ECHL Fan Focus: From Australia with Love

Matty and Karoline Bonacci Photo by: James Slemp for Inside the Rink

When you think of sports in Australia, you think of Australian Rules Football, soccer, cricket, and rugby. Ice hockey wouldn’t even come up on the top 10 list of sports played down under. According to statista.com, there were 4,716 registered ice hockey players in Australia in 2019. In contrast, according to statista.com, there were 561,700 registered players in the United States that same year. Jordan Spence is the only Australian-born player in the NHL; he plays defense for the Los Angeles Kings. So, it is highly unusual to find one die-hard hockey fan in Florida, let alone two. Mathew “Matty” Bonacci and his wife, Karoline, are two of those die-hard hockey fans, and the Florida Everblades are their team.

Matty Bonacci is a first-generation Australian. His parents were born in Italy and migrated to Australia around the age of 13, where they met. Karoline’s family has deep family ties to Australia, and she considers herself “as Australian as Australian can be.” Matty and Karoline moved to the United States in March 2019 for Karoline’s work. I got a chance to sit down with the couple to discover their journey to hockey and to becoming ‘super’ fans.

Inside the Rink: Tell me about your story. Did you play sports growing up?

Matty: Well, I played sports growing up. I played Australian Rules Football, rugby, and cricket. Cricket is an Indian sport but is big in Australia. I played sports all my life; I played cricket with Karoline’s dad until I was 30.

ITR: Do you remember when you went to your first game?

Karoline: It was the end of that season, so March of 2019, no, it was the beginning of the next season. October 2019. We saw an ad on 75.

Matty: Before we got into ice hockey, we got involved with baseball- the Fort Myers Miracles. I thought baseball was the bomb. One Friday night, we had nothing to do, so we decided to watch an ice hockey game at Hertz Arena. We had seen the arena and saw it advertised. Well, baseball has nothing on hockey. I’ve played other sports, but hockey is the best game in the world.

Karoline: We went to the window and got our tickets, and I thought the stadium was reversed. In Australia, the seats are reversed where you go down to your seats, whereas here at Hertz Arena, you go up to your seats. So, we had seats up to the top, and he (Matty) couldn’t make it with his leg. When we realized that the seats were opposite, we went back to the box office to change seats, and they were so helpful. We ended up in the accessible seating.

Matty: We didn’t know what to expect. We got it all within the first five minutes. We had ice skating, players playing hockey, and a boxing match. It all happened in one game, and I said, ” This is the game for me. ” In five minutes, we went back to the lady at the box office and told her that we wanted to buy tickets to every game. We also went to the merchandise table and bought a bunch of merchandise.

Jersey Collection
Photo by: James Slemp for Inside the Rink

Karoline: She got us a rep, Isaac (Berg). Isaac manages the pro shop now, but he was our rep. Before the end of that season, we had already renewed for the next season.

ITR: You’ve become well-known to the players and staff; how did you develop that relationship?

Karoline: We immediately became season ticket holders, and then we would always go to the season ticket functions. Isaac knew we had only been here six months, so he always looked for us at functions. The membership coordinators do an excellent job of ensuring that, as season ticket holders, you get an email about what’s happening.

Matty: We became known as the Australians. We’re the only Australian fans of the Everblades. Walking into the arena should take us five minutes to get to our seats, but it takes 45 minutes to get to them because everyone stops us to talk. We get to the game around 45 minutes early to talk. We also do a lot away from the arena with other fans and staff. We also mingle with the players at the functions.

Karoline: The Everblades do a good job with their season ticket holders. I like that because they give you so many opportunities to see and meet the players.

ITR: Do you have a favorite player?

Matty: My favorite player is the one who got me hooked and involved- a player called Arvin Atwal. Within five minutes of that first game, his fight caused the place to explode. I’ve never seen anything like that. We’ve got nothing like that back home.

Karoline: We met him in the parking lot one time. He wasn’t playing that night, but he was so nice. He talked with us and took photos with us. He is of Indian heritage, and I go to India a lot for work, so I would speak to him about India.

Matty: I also like Kyle Neuber and John McCarron. I think that McCarron is the best player against the boards.

