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Alien sport of ice hockey gains Australian beachhead

When the going gets hot ''down under'' a small but growing number of Australians grab skates and hockey sticks and head for the ice.

Surfboard under his arm, for instance, high school physical education teacher Glenn Williamson regularly stops on a hot day for a breather under tall, swaying tropical palm trees outside the Warringah Bombers' headquarters in the Sydney suburb of Narrabeen--en route from the the ocean to the rink.

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Williamson, who came here two years ago from his home town of Souris in Canada's Manitoba province and says he'll stay a few more years, is the national junior coach for a sport that seems bizarre to many Australians and alien to their vast, arid, sunburned land.

Two of the Bombers' stars are brothers John and Phil Heggie, who accompanied their parents here from Toronto three years ago.

''It feels good for the ego,'' says John, a computer salesman. ''Here we're superstars, while back home a social team that's only able to get access to the ice after 10 p.m. wouldn't want us messing up their chances.''

The Bombers play in the eight-team New South Wales Super League. There is a league in Victoria, too, and a handful of teams in other states. The season runs from April through September, and registrations to play are up 66 percent from last year, with a total of 3,500 players, coast-to-coast. Roughly 35 percent of the players are North Americans, all but a handful of them Canadians. And none are pros.

While others prefer to swim, surf, or sail, a growing number of people - a few keen surfers among them - are signing up for hockey. And more and more they're being drawn from among the estimated 250,000 Australians who've tried ice skating, rather than from the North American expatriate community.

''It's still an oddity in this country, but we're growing,'' says Sandi Logan , a radio producer who came here from Toronto as a teen-ager and is secretary of the Australian Ice Hockey Federation.

The Australian teams aren't starved for competition. Six Canadian teams made the trans-Pacific trip in the past two years, with four more scheduled to come this year.

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''They don't come for the competition,'' Logan admits. ''It's part of the North American view of Australia as a kind of last frontier, something to see. The teams have meetings and say, 'Let's take a vacation in Australia and arrange some light hockey games while we're on the trip.' ''

For such teams it's a chance to take a break and return home unbeaten--except that sometimes things don't go according to plan. One group of Canadians had such a laid back attitude on their Australian visit that they went home without winning a game.

Australian hockey players like to talk about that tour. But Logan prefers not to mention the team ''because they had such a good time they're coming back this year and it wouldn't be right to embarrass them.''

Bombers' owner Dick Mann, who also owns the Warringah Ice Skating Center where the team is based, says about 500 people usually come to the games, with capacity crowds of ''over a thousand'' for the playoffs.

Ice hockey came to Australia early in this century but died out until the opening of some new rinks in the 1960s. Their primary purpose - then as now - was for figure skating, but their existence encouraged hockey enthusiasts to revive the sport.

''Ice hockey helps publicize the rinks - that's one of the few advantages team owners, who mostly are also rink owners, get from their investment,'' says Allan Harvey, a Sydney native who plays for the Bombers.

Though they play hockey only in the mild winters, Australians skate all year--under conditions which often amaze foreigners. ''One of our rinks didn't have a roof until last year,'' Harvey says. ''The hot summer sun would blaze down on the ice. They had a tremendous electricity bill keeping the ice hard.''

Forty-five young North American hockey players, almost all of them Canadians, are spending this season with Australian teams, a small increase on last year. Logan says they pay their own way and take jobs to support themselves. ''They're junior college players, mostly, and some have such a great time they stay for two or three years,'' he says.

Australian hockey, so far, has none of the rough stuff for which the sport is notorious in North America. In the view of Williamson, who also plays for the Bombers, ''There's no pressure to pull big crowds here so there's no need for showbiz. Perhaps if we're really successful in promoting the game that'll change.''

Australia hasn't had a national team for two years. Officials decided instead to concentrate on a national junior team--with the aim of having a national team ready to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Though the sport is gaining support, Logan agrees ''It would be naive to think it'll be a major Australian sport soon. But that's the long-term aim, yes.''

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