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After owner folds Australian pro hockey team, stranded players form their own

Harrison Mooney
Puck Daddy

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Established in 1981, the Canberra Knights were the oldest team in the eight-team Australian Ice Hockey League, and one of the league's last two original teams alongside the Sydney Bears. But on Wednesday, February 26, just six weeks before the start of the AIHL season on April 12, Knights owner John Raut announced the team was finished, effectively immediately.

He cited losses in the tens of thousands, as well as pessimistic concerns that they'd get "smashed again like we did last year" -- they lost many games by double digits, and he expressed -- as the reasons for the fold.

It was sudden and unexpected. Despite practicing the night before, many of the Knights players learned their fate at the same time as the public, via a Facebook posting.

But the players refused to accept their fate. And neither did the fans in the Australian capital, a loyal group that sold out the Phillip Ice Skating Centre where the Knights played on most nights during the season, despite the team's poor record. Maybe a cynical Raut was willing to let the Knights go gently (and suspiciously, as many felt his numbers didn't add up), but he was the only one.

The next morning, a group of players, led by Knights captain Mark Rummukainen and assistant captain Jordie Gavin, alongside Knights fans, launched a bid to save the team by running it themselves.

''The players want to keep going and we weren't given the opportunity to do anything in the first place,'' Rummukainen told Lee Gaskin of the Canberra Times, who's been doing incredible work following this remarkable story. ''If we can take control of the team and run it how we want to run it, maybe we can have a team in the league in 2014."

"The players don't want to lose it, the fans don't want to lose it, unfortunately the only person willing to turn it in was the owner.''

Of course, it's not quite so easy as just saying you want to take control of the team. Before the AIHL would go for it, the players had to show that an ownerless team could be financially viable, which meant coming up with the $100,000 necessary to operate it, nailing down a new arena agreement, and proving the team could be competitive.

In a month.

Obviously, the money came first, and to that end, there was some good news: The local government had already contributed $29,000 to the Knights as part of a sporting grant. It was to be returned by Raut with the folding of the club, but the players convinced the Australian Capital Territory to give it to them instead.

The fans pitched in as well. A Save the Canberra Knights group popped up on Facebook, leading a crowd-funding campaign looking to raise $50,000. They've raised over $20,000 so far, and are still taking donations.

As for the rest, the group drummed up investors, bringing on four game-day sponsors.

The arena was no problem. Raut owned that, and he was willing to work out a deal to let the team continue playing there. But that's as far as his generosity went: he refused to let the new group retain the Knights name without compensation.

''We're happy to work with a new group," he said, "[but] they won't be the Canberra Knights because we reserve the right to have a Canberra Knights team some time in the future. The owners would retain that name because we've developed the brand and it's something that attracts money."

''We've invested heavily into that over the years and we would want some compensation for it.''

(If Raut is beginning to sound like the evil landlord in one of those community-rallies-together movies, he seemed to relish the role well, grumbling to the Times that the new team would still be terrible. "They might pull a few old crocks out of the cupboard who played here a few years ago," he said.)

But the players were far more optimistic. Bad luck and injuries were to blame last year, they said. And nevermind the name. They weren't fighting to save the Canberra Knights -- they were fighting to save hockey in Canberra. They let the Canberra Knights die with Raut, and returned as the CBR Brave.

(CBR is short for Canberra, but it also stands for "confident, bold and ready", according to a campaign launched by the city's business owners to promote local interests. It's a fitting choice for a team going out on a limb after some serious turmoil.)

The final step was proving the team could ice a competitive roster, and there, the rest of the league pitched in. Inspired by everything else they'd seen, the AIHL gave the Brave an allowance to bring in two more import players: six, instead of the usual four. Meanwhile, other teams in the league offered the Knights some of their extra guys. And, just as Raut had predicted, the old crocks came out of the cupboard, as some retired Knights still living in the area offered to unretire to help fill out the roster.

They had a team.

On March 5, the AIHL's board of governors met to consider the Brave's new proposal. Later that day, they reached a decision and called Rummukainen to let him know what they'd decided: the Brave could play in 2014.

''We're over the moon, we got the call from the league and we're all shaking,'' Rummukainen said.

Everything's backwards in Australia. The toilet water swirls the other way, and the players run the hockey teams.

This isn't the first time a group of pro players have struck out on their own. The AIHL's Adelaide Adrenaline formed similarly back in 2008. And last year, the Belfast Giants of the UK's Elite Ice Hockey League abandoned their franchise after learning their owner was a registered sex offender.

This is a huge win for the AIHL, and for Australian ice hockey in general. Not only does it showcase the passion for the sport in the land down under, but, as Ice Hockey Australia vice president Andy McDowell explains, it allows kids in Australia's capital city to be exposed to the game. From the Canberra Times:

McDowell said it would be disappointing if Canberra left the AIHL as it would further hamper promising juniors from being exposed to the national league.

''At Ice Hockey Australia we are all about junior development. That's our key role,'' he said. ''We're thrilled to see the passion at the moment and we want nothing more than it to get up and for them to compete.

''The AIHL is an important avenue for kids to get involved and to help them take up the sport against lots of competition from other sports.''

The Brave open their season at home against the Newcastle North Stars on April 12.

s/t to Cory Savidant for the tip.

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