completely different style of hockey, even from Finland despite the geographical closeness. Finland is a combination of North American and European hockey, but Sweden has a much more systematic, tactical approach. I didn’t enjoy this as much because it didn’t suit my game. I was an offensive player that scored a lot of points, but the Swedish style is very defensive.

This ended up being my last season at professional level. I was 24. Hockey had started to feel like a job rather than fun. I loved living in Sweden, but the hockey was only making me enough money to survive. I couldn’t save any money or really look to the future. I had to start looking at decent career options.

I started a personal training company back in LA, and the business took off quickly so I retired from professional hockey. I ran the business for about 12 years and during this time I met my Australian wife. We ended up moving to Australia in 2004. My LA personal training business was going well at the time, and with money in the bank, I could make the move without too much worry. I worked in a few gyms in Victoria until I started my own personal training business and then fell into the pharmaceutical industry for more security and stability as our family grew.

As for my hockey aspirations, I had stopped playing at 24 and played in the local leagues non-competitively, staying in shape, for 11 years. When we moved to Melbourne, I thought playing some local hockey would be a good way to make social connections. I saw the Melbourne Ice had a team, and called the guy in charge asking about try outs and he said the training camp started the next day. Now I hadn’t played any contact hockey since I was 24 and the Melbourne Ice are part of the National league with full contact, so I knew it would be a trial by fire. There were also 20 imports trying out for the team, most of whom had flown in just for the trials. We did a few drills, all 60 of us, then the coach calls everyone in and says: “We’re going to have a practice game. I want to see who’s tough.” It was my nightmare come true.

I knew that I was one of the best players on the ice, but the game was crazy – so chaotic that no-one could tell. Everyone was just tackling and hitting each other. I thought they would just see me as old and small. Every practice for a week was just as chaotic, and I thought, I am going quit from the game for good if I don’t make the team. I’ll take up tennis. When the coach read off the names, my name wasn’t included. I packed up my bag and was resigned to be finished with Hockey. On a whim, I double-checked with the coach on my way out. He had gotten my name wrong; I was actually in! While playing for the Melbourne Ice, I also played with the local league Sharks who didn’t have a coach, so I took over and started my first real coaching role.

I really enjoyed coaching and took to it well. The guys really listened to what I could offer and that year, the team that had finished dead last in 2004, won the championship in 2005. It was hugely rewarding, so I decided to obtain my Level III coaching with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) through an intensive course. I stayed in the National league with the Melbourne Ice until 2010 as player/Captain/Assistant Coach when we won our first championship. A highlight was playing for Australia in Newcastle, Australia for their World Championships in 2008. I was 39 at the time and it was a shock to get selected. We won the gold medal for the first time in Australia’s history at that level. After a year off, I returned just to coach and we won the next season as well, and I was made Assistant Coach of the National team in 2012.

I then took on my first real head coaching role with the newest team in the league – the Melbourne Mustangs. We went from last the previous year, to just missing out on the finals. In 2014 we won the minor premiership and the premiership against my old team, the Melbourne Ice!

Last year we finished just outside of the finals and I got the role as Head Coach for the Australian National Team. I had been Assistant Coach and liked the challenge.

I still work in pharmaceuticals because Ice Hockey is such a minority sport here in Australia. The game has grown hugely in the last few years, but there is still not enough money in it to be a professional gig. All expenses are paid but I don’t get paid a salary and have to use my work annual leave to support the team. Luckily, my family support my commitment. It’s run like a professional organisation, but nobody gets paid. Players lose teeth and break bones in matches and still go to their regular jobs the next day. Being in the Australian League is very tough. They have to work for themselves and often have to retire from Hockey because they cannot afford the injuries and time off work.

Currently, we have quite a few players on the National team with international experience, so they have a good idea of what’s expected. It’s great working with the cream of the crop. This year the team has a chip on its shoulder because we were relegated down a division last year. We have been two levels higher in the past. It’s an exciting time as we’re only a month away now to the division World Championship in Mexico City [at time of writing]. According to the draw, we will be up against Mexico, South Africa, Israel, New Zealand, and North Korea – if they show up! (North Korea have not shown up before.) I like our chances and we have a real opportunity to be successful. Everyone has a different style of play. New Zealand has such a rivalry against Australia that it is always a very rough, emotional, close game. The altitude in Mexico City is going to be a big issue – we are heading over early to acclimatise – but the Mexican team is not as physical in style. Israel’s team is a wildcard that can bring professional Russians – you never know. South Africa will be rough and tumble again because of the similar rugby background to Australia.

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