On the opening night of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, Eddie Ockenden marched into Alexander Stadium carrying the Australian flag with the biggest smile. A respected servant of Australian ice hockey for 16 years, Ockenden was a popular choice for the honor. His excellence with the hockey stick and his humility off the field were on display again Monday as the Kookaburras finished the Games with a gold medal.
A decider pitting the silver and bronze medalists of last year’s Tokyo Olympics against each other soon became a disparity as Australia defeated India 7-0 in the gold medal battle. This was heaven for Australian ice hockey as the Kookaburras had won all seven tournaments when the sport was played at the Commonwealth Games. Australia have now won 41 of the 42 games they have played at this level. In the final, the combined score is 33-2. Routes have become routine.
Ockenden, who tied the great Kookaburra Mark Knowles as a four-time gold medalist, has now appeared in four memorable campaigns. An Olympic gold is the missing piece. He has a silver medal from Tokyo and bronzes from Beijing and London. Despite being 35, he has ambitions for Paris in 2024.
“It was amazing. You won’t find anything else in your life that you are so passionate about,” Ockenden said. “To be able to play hockey for so long and do what I can is very fortunate.”
The Australians scored seven of their 23 shots on goal while India limited to just five tries. It could be argued that Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh is doing well given the barrage. Jacob Anderson and Nathan Ephraums each scored two goals, while Blake Govers, Tom Wickham and Flynn Ogilvie were also on the scoresheet.
Captain Aran Zalewski shared co-captainship with Ockenden and was full of praise for the Tasmanian who is still ‘running around like a spring chicken’. “He’s played a record number of games for the Kookaburras, but he’s such a humble guy and a great guy,” he said.
After the Diamonds passed the 1,000. gold medal from the nation’s Commonwealth Games, the kookaburras surged to 1,001 on Monday. Silver and bronze medals were also won in diving, along with another silver medal in table tennis in a smaller program of events leading up to the closing ceremony.
Jian Fang Lay and Minhyung Jee were beaten 3-0 by a Singapore combination in the women’s table tennis doubles final. But for Lay, 49, winning another silver medal 20 years after he performed the same feat on his debut for Australia in Manchester is a celebration in itself. “I’m so proud of this effort. It’s incredible,” she said.
Australia finished the Commonwealth Games with 67 gold medals, 11 ahead of second-placed England. Australia won a total of 178 medals, twice ahead of the host country. Apart from Glasgow in 2014, Australia have topped the table at every Commonwealth game since 1990.
Australian Mission Chief Petria Thomas, who contributed nine of those gold medals during an outstanding swimming career, commended the team for their outstanding performance.
“It’s an honor to lead this team and see our Aussies shine on and off the field,” she said. “The team have performed well on the pitch and in general they have been great ambassadors for Australia in terms of how they behaved outside and on the road.”
Thomas acknowledged there was an occasional blemish. Eyebrows were raised as cricketer Tahlia McGrath played the final despite testing positive for Covid-19 on the morning of the game. It was within the rules of this competition.
Australia has introduced stricter rules than other nations when it comes to Covid precautions, although some of the nearly 700 athletes have overstepped the limits. Decent cafes had growing numbers of athletes as the Games progressed, including those wearing the green and gold.
“We certainly made it very clear to our team members what was expected of our Covid protocols. But other than that, people are people. They make mistakes,” she said. “There were some people who didn’t wear masks at different times for different reasons. But overall we did a pretty good job.”
Decorated jumper Melissa Wu, who joined Ockendon as the flag bearer, was given the honor of leading a triumphant team to Alexander Stadium to wrap up the games. Wu, who was a silver medalist in Melbourne in 2006 as a 13-year-old, added another highlight to her career when she won a gold medal in the 10m synchronized sprint with 14-year-old Charli Petrov in Birmingham.
The 30-year-old had planned to enjoy some slices of pizza while watching the closing ceremony from the Athletes’ Village, but he was delighted at the honour. “I’m going to be a little overwhelmed by that. I’ll just take it all in and enjoy it. It’s going to be a great moment,” she said.