Karoline: Two seasons ago, we missed the season ticket pick-up night because he (Matty) was in the hospital. We saw McCarron about three weeks later at a function, and he came up and asked how Matty was doing. That meant a lot for him to remember.

Matty: They had a locker room tour that we missed, and we had friends that filmed the visit. They told the players we couldn’t make it, and they all recorded personal messages.

ITR: Which game is the most memorable for you?

Matty: My highlight is going to be the Kelly Cup. We won it twice at home, and that was special.

Karoline: The other one for me was in our first season when we came back from 5-2 and won. Many of the crowd left, but we stayed, and it was amazing to experience the comeback.

Matty: The other one for me was my first teddy bear toss. You would never see that in Australia. We bought a tiny teddy bear that first year because we didn’t know what to expect. But people were throwing six-foot teddy bears onto the ice.

ITR: What would your starting lineup look like if you could be a coach for a game?

Matty: On offense, I would start Sean Josling, Joe Pendenza, and Nathan Staois. On defense, I’d put Cole Moberg and Kyle Neuber. As goalie, I’d go with Cam Johnson, but Evan Cormier has been doing well. It was either Josling, Bobo Carpenter, or Logan Lambdin. We sat next to Josling at a function, and he had the right mentality. He seems to always be one step ahead so I picked him for my starting lineup.

ITR: What do you think of the Everblades’ chances for winning a third Kelly Cup?

Karoline: We’re very good when the chips are down. Look at Wednesday night. We played a team with a better winning percentage than us, and we stepped up. I’m unsure if we’ll three-peat, but we’ll make the playoffs.

Matty: Yes, we’ll definitely make the playoffs.

ITR: What is your favorite Everblades fan experience?

Karoline: We sat between the benches for one period.

Matty: That was cool because you could see the teams. You could also feel and hear the game, almost like you were part of it.

Karoline: This year, they have the Fanboni (a repurposed Zamboni on which a group of fans can sit and ride during period breaks), and that’s cool.

ITR: What fan experience would you like to see with the Everblades and Hertz Arena?

Matty: I would like to see more interaction with the players, such as a meet-up with a player at a local restaurant or more stuff at Hertz Arena with a player who isn’t playing that night. They do a lot with the Fan Club but could make more public appearances. Meeting my first player is special to me.

ITR: How do you feel at the end of the season?

Matty: It’s hard, I hate it. The game is so important to us now that we plan our schedule around the season. We don’t know what to do when we have nights off when the team isn’t playing at home or on the road. We plan our trips and travel around the season. The game is a big part of our lifestyle. Before moving to the States, I had no interest in watching the game, but now, if it’s on TV, I’ll watch any game; I don’t care who’s playing. We have a subscription to Flo Hockey, so when the team’s on the road, I’ll watch. Many friends will ask me if there’s hockey tonight, then they know not to bug me. Even my family back home, my dad, won’t ring me because of hockey.

Matty and Karoline Bonacci with Steve Cochrane
Photo by: James Slemp for Inside the Rink

The Bonacci’s confessed to needing help understanding the game in October 2019. It was through another season ticket holder, Steve Cochrane, that they began to understand the game. Steve Cochrane has been a season holder since the team started in 1998. Sitting in the same area as Matty and Karoline, the three became close friends, and Steve would share his knowledge of the game. Now, Matty and Karoline are as fluent in the sport and the Florida Everblades as any fan in the building. Their love of the sport and the Everblades started within the first five minutes of their first game in 2019. Over the next five years as season ticket holders, their experiences at Hertz Arena and with the fans and the Everblades’ staff helped turn that experience into a passion.

You can find Matty and Karoline, wearing Everblades jerseys, sitting with their friends, including Steve, in section 108 at any home game.

James Slemp

I write for and photograph the Florida Everblades for ITR. I am a retiree that has turned my hobby of photography into a business. I currently live in Sarasota, Florida with my wife, Christy, but I'm originally from California. My previous career has taken me all over the US and the world and I definitely enjoy traveling. I've played hockey for over 30 years, learning as an adult, and love the game.

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