Battle for ice hockey’s top comp heats up

In a country with few ice skating rinks, two leagues are fighting to rule over ice hockey.


Photo: people playing ice hockey by Markus Spiske and used under a Creative Commons licence. The photo has not been modified.

Australia isn’t quite the powerhouse in ice hockey that we are in field hockey – but we’re not bad.

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), our men’s team is ranked 36th and our women’s is 33rd.

But our local competitions host quite a bit of talent, especially for a country with just that has just 21 rinks (by comparison, Canada has more than 7500).

The Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) has been the premiere hockey competition in Australia, but the Pacific Hockey League (PHL) was introduced this year and has ambitions to take the top spot.

The talent within the PHL may not be as far behind as the AIHL might want to acknowledge.

In an exhibition game between the two side, The Melbourne Ducks of the PHL beats the Melbourne Ice of the AIHL, 5 – 4.

So how do these leagues differ?

In a statement, the PHL says it aims to give players more freedom.

“The PHL will immediately empower players with a voice in the direction and overall governance of the PHL while ensuring that every player is protected by basic conditions that cover all participants,” it says.

“With our leadership mix comprising of extensive playing, coaching and administration experience in Australian Ice Hockey, we are dedicated to building a truly inclusive hockey community that never loses focus on the simple fact that ‘there is no hockey without the players.”

Was the PHL created due to AIHL players complaining about how they were treated?

Current AIHL player Jeff Hu said he was honoured to play for the team he grew up barracking for.

“When I was learning to play, all my coaches played for the Ice – it’s great to get an opportunity to wear the same jersey that they did and try to carry on their legacy,” he says.

But players get more out of playing in the AIHL than wearing a cool jersey.

The league is semi-professional, meaning that while teams cannot pay the players salaries, they can pay for flights, accommodation, and equipment – something Hu is grateful for.

“We get to travel each weekend and see different places free of charge which is a bonus but there are a lot of perks that come with playing in the AIHL,” he says.

“We get our skates sharpened for free, we get free ice time, we also get to play in front of crowds which is an amazing experience.”

Hu was already committed to the Melbourne Ice before the introduction of the PHL but is confident about which league he wants to represent.

“I’ve grown up loving the Melbourne Ice, we’re a close team and I love playing here so no I’d not want to switch leagues,” he says.

Despite the AIHL being Australia’s top ice hockey competition for years, the Pacific Hockey League is getting some attention.

Currently the PHL has just four teams, while the AIHL has eight – but teams may switch.

Adelaide Adrenaline couldn’t secure a deal with their rink IceArena in time so players joined the PHL for this season.

Central Coast have committed to joining the AIHL after this season but after playing in the PHL for this season, the PHL seems to think Central Coast is in their league for good.

“The Brisbane Rampage was formed in 2020 with the aim of joining the AIHL for the 2022 season, though with this development it seems that ambition may have passed,” the PHL said in a statement.

The battle between which teams come and go will be important in determining which league becomes the top competition for ice hockey in Australia.

It will likely come down to which competition the players want to play for, and what each league will do to persuade players to join.

The PHL also has agreed to add a team from New Zealand for the 2023 season – and support from the first and only Australian to play in the National Hockey League (NHL), Nathan Walker – the Michael Jordan of Australian ice hockey.

“I’m super pumped for the PHL to get started.  I think it’s great that we’ve already got teams across some major cities, and I think it’s going be great that New Zealand is joining the competition as well,” he says.

The battle between the PHL and the AIHL will likely last a few years before one competition emerges as the elite one.

It remains to be seen whether the battle to dominate the sport will result in more crowds, more players and more growth for Australian ice hockey.