A Bienfait native and former Estevan Bruin is now one of the biggest stars in Australian ice hockey.
Michael Schlamp is entering his fifth season with the Sydney Bears and is the captain of the Australian Ice Hockey League club.
Schlamp, who played with the Bruins from 1999-2002, ended up in Australia through former Bruins coach Kelly Lovering, who had some contacts in the country.
Schlamp played that first year in 2002 with the Newcastle North Stars along with Lovering’s son, Tyler, who is now the commissioner of the AIHL.
Schlamp worked in Australia until December of that year, came back to Bienfait for a year and then applied to study chiropractic in Sydney, where he began living in 2004 and has ever since.
“It was a little different at first. It’s like playing summer hockey,” Schlamp said via e-mail. “The weather here isn’t that warm in the winter. It is usually about 16-18 C during the day and the lowest it will get in Sydney is about 4 C, so not too bad compared to Saskatchewan.
“I have definitely gone a little soft when it comes to the weather now, compared to when I used to live back in Saskatchewan,” he said.
Schlamp finished 13th in AIHL scoring last year with 20 goals and 45 points in 28 games. He said the quality of the AIHL has been improving but still would be considered a low-level league in Canada.
“I suppose you could compare it to a high-quality senior league back in Canada,” he said.
“There is a fair bit of travel in this league as well, so we have to fly to a lot of the games. There are three other teams within a 3.5 hour drive, but the other five places we fly to, so that is interesting.
“Imagine a senior league in Canada spanning from Vancouver to Toronto and having nine teams. That’s us, pretty crazy,” he said.
Each team in the AIHL is allowed four import players, who usually come from pro leagues in the U.S., the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and other countries, which suits the league and the players, because the AIHL season is opposite to other leagues.
Schlamp had a brand new experience last month when he suited up for Australia at the International Ice Hockey Federation Division 2 world championship, which is the third tier of world tournaments.
The event was held in Krynica, Poland from April 15-22. It was Schlamp’s first time playing for his new country. The Aussies went 0-5 and were relegated to Division 3.
“It was really good quality hockey. All the players from the other countries are full-time professionals, so it’s a great achievement for Australia to play at that level,” said Schlamp.
“We competed very well and played great against the difficult teams and probably should have won a couple of games, but took some penalties and had poor starts against Romania and Lithuania. Otherwise, I think we could have beat them. Such a great experience.”
As a Canadian playing in a country less familiar with the game, Schlamp finds himself taking on a bit of a mentorship role.
“I do help run the occasional hockey school over here and work with some of the younger kids. There are some talented athletes over here and hockey would be a lot better, but lack of rinks and numbers hold it back.”
He said he’s seen vast improvement in the quality of Australian hockey since moving Down Under.
“The league here has improved a lot and the Aussie players keep getting better. They have moved up a lot in the international ranking and now are competing very well with the Division 1 teams. I think it will still take a few years before they are consistently in Division 1. “
Australia is poised to hit a huge milestone this summer in having its first ever player taken in the NHL draft.
Australian forward Nathan Walker, who has been playing in the Czech Republic, is ranked to go in the third round of the draft.
Schlamp played on a line with Walker at the worlds.
“This would be great for Australian hockey. There are a few more players over here that are close to getting their citizenship as well, which would add to the quality of the team and Australia’s chances,” said Schlamp.
The former Saskatoon Blade was recently interviewed by Fox Sports Australia, which was considered a great accomplishment for the sport.
“Yeah, it was pretty cool. It’s like the equivalent of being on SportsCentre on TSN. We really don’t get too much media coverage over here, especially on TV. It is getting to be a little better, but sports like rugby get the majority of coverage over here. Rugby over here is like hockey in Canada,” he said.
The Bears finished last in the AIHL last year with a record of 2-21-2, but Schlamp hopes the team will have better fortunes this season, which began earlier this month.
“We had a few injuries last year and ended up having a rough year. We have a few good imports this year, two really good players from the Czech Republic, so hopefully we can have a strong season and make the playoffs.”
The top four teams make the AIHL post-season.
Schlamp, 31, believes he has a few more years in him.
“I think I will probably play a couple of more seasons. I really enjoyed playing at the world championships and would like to do that a few more years. I still love playing the game and it’s like having a little piece of back home here with me, so that is nice as well,” he said.