Australia isn't exactly known as a hotbed for producing hockey players, let alone breeding them to play
at the college level in the United States.
The Buffalo State men's hockey team gives an inimitable bend to that stigma. Freshman defenseman
Todd Graham, who was born in Australia and spent most of his childhood there, joined the team this
year for his first taste of collegiate hockey.
"Only a couple of athletes from Australia go to universities in America or Canada, but there's no college
hockey or any college sports in Australia," Graham said. "So I'm pretty lucky to come over here and have
the opportunity to play on the team."
It is far from his initial experience of hockey on American soil, however.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, the 21-year-old and his family moved to Maple Grove, Minn., when he
was just 10 months old because of his father's job.
The cold, snowy climate of Minnesota abetted Graham to lace up and learn to skate at the outdoor rink
across the road from his house. The desire to learn also strung from his older brother playing ice hockey
competitively, often placing Graham at the ice rink getting accustomed to the nature of the game.
Living in the hockey-rich culture of Maple Grove for only six years, Graham's true roots of his hockey
playing stems from his native Australia, oddly enough. Graham and his family moved back to Sydney,
Australia when he was 6, then back to his hometown of Melbourne at 7.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Graham started playing a style of hockey that was popular in Australia, roller
hockey, competitively for the first time at age 8. After playing roller for a few years, he turned his
attention to something his friends had been playing.
"I made the switch to ice hockey when I was 13, played that for a couple years and loved it," Graham
Graham's love for the game was matched by talent. After just a short time of playing ice, he decided to
travel 10,000 miles to play major travel hockey in Florida at age 15. Though he would be a world away
from his family during hockey season, Graham welcomed the rare opportunity afforded to him.
"Me and my parents kind of looked at it from all angles and decided hockey was really what I wanted
to do at the time," Graham said. "Getting an opportunity to go overseas, with such a (rare) sport in
Australia, you're not going to get that a lot."
Making the transition to a new, independent and demanding lifestyle far away from everything and
everyone he knew, Graham was welcomed into an ideal situation that made the move seamless.
Through a close family friend, he was set up with a host family to live with during his time in Florida
after making a Midget AAA team in the Florida Jr. Panthers organization. During his one year in Florida,
Graham received helpful guidance from both his host family and coaching staff consisting of a profusion
of NHL knowledge, which included former Sabres' third-round pick Ray Sheppard.
"My host family was great. The whole situation was probably the best situation I could have walked into
my first year in America (playing hockey)," Graham said. "We had NHL-caliber coaching. All combined
total of NHL experience in our coaching was around 30 years."
After a year in Florida, Graham took to Burlington, Vt., in 2007, where he played junior B for the then-
Green Mountain Glades. That was followed by a year of high school hockey.
Graham moved closer to home, yet remained distanced, in 2009 when he played junior A for the first
time in Los Angeles for the Valencia Flyers.
The last stop in Graham's hockey tour of America prior to enrolling at Buffalo State was Hartford, Conn.
He spent the two seasons prior to this year playing for the Connecticut Jr. Wolfpack of the Atlantic
Junior Hockey League, where Bengals' coach, Nick Carriere, recruited him.
Carriere is a friend of Jr. Wolfpack's coach Chris Cerrella, which augmented Buffalo State's recruiting
efforts of the Australian native.
"We speak the same language hockey-wise," Carriere said of him and Cerrella having alike styles of
coaching and standards for their players. "That's always nice to have that relationship with a junior
coach because I can watch (players) play, but (the coaches) give you a lot of the intangibles because
they're coaching and dealing with the players on a regular basis."
Carriere has been impressed with the off-ice "intangibles" that helped get Graham to Buffalo State in
the first place - his attitude and character.
"He's a big presence, but when you speak with him he's humble, he looks you in the eye when he talks
and he's very polite," Carriere said of the freshman. "He's just a good young man that we're proud to
have part of the program."
Through the team's first 11 games, Graham has been a fixture on the team's back end, playing in nine
games. He hasn't recorded a point, but that isn't what measures his value to the team.
"We're mostly a small team, so having a guy like (Graham) on the ice, especially grinding in the corners
and really bringing that physical presence, I think it definitely helps our game, especially in the D end,"
said Anthony Orange, Graham's defense partner for most of this year.
In between all his seasons of junior and high school hockey, Graham would travel back to Australia
each summer and often play in the semi-pro Australian Ice Hockey League for the Melbourne Ice. He
will return to the team this summer, and also be a member of the Australian national team that will
participate in the Division II 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships held in Croatia this April.
Though the Bengals defenseman made sacrifices to play hockey far away from home, he has no regrets
and loves the path he chose. Coming to America on his own taught Graham to live an independent life,
and make such a seldom-explored experience an unforgettable one.
"I just came over here when I was 15 and gave 'er, and it worked out for the best," Graham said.
Aaron Garland can be reached by email at email@example.com.