Hollis native O’Kane shining overseas
It’s the story of the ticket never used.
Former Bishop Guertin hockey player Pat O’Kane has always had a way home since leaving for Australia.
But evidently there is a place like home – the Land Down Under.
It didn’t take O’Kane long to realize, while he had a round trip ticket back to the United States, that Australia, a country not exactly known for ice hockey, would be his new home.
"Through the first year, even the first few months, actually, I knew I wasn’t going to be on that plane," O’Kane said. "I loved the people, loved where I lived, loved the lifestyle. I wanted to continue. I made the choice to let that return flight go."
The result is a resounding career as one of the Australian Ice Hockey League’s better players, competing for the Melbourne Mustangs. Another result is a book written by Australian author Will Brodie, "Reality Check," about the league itself and some of the players in it, especially O’Kane.
"I found out about it," O’Kane said during a recent visit with his family in Hollis over the holidays. "It’s well known in the hockey community in Australia. Will Brodie did an amazing job and worked with all the teams in the league. It’s pretty special.
"The hockey community is pretty tight knit. The difference between a player and a fan is much closer than say a Bruins player and a fan. We have a good relationship with the fans in all the cities. … Everyone’s been pretty welcoming."
After he graduated from Guertin in 2007, O’Kane, 26, played at the prep school Willaston-North Hampton, and then went on to a career at Assumpton College. The 5-foot-7 skater is still the same as he was at BG – using his speed rather than super physical play. He’s led the Mustangs all three years in points. Most AIHL teams have three or four "imports."
"I’ve played with some pretty good players; I can’t take the credit," he said. "But I manage to get some goals here and there."
He had 22 in 28 games last year, the season going from beginning of April through September, which is when the AIHL season concludes. He was named the Mustangs team MVP and also scored four goals in the AIHL All-Star Game last September, earning MVP honoers in that game as well.
How committed is O’Kane to the Land Down Under? He and his Australian girlfriend, Stephanie Huges, bought a house five minutes from the beach in the Melbourne area.
He was there a year on a working holiday visa (can only work part-time), then on student visa for two years and is now applying for permanent residency visa. He plans on living there for a long time.
"It’s a great place to live," O’Kane said.
O’Kane said he always wanted to see the world. He was playing in Sweden in 2013 when he found out about the league in Australia from another former BG player, Kevin Crowder. O’Kane made some inquiries, sent all the teams an email, came home to go to grad school and got call from the Mustangs.
Crowder, son of former UMass Lowell and Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder, played in Australia a decade ago.
"All of the local guys would skate during the summer and he mentioned it," O’Kane said. "So I heard about the league, but I never thought of going there.
"And now I live there."
It didn’t take O’Kane long to get used to the Australian way of life.
"Really the adjustment wasn’t all that hard," he said. "It wasn’t all that different. The people were so friendly and welcoming; immediately after getting off the plane I had people inviting me to dinners, taking me out, showing me around. … It was instant.
"And going and playing for a team you automatically have 25 friends right away. And some of these people are lifelong friends. It’s an amazing country."
And the hockey satisfies O’Kane’s desire to keep playing. He’ll be playing for a new coach once next season begins; Brad Vigon, a dual American-Australian citizen originally from L.A., stepped down as the Mustangs coach after last season. The new coach is one of his assistants, Michael Flaherty, an Australian native.
"There’s no timetable," he said. "My contract’s through next year. The commitment for professional hockey isn’t all that much. I could play into my 30s if I want to."
That’s because in the AIHL, teams practice two or three times a week, either play at home or travel on the weekends and sometimes play doubleheaders. Plus, everyone on the team has a full time job off ice.
"It’s really more of a hobby," he said. "Except you’re on national television and travel the country."
And, O’Kane adds, the teams don’t bus, they fly. Australia is a big country, a cross country flight takes similar to the U.S., five to six hours.
One drawback is the rinks; O’Kane feels they aren’t of the same quality as in the U.S., but, as O’Kane said, "It just adds to the experience."
The Mustangs have an Olympic-quality rink and draw perhaps 1,500 to a game. More – standing room only – when the Mustangs play the other Melbourne team.
"The other rinks aren’t as big but they pack them in," he said. "It’s a minor sport there but they take it pretty seriously."
In the state of Victoria, the major sport is Aussie Rules Football. Everywhere else, O’Kane said, it’s rugby. But he misses the U.S. Sports and watching Boston teams such as the Bruins, Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox. Anything like that televised there are on in the morning while O’Kane is at work.
O’Kane says Aussie football is "OK" but that the Aussies are as crazy about that as we are about the NFL. But O’Kane has become a huge cricket fan.
"It’s a pretty amazing sport," he said.
Growing the game
O’Kane said the Australian game has grown through the years, but the league’s best players still tend to be imports from foreign countries.
"They didn’t grow up with rinks the way we did," O’Kane said. "So they might now be as good. There’s a pretty big range between the lower skilled players and the better players.
"But it’s the same game. It’s a physical style, North American style as opposed to European style. But they lack a bit of depth because it is a minor sport."
Games are 50 minutes – two 15-minute periods and one 20-minute period. Ice time, as in the U.S., is expensive, so those 10 fewer minutes from a standardNorth American game saves money, and also travel time.
"Certain airports only have certain flights out," O’Kane said. "In order to make it home in time, you have to cut the game short."
The Australian game is played under international rules. An AIHL fighting penalty is more severe than in North American professional leagues – an automatic game misconduct. "It’s to deter fighting but we still have it," he said.
The payment structure is different for each team. Imports, O’Kane said, have their housing paid for, help getting jobs and a car. "You can’t live (off) the pay, but they do what they can," he said.
His day job? O’Kane currently works with disabled school children, and in the Australian school system, it’s 10 weeks on and two weeks off. If you do the math, that’s 12 weeks paid vacation a year.
"That’s a pretty good gig," he said with a chuckle, currently on summer vacation stretching five weeks.
What would O’Kane want to do for a career away from the game? He has a graduate degree in international business, and has been speaking with companies, both small and large, he said. One involves being an agent recruiting Australian amateur athletes and getting them placed in colleges in the U.S.
"When I was back in high school, I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to continue to play," he said. "I was lucky enough to go to prep school and then I played in college. I would’ve been satisfied with that. But as the years went on and I reached my senior year, I had the idea I might be able to play somewhere. I had some connections and was able to play in Sweden.
"It’s amazing. I’m thankful for what BG has given me and hockey has given me.
Playing in Sweden, O’Kane said, was "more of a life experience for me." He endured the language barrier and "kind of just plopped in the middle of Stockholm. It was a huge learning curve; the hockey was a bonus.
"I knew I didn’t want to stick around New Hampshire and get a job in Boston. I really wanted to see the world."
O’Kane said the remainder of his career there will "depend on what life brings me. I’m by no means the youngest player on the team, but I was the youngest import."
But he will make his home in Australia whether he’s playing hockey or not. "I’ll still be living here," he said. He returns home rarely; his visit back to Hollis was only his second in three years.
And that’s a round trip ticket he uses.