Breaking ice Down Under: NHL's southern hemisphere debut thrills Aussie fans

Adrian Kempe notches goal on the power play (0:56)

Adrian Kempe notches goal on the power play (0:56)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It's September, the spring sun has emerged from a clear blue sky, beaming on the backs of thousands of radiant sports fans proudly donning their favourite guernseys as a jubilant energy sweeps through Melbourne Park.

Nothing new for this city, the fandom for Aussie Rules palpable on preliminary final weekend of the country's biggest sport.

But on this weekend, it wasn't the familiar colours of AFL teams being worn. No, these two days were different. On Saturday and Sunday, September 23 and 24, there was a new kind of excitement in the air in a nation where the rhythm of footy usually beats louder than any other.

The hum of excitement isn't for the thunderous roar and hallowed grounds of the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). No, this is the NHL, in the southern hemisphere for the very first time, that has captured the hearts and imaginations of eager Aussie sports goers.

Western Conference's Arizona Coyotes and LA Kings were the two teams facing off in the 2023 Global Series, playing two games as part of the NHL's preseason approximately 8,200 (13,196 kms) and 7,900 miles (12,714) away from their home arenas in Tempe and Los Angeles respectively.

The arrival of the biggest ice hockey league in the world was met with joyous chatter of friends and families which filled the air in and around Rod Laver Arena. A stadium usually reserved for one of the world's biggest Grand Slam tournaments was quickly turned into an ice rink, which paid homage to the Australian Open by incorporating tennis balls into the face-off dots and other court markings throughout the skating surface.

"It's just awesome," one fan told ESPN in the lead up to Sunday's game, flying down with a group from Brisbane to experience this Australian-first weekend.

"I'm a fairly new fan, so for me this is really cool. I'm a Devils fan and I've been collecting a bit of their merch for the past 6-12 months, but it's just cool to walk past another Devils fan and be like 'hey!' and acknowledge each other.

"I follow the league (NRL) as well, I'm a Broncos fan. I'm also a big tennis fan, I normally go to the Brisbane International every year, but funnily enough this is my first time at Rod Laver Arena and it's not even for tennis!

"The atmosphere is definitely different; the crowd probably took a while to warm up. They really got around the players squaring off against each other -- I reckon there was more cheering for the fight than there was for the goals, but maybe that's just an Aussie thing!" he added.

Fans, both seasoned and newcomers, travelled from far and wide to get a taste of one of America's most beloved pastimes.

And when they heard the NHL was coming Down Under? There was no hesitation.

"Where's my credit card?" was the reaction of another fan. "We got tickets and worried about flights and accommodation after that."

The arrival of the Coyotes and Kings ignited a passion and unearthed an electric atmosphere that rode every bone-rattling bump and high-speed goal that few could have anticipated, including Arizona head coach Andres Tourigny.

"It's unbelievable the number of NHL jerseys everywhere in the street, and in the crowd," he said.

"I'll be honest, I was not expecting that.

"You're so far from here and you see jerseys for every team ... it's amazing to see how many fans the NHL has here."

The NHL fan festival was also launched outside of Rod Laver Arena on Friday, allowing fans and the public free access to a range of hockey-themed activities and merch stands, the range of colours -- all 32 teams clearly represented by the nearly 20,000 patrons -- a sight to behold for organisers.

The sell-out crowds across the two days were boisterous, while the action on the ice did not disappoint.

In their first of two meetings, seven goals were scored in the second period alone before the Coyotes clinched the 5-3 win with an open-net goal in the final seconds of the game. The edge-of-seat action continued on Sunday, with the Kings prevailing 3-2, four of the five goals scored in a flurry during the third period.

American-born Aussie Rules player Mason Cox got Sunday's game underway with a puck drop to an unsurprising chorus of both boos and applause, his Collingwood Magpies preparing for the season's Grand Final to be played next week.

The jaw-dropping goals, big hits, and determined saves were met with appropriate cheers, but the crowd's energy was best on show when Jordan Spence's name was announced ahead of both games.

The Kings defenceman became the first Australian-born player to skate in the NHL in 2021-22, and his introductions were enthusiastically received by the adoring Aussies in the stands.

"The atmosphere was unbelievable, to have sell out games on back-to-back days is pretty incredible... the fans were really into it the whole time," Kings goaltender Cam Talbot said.

"When you come to a new country you don't know how it's going to be received ... but I give the fans in this city a lot of credit and respect for the way they treated us and the way they came and showed up for us, it's been a great experience."

For the Kings and Coyotes, this is just the start of their training camp. But for the sport in Australia, this was more than just a couple of ice hockey games.

It's hard to say whether the impact of the NHL's visit to Australia will leave an indelible mark on the country's sporting landscape. But one thing's for sure, the league has now planted the seeds for a thriving ice hockey community Down Under that has new-found support and enthusiasm from a prosperous two-day experience.

Through the Kings and Coyotes, history was made, a country usually known for its kangaroos, koalas, and footy fanatics realising perhaps there's always room for something new.

Was this the dawn of a new sporting era in Australia? The legacy, at least, of these two games will resonate for years to come.