Adelaide Avalanche: The Franchise that changed Australian hockey forever
Thursday, August 3, 2017
The little club that could changed the Australian Ice Hockey landscape forever and for the better. Photo: 2000 Goodall Cup Champions from Legends of Australian Ice.
The Adelaide Avalanche changed the Australian Ice Hockey landscape forever, thanks to one courageous decision by two families.
Faced with the prospect of no national competition for their sons to play in, the Oddy and Thilthorpe families decided to take matters into their own hands and fund an ambitious operation themselves. They paid for everything - flights, hotels, jerseys, equipment, ice time, marketing - you name it, they did it all. They even paid for interstate competition to fly to Adelaide.
"It was a lot of hard work. A lot of stress and a lot of sacrifice," says Della Thilthorpe.
"But it was all worth it. We saw how much our boys loved to play the game, and we wanted to create something not just for our kids, but for all the aspiring hockey players who needed somewhere to go."
In 1999 they went "all in" and entered the now defunct East Coast Super League. The Avalanche won their first game vs. Canterbury on the road 7-5, thanks to a two goal performance by Greg Oddy.
On May 15, 1999, the Avalanche hosted their first home game where chairman Steve Oddy wrote in the game day program that was a "very special moment in Adelaide history."
“I would like to thank all of you for playing your part in this chapter of Avalanche history. Tonight is the beginning and I am delighted that you have all joined the Avalanche as it thunders down the mountain. Hang on tight. It's going to be a great ride," said Oddy in the program.
The Oddys and Thilthorpes focused on fan engagement and sharing the pure joy of Ice Hockey. On the ice, head coach John Botterill led a gritty bunch of players to become one of the most formidable forces to ever be assembled on Australian Ice.
"For me, it was always about the fans," says Steve Oddy. "When we started the competition and ran the numbers we thought the ice hockey community would be filling the venue. We were pleasantly happy to learn that it was everyone around the city that wanted to see a game."
"We tried to make the games as easy and accessible as possible for everyone. It really is the greatest game on earth," he says.
Luke Thilthorpe, a 12-year player for the Avalanche, says people still remark to him today about how tough and entertaining the Avalanche were.
"Other teams would make comments about how hard we were to play, especially in Adelaide," he says. "The fans would be right behind us, we would hit hard, play hard, score a lot."
“There would be a big jolt of energy - especially when the song 'Right Here, Right Now' came on, and we skated out in the dark with a fog machine. It was an intense jolt of energy that really got you going.”
Not only was the team tough, but it was talented. Greg Oddy, pictured left, scored his first of 600 career AIHL points with the team. He is the only person to be involved every single year of the Avalanche/Adrenaline program. His brother John was remarkably talented and a key part of every team. The Thilthorpe brothers, Ben and Luke, each played on the national team. Eric Lien was a star goaltender. Trevor Walsh wowed fans with his goal scoring and grit. Glen Foll added to his legend by scoring key goals. Hosts of talented imports flocked from overseas. Ari Pullinen was a fan favourite. We could go on and on and name player after player. The talent is just that good.
Coach Botterill says he had players that would do anything to get on the ice.
"Everyone wanted to be part of the program and do whatever it takes to win," he says.
The Avalanche players and staff captured the soul of the game and communicated it well to resonate with fans. It was pure, it was fun, it was hockey.
It was Adelaide Avalanche Hockey...and it changed the sport in Australia forever.
THE AUSTRALIAN ICE HOCKEY LEAGUE
In 2000 the first 'real' national league, or at least as we know it, truly formed - the Australian Ice Hockey League. Three teams (Canberra, Adelaide, Sydney) joined together to create the early formations of the league we know and love today. Della, Steve, Jan and James ran most of the operation, with help from key volunteers and players.
"It was such an exciting time," said Botterill. "You knew Ice Hockey was about to change forever here. We went from playing local competition to getting to go on a plane and travel to play hockey."
(Above: it was a remarkable effort for the club to promote and grow the game of hockey on a national setting)
The amount of volunteer work the organisers did was incredible.
"I would print and sell the tickets, make muffins and platters for the VIP room. Steve would get the team set up, James would roll out the temporary grandstands, Della would host the VIPs. We would all try to spread the word the best we can." says Janet.
Luke Thilthorpe says it was a total team effort and even the players got involved. "Ben [Thilthorpe] used to join mum and help fold the programs before all the games."
Former Avalanche import goalie Eric Lien, who is now an Australian citizen, says times have changed from the early days.
"Back in the day each of the players were given a certain amount of tickets to sell. If we didn't sell them, it was on us," he said.
The team played with passion and excitement and the fans bought in.
The first year was a success that culminated in a thrilling Goodall Cup final in Macquarie between the Adelaide Avalanche and the Sydney Bears.
"We had no business winning that hockey game," says Greg Oddy, the only player in every season of top-flight Adelaide hockey.
Ross Noga, the GM of the 2000 Avalanche, says he still can't believe what happened.
The Bears controlled most of the play in the opening two periods, and built up a two goal lead late in the third. It appeared it was all over. The Bears then took a controversial five minute major late in the game to give the Avalanche some hope.
Coach Botts pulled goalie Eric Lien and what happened next is one of the most sensational things Australian Ice Hockey has witnessed. The Avalanche scored once on the power play. And again.
(left: Steve Oddy and James Thilthorpe with the Cup)
Goalie Eric Lien made a couple of late saves to keep it tied - and the championship game was going to a shootout. "It was one of the most nervous I have ever been," says Janet Oddy.
“Two or three players were cut, we had a flight that was leaving in an hour. It was a really physical and intense game, and we wanted to win so badly.”
Adelaide won the shootout. But Della says the memory goes beyond just winning the championship. "The trailer got stuck coming out of the carpark. We had a bunch of happy stinky boys who had to get out and pound down the roof. We were rushing to the airport and we had to get out the dents before we returned the rental," she says. "Everything about it was remarkable. To win in that fashion...wow."
SOUTH AUSTRALIAN TRAILBLAZERS
The Avalanche continued their success in 2001 by winning a second championship in a row, at home in front of an appreciative sell-out crowd. Off the back of the success of the Avalanche, more interstate teams joined the competition, and the league grew to reach all corners of the country.
“I think we really paved the way and showed other franchises how it was done," says Luke Thilthorpe. "We had a lot of firsts."
The Avalanche not only created the first successful interstate hockey model but they also brought over marquee imports like NHL-er Steve McKenna.
"You look see players like Jake Riley and Marcel McGuiness who got into hockey because of the Avalanche. That's pretty special," says Janet Oddy. The Avalanche also started the career of current young players like Peter King, David Huxley and Sean Greer.
Even though the Adelaide Avalanche name has changed the legacy will continue to live on as long as Ice Hockey is played in Australia. The next championship the Adrenaline win, and there will be one, will be largely in part to all those who helped shape the Avalanche.
In 2007, Steve Oddy and James Thilthorpe sold the franchise and eventually they became the Adrenaline.
But no matter what shape or form the top flight of Adelaide Ice Hockey is played, it is owed to the hard work of the founding players, staff and volunteers.
As Steve said in the opening day program in 1999, "it's going to be a great ride!"
We can't wait to see where the ride takes us next.