Seated in what seemed like a sea of yellow and navy at the AIHL semi-finals, the travelling CBR Brave fans around me were in full voice. Amongst the screams, chants and occasional tears, I find a remarkable sense of pride. The collective thoughts of everyone in the ‘away section’ in Melbourne’s Icehouse were practically audible: This is it. We made it.
Casting their minds back just six short months, this moment seemed implausible. The former management team had just announced the Canberra Knights withdrawal from the league, and the shock and devastation felt by the team and their fans was intense.
For many Canberrans, the Knights represent more than just an ice hockey team. Founded in the same year as the Canberra Raiders, The Knights were woven into the history of many of the players, their families, and the Canberra community. For some, like Brad Hunt, the relationship extended well over a decade. The goaltender played his first season with the team in 1995, and like many, felt that the announcement signalled the end of his hockey career.
But the players would not go down without a fight. In an impressive show of ambition and pride, players including team captain Mark Rummukainen and forward Jordan Gavin rallied for public support and planned to take control of the team.
Fortunately, Coordinate’s Jamie Wilson and business partner Warren Apps, in collaboration with Allinsure Director Peter Chamberlain saw the extraordinary potential that this team possessed. They invested their support and belief in the Knights players, and with sponsorship from brave members of the Canberra business community and from Gaminator Slots ltd owner, they were able to not only salvage the team, but completely reinvigorate it. From the ashes of the Canberra Knights rose CBR Brave.
Chamberlain counts the formation of the management team and the board as key milestones in this journey, but recalls with fondness the first moment the team took the ice in the now iconic CBR BRAVE jerseys as the “greatest success”.
Securing a few key imports has played an important part in the team’s success this season. In addition to the high quality local contingent, there are 6 international players including 2014 AIHL Goalkeeper of the Year and ‘Bravest of the Brave’ MVP Petri Pitkanen, as well as Highest Points Scorer Steven Blunden, who recalls his season with the Brave as “the best decision of my life”.
The announcement of the revamped team captured the attention of locals, media, and importantly, players. Aaron Clayworth had previously semi-retired from the league, but the birth of CBR Brave reignited his passion. “I was particularly excited to be coached by Matti Luoma”, he says, “he’s one of the most qualified coaches in the league”.
Gruelling sessions with Luoma are accompanied by twice weekly off-ice sessions with renowned personal trainer Lee Campbell.
Ramped up training has only been part of the transformation, with the team undergoing a massive shift in culture. The management and board have unleashed not only a team, but a passionate and committed community. Games are no longer a mere social calling, but an opportunity to show Canberra and the AIHL what CBR Brave are made of.
There’s a consensus among the players that the fans have played a essential role in the team’s success. Braving the Canberra winter and turning up without fail to every home game is an impressive feat. The Bravehearts, clad in their CBR Brave merchandise accompanied with their signature tartan and face paint have a fierce loyalty and relentless passion. Every game is packed, with even the standing room running four or more deep.
Darryl, one of the team’s greatest fans has maintained his prime spot in front of the kiosk at the Phillip rink for years, and will stop at nothing to defend it. He’s one of the many players who made the long bus journey to Melbourne for the finals. “To be in Melbourne this weekend is fantastic”, he said, “but to be here for this occasion is just awesome”.
It’s a truly great underdog story, which is why in the words of Chairman Peter Chamberlian, semi-finals seemed a “fairy tale”.
Yet here we were. The Brave players faced not only the anxiety that’s expected with a first appearance in AIHL finals, but a smattering of injuries and illness. Yet, as their brief but incredible history shows, the boys felt confident and strong in the face of adversity.
Watching the boys on the ice is nothing short of mesmerizing. They glide with ease and grace, and it takes a sudden slam against the rink’s edge to remind you of the breathtaking speed and force with which they move. Ice hockey is nothing short of ferocious. Finals hockey, in particular, is brutally violent. The crowd at the Icehouse was expecting a show and both the CBR Brave and Melbourne Ice delivered.
Although we went down 6-1, the players and fans were unapologetically proud to have made it to the semi finals. For a team that had been relatively hidden in the shadows to present such a threat to teams in the league is impressive to say the least. We certainly made our presence known.
They say fortune favours the brave. I’d argue that CBR Brave’s success this season has nothing to do with fortune or fate, but rather stands as a testament to the talented players, dedicated board and management team, and fiercely passionate fans. We wait with baited breath for another season, and another opportunity to take the cup.