The AWIHL: Australia's Hidden Gem of Hockey
When you think of ice hockey, Australia is certainly not the first place to come to mind. However, the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League (AWIHL) which began in 2007, is a growing force in the hockey world.
The league is composed of five teams: Melbourne Ice, Brisbane Lightning, Adelaide Rush, Perth Inferno, and Sydney Sirens.
History of the League
Founded in 2007, the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League was created following two seasons of a round-robin tournament called the Showcase Series in 2006 and 2007. The league began with only four teams, all of which are still in the league today, but with some bearing different names: Adelaide Assassins (now the Rush), Brisbane Goannas (now the Lightning), Melbourne Dragons (now the Ice), and the Sydney Sirens.
In 2018, Perth put in a bid to join the league, bringing the AWIHL to the five teams known today. The season is played in the summer for the Aussies—November to March. During this time, the teams play 32 games, with both home and away series. The finals are in March this year, as the league will take a break in January and February due to the U-18 International Worlds Women's Championships.
Currently, no one is paid because the league only has amateur status from Ice Hockey Australia. There are 850 women playing in the AWIHL this season from coast to coast, some as young as 14. As for rules, they are the exact same as international ice hockey, and games are played on Olympic-sized rinks. Each team is allowed two to three international players but no international goalies.
Melbourne Ice is currently in the lead this season, with six wins and 18 points. Their top goalscorer is Danielle Butler, who in just six games has been able to notch 11 goals and five assists. Not only is Butler leading the points for Melbourne, but for the league as a whole. A founding member of the AWIHL in 2007, the team is a seven-time AWIHL champion and five-time AWIHL premiers.
Second-place Sydney is four points behind Melbourne with five wins—one in overtime—and
a single loss on the season so far. Sirens players take up three of the five top places on the leaderboard in goals scored this season. Second in the league is Sharna Godfrey with six goals and 10 assists. She is followed by Linda Bjorling with five goals and seven assists, and Sarah Edney with seven goals and four assists. Another founding member of the AWIHL in 2007, the team started in Sydney before a move to Newcastle between 2011 to 2013, becoming the North Star Sirens. After returning to Sydney, they reverted back to the Sydney Sirens. The Sirens are two-time AWIHL champions and three-time AWIHL premiers.
Perth is settled in the middle of the table, although they have only played four games compared to the other teams' six. They’ve had two wins and two losses, with one of the losses being in overtime to Sydney. Michelle Clark-Crumpton leads the team in points with three goals and six assists to tally for nine points, while Elizabeth Scala leads the team in goals with six on the season. Perth was the AWIHL’s first expansion team, joining the league in July 2018.
For many years, there has been a Brisbane team in the AWIHL. This season, they have a new name and owner. Formerly known as the Brisbane Goannas, the Brisbane Lightning organization acquired the AWIHL team in October 2022 and rebranded the team to the Lightning. Brisbane is one of the four founding members and was actually the first team to join the AWIHL in 2006 before the inaugural season kicked off in 2007. In their first season as the Lightning, they have won one of six games played. The team has scored 13 goals this season, with rookie Katrina Rapchuk leading the team in scoring with three goals and one assist.
Adelaide has gotten off to a rough start of the season, losing their first six games. The team as a whole has scored six goals this season with both Kate Tihema and Natasha Farrier scoring two goals. Diana Glass leads the team in points with four assists for them. Formerly known as the Adelaide Adrenaline, the team was one of the founding members of the AWIHL. The franchise was one of the most dominant teams in Australian hockey in its early years, winning five straight titles from 2007-12. The team became the Rush after parting ways with the AWIHL team, the Adrenaline, in the 2016-17 season.
With Australia being so large, the easiest way to schedule games is through weekend doubleheaders. Teams will play Saturday in the afternoon and then again on Sunday morning. This is also done because of the limited number of ice rinks in Australia. In the whole country, there are only 20 ice hockey rinks, and 5,500 registered hockey players in Australia to play. The AWIHL has had to get creative, with the Sydney Sirens even playing in a mall to ensure they get proper ice time and games.
Although COVID impacted sports everywhere, it hit the AWIHL extra hard. After the National Championship took place in February 2020, the women then went to Scotland to play in an international tournament and luckily arrived back home a week before the pandemic started. Hockey was shut down until May 2022, but since the league runs in the summer, it didn’t start up again until the first week of November 2022.
“We really only just came back,” said Mark Weber, head of Marketing and Sponsorships for both the AWIHL and Ice Hockey Australia Women’s Council. “It's been basically since February 2020 to November 1, 2022. And that's when we've got the league back up and running.”
Having this league in Australia is important on many levels. First, it allows the country to compete on the international level, but beyond that, it supports the growth of the game of hockey. An ice hockey local league of at least four teams is required for the women to compete on the international level.
“Obviously the second reason is Australia is very much a sports country,” Weber said. “Everybody here plays a sport of some description. It's sports mad.”
Future Hopes for Australian Hockey
As more and more people find out about the league, the growth of games continues. Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney draw a larger crowd depending on who they’re playing, but there is exponential room for more investment and more fans. The start of web streaming six years ago has increased access to these matches.
“People are finding out about it over time,” Weber said. “Some of the big cities like Melbourne and Perth and Sydney would have 500, 600 people come to a hockey game.” For reference, the average attendance for a National Women’s Hockey League (now known as Premier Hockey Federation) game in 2019 was 954.
More viewership allows for expansion into other areas, which has piqued the interest of some near cities. There is potential to expand to Canberra, add another team in Sydney, and even stretch as far as New Zealand. With more teams, there will be a fuller schedule which will not only help the athletes improve their game, but will bring the league to a whole new level.
The long-term pathway for elite sports is to make an Olympic presentation and get Australian women's hockey back to the Olympics. The AWIHL is looking at things eight years ahead to ensure that they are training the best next generation of hockey stars.
“We're hoping in 2030 that we might get pretty close to that—at least look at getting qualified in the Olympics,” said Weber.
While ice hockey in Australia is still growing, Weber emphasized his passion for the sport being so fast-paced and team-oriented.
“It's very much a team sport,” Weber said. “Come out and watch the fastest game in the world played by women.”
All AWIHL games can be watched on Cluch.TV