Fresh faced and bushy tailed were the Brisbane Lightning as they suited up ready for their Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) debut in the opening weekend of the 2023 season.
They are the new kids on the block as an expansion team, but that didn’t stop the Brisbane outfit who came flying out of the blocks to assert themselves against the Central Coast Rhinos taking home a 17-0 result. It was a tone setting performance on the opening day as the Lightning kicked off life in the AIHL with a bang.
However, despite the big Saturday win, an 8-5 Sunday loss to the Sydney Ice Dogs split the Lightning weekend. But signs were strong across the two games as they were able hang in the contest against one of the more established clubs in the competition.
“It was good to get the regular season official games under our belt,” Lightning head coach Terry Kiliwnik told The Inner Sanctum.
“The exhibition season is one thing but the regular season you know we were expecting things to ramp up a bit more and they did to a certain extent.
“We had a really good game against the Ice Dogs I thought, we kind of gave them a bit more than we wanted to at the start but the guys they didn’t give up and that’s a key point, a big win for us. They made it really interesting at the end which from a fan point of view it’s an exciting game.
“It was just really good to get that under and see what it was going to be like in the actual season proper.”
After a strong round of exhibition games in 2022 the expectations for the Lightning might have been high as a new club heading into the AIHL, positive results on the ice there was a feeling of making a real splash in their first season.
Key quality additions to their backroom staff to help build a strong culture from top to bottom is something the Lightning have done well. Expectations on the ice weren’t a focus, but being competitive and giving the Lightning fans some excitement is on the menu.
“We had a good exhibition season, we won a lot of games, you have to realise those are exhibition games and it’s a different kettle of fish once everybody is playing for points on the ladder,” continued Kiliwnik.
“I think there is a real confidence in the entire organisation, not just on the ice. The back office was loaded up with really talented people for what they do. That allows the guys to get out on the ice and play and all they are worrying about is hockey.
“We don’t have any real expectations to say we are going to hit this mark or this mark but we felt we are going to be competitive, we are going to have a good season and we are going to give fans a lot of entertainment and that’s a big part of why we are here as well to play hockey and give something back to the fans that they can enjoy.”
Setting up a fresh sports club in a new market has its challenges, getting the right people into the right positions on and off the ice needs to be spot on for success.
For the Lightning, on the ice is where they look to have secured the right pieces to hold the club in good stead moving forward, with captain Damian Bright, and alternate Alexander Higgins among the older faces to lead the new expansion team.
“It’s always great having guys with experience I mean Damian played back in the day for the [Melbourne] Mustangs not that long ago, a couple of years ago pre COVID,” said Kiliwnik.
“They have been there, they have done that, so they are a bit of a calming force; they have all played high level hockey. And that was part of the game on Sunday when we didn’t have a great start we got behind, having those guys, the experience knowing you can come back, is kind of a calming force amongst the team.
“You can’t really put a value on it I don’t think, but it’s one of those intangibles you really appreciate having on the bench.”
When piecing together a roster, there needs to be a balance between veteran players who can help guide the club setting up a strong culture, and fresh-faced youngsters who will be able to take the torch once it is passed.
For the Lightning, there is a feeling of a good balance between the two with rising Australian ice hockey stars Lachlan Clifford, Sacha Rapchuk and Mikko Rippon just to name a few who are set to shine for Brisbane in years to come.
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“We love having those guys, they are young, they are fast, they are quick,” continued Kiliwnik.
“Some of the skillset, the hands that a guy like Lachie Clifford has, is just unreal, I remember one of the exhibition games last year what he did I had to go back and look at it on the video a couple of times to truly appreciate, holy cow that was pretty amazing, right.
“It’s great for the fans because he is going to be a force upcoming, we got a few other guys like that. Sacha Rapchuk, he’s a big guy he’s going to play a role however successful we are, Mikko Rippon, he is another young guy, big defenceman, very mobile.
“The more they play, the more experience they get, the better they are going to get and that’s going to be a real boon to our team, and we are really looking forward to seeing them develop over the years.”
There are so many success stories throughout the Lightning roster, players shifting from Pacific Hockey League (PHL) to AIHL, rising stars, and veteran skaters getting a chance at the top level.
Steve Harris is 44-year-old goaltender who not only suited up in a Lightning sweater for the first time in the AIHL, but Harris would also stop 21 of 21 shots on goal against the Rhinos to finish with a perfect 1.000 save percentage picking up a win and shutout.
“Just even from last year the guy is a workhorse,” said Kiliwnik.
“He is probably in better shape than half the guys on our team. I mean it is amazing, he is a real role model in that respect both on the ice and the off ice. Like getting guys to work out, even the things like eating healthy and eating right, he trips the young guys if they are looking like they got a bit of a dodgy meal instead of something good and healthy, that’s a bonus for us as well.
“I can’t say enough great things about Steve. He is a leader; he has got a real passion to play hard and win as well; I just love the guy to death. He is almost like the Marc-Andre Fleury of our team, even though he is older, you just love the guy.”
Brisbane will now return home for week two of the AIHL season where they will face off against the Rhinos once again, who will be a different team after having a more competitive performance against the Caribou CBR Brave.
For the Lightning, the excitement of getting out on their home ice for the first weekend series in front of their fans is one the team is looking forward to, with a packed and loud Brisbane crowd expected to fill out the Iceworld Boondall rink.
“We are expecting a packed house, a loud house, an energetic house, and I think everybody is just really looking forward to it”, continued Kiliwnik.
“I think last year the home opener was just a treat to be in, everybody was there, everybody was excited. Knowing this is the season with points on the ladder and stuff it’s going to be a level above.
“So, we are really looking forward to it and I think a lot of the fans are too. I think it is going to be a great weekend and can’t come soon enough for us I think.”
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