Perth Thunder players pose for a photo following an exhibition game in Melbourne. (Photo: Perth Thunder/Facebook; Design: Will Cuckson)

After three long years, the Perth Thunder are finally making their long-awaited return to the Australian Ice Hockey League.

Announced via the AIHL Facebook page on October 14, for the diehard Thunder faithful it was a relief that they get to see their team once again on the ice for season 2023 in Australia’s premier ice hockey league.

The Thunder were last in the AIHL for the 2019 season, finishing third and making it to the Goodall Cup Final where they would be runner up to the Sydney Bears.

After all the momentum the Thunder had built, COVID struck, and travel restrictions once the AIHL returned meant there was no Perth team. Now we will get to truly see a national AIHL competition with one of the most well supported and run clubs returning.

“We have been waiting for this for so long, obviously we thought we were going to be part of the league for the season just ended this winter,” Perth Thunder head coach Ben Breault told The Inner Sanctum.

“Unfortunately, the timing was a bit off in regards to the WA [Western Australia] borders coming down and the season starting so it kind of didn’t work out in our favour.

“At least we got a few exhibition games in and having the boys back was really nice to show that we are all pretty eager to get back into some competitive national level ice hockey.

“Speaking for everybody we are all pretty pumped that it is finally going to be happening.”

Perth Thunder’s last competitive AIHL match: the 2019 Goodall Cup Final. (Photo: Perth Thunder Facebook)

A blessing for the Thunder during their time away from the AIHL and working through the global COVID pandemic was continually being able to play state level ice hockey.

With WA restrictions different to other parts of the country, players within the state system who are on the radar of the Thunder were able to continue playing.

Coupled with not having another team based in WA competing in the Pacific Hockey League, it sets the Thunder up for a strong return to the AIHL.

“One of the things for Perth that is going to be pretty good is that we don’t have to compete with the PHL and all those other leagues that all the other teams have to deal with,” Breault continued.

“We have one team in Perth and that’s it, so we don’t have to worry about that too much.

“The talent is a bit diluted right now with the other states having all those teams and all these other leagues.

“We are going to have a really strong local team and then we are going to be able to add some imports.”

The Thunder had made the AIHL Finals four consecutive seasons leading into their 2019 campaign, falling at the final hurdle but building towards serious success.

Their roster was littered with talent; Louick Marcotte, Keven Veilleux, Kieran Webster, Lyndon Lodge were just a few of the players who had built a strong culture within the team.

Getting back to that 2019 form and making an instant impact in the AIHL isn’t something that is a worry for the Thunder.

“I’m the head coach of the state junior team so I can see the talent coming through,” Breault said.

“The veterans have not stopped playing, although we haven’t in the AIHL we have not stopped playing compared to other states since COVID hit.

“And then we have a few young guns coming through the system, and it’s actually looking very promising for WA if anything.”

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One of the most challenging issues any sporting organisation has faced over the last three years is keeping their brand prominent and relevant in the COVID market.

With the Thunder not playing in the AIHL on a national scale, the club might not have got their usual foothold within some areas.

Uniquely, the Thunder brand was kept in the eyes of the local WA people through camps run by Breault himself.

“In terms of having the logo and the brand out there I haven’t stopped running my hockey academy,” Breault continued.

“I run a hockey academy called Perth Thunder Ice Hockey Academy, that’s got the Perth Thunder logo and it’s got the brand and everything.

“Within the last three seasons now I probably ran three to six camps per year, maybe a dozen camps since COVID and since we stopped playing.

“But the brand has still been out there. That wasn’t my goal originally, I just wanted the players to feel like a bit of a sentiment of association to something by calling it Perth Thunder Ice Hockey Academy.

“When COVID hit, Perth Thunder the actual hockey team did not play, but the brand was still going through the academy, we have had plenty of exposure in that regard.”

With the announcement now official and the Thunder returning next season, excitement will begin to build towards 2023.

The roster is looking strong with some returning players from previous seasons, which will give opposing AIHL teams and PHL rosters a shake-up.

No one will be more excited than the passionate Perth Ice Arena fanbase. With exhibition games at their home rink having strong attendances this year, the players and coaches are excited to get back onto the ice in front of their loyal fans.

“We saw how well supported we are with the exhibition games we played at home,” Breault said.

“There were quite a few people who rocked up and they were excited to join in. In terms of the season that’s about to happen, the whole team is just very happy to get back into the action.

“We know that Perth fans are definitely up there with the best fans in the league, got a great atmosphere at Perth Ice Arena especially coming from the crossbar.

“Just looking forward to finally reuniting with everybody for an actual regular season game at Perth Ice Arena and just to get that Thunder chant going again.”

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