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Manchester Storm Research

British Hockey History

This page has been complied by the author from a variety of sources.  Care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of information presented here, but the author bears no responsibility for this.

Hockey’s pre-history

As with most modern sports, the exact origins and early history of ice hockey are difficult to trace. Early forms of stick and a ball games can be traced to well before the birth of Christ in many countries the world over. However, most historians attribute the roots of hockey to the games played in North Europe such as "shinty" "brandy" and "hurley" — records of which date back to as early as the Middle Ages (NHL, 1999). Similarly, in North America early forms of stick and ball games on ice can be traced back over a number of centuries.

Most agree that the modern game of ice hockey developed in Canada in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, being originally played by British and French settlers (Sluyter, 1998). Members of the (British Army) Royal Canadian Rifles were reported to have played the first organised ice hockey game in Kingston, Ontario in 1867 (Drackett 1987). While, what would become the modern rules of the game were formulated at McGill University Montreal in 1879 — based upon an adoption of the rules of English field hockey. Though as, Phil Drackett argued:

…my view is that the British invented the game, played it on the Fens in the Middle Ages. The British re-invented it in 1867 and 1870 when British soldiers played it in Canada, and again in 1879 when the ‘McGills’ adopted British field hockey and its rules. Score: Great Britain 3, The Rest 0. (1987: 27-28).

The Early Days of British hockey

After the formulation of the sport’s rules in Canada at the end of the nineteenth-century, the sport quickly spread to Britain and Europe. The sons of the British Governor-General (Lord Stanley of Preston) were all keen exponents of this new sport, and persuaded their father to lend his name to the first ice hockey cup competition — the Stanley Cup. Upon their return to Britain in 1895 the Stanley family continued to encourage the spread of ice hockey, and during the winter of that year played ice hockey on the frozen lakes of Buckingham Palace with the Prince of Wales and Duke of York. The first organised ice hockey game in this country taking place that same year between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge — Oxford winning 6-0 (Drackett 1987).

In 1897 Admiral Maxe, founder of the Prince’s skating club in London, gave Major B.M. ‘Peter’ Patton permission to form an ice hockey team at the rink — Britain’s first ice hockey club. Under Royal and aristocratic patronage, ice hockey and skating began to grow in popularity and new rinks began to appear around London. In 1903 the first British ice hockey league was established with five teams — Princes, Cambridge University, London Canadians and two teams from the Henglers ice rink, all located within the confines of the country’s capital City (Roberts & Stamp, 1999).

Likewise, ice hockey continued its rise in popularity in North America. The first ice hockey league was founded in Kingston, Ontario in 1885. With the first professional ice hockey league (International Pro Hockey League) founded in the Michigan, USA in 1904. This collapsed in 1907, but in 1910 the first joint Canadian/USA hockey league (the National Hockey Association) was founded — the winners of which received the coveted Stanley Cup.

Back in the UK, by 1910 England had won the first European Ice Hockey Championships, and the sport spread North to Manchester with the opening of the Manchester Ice Palace on Derby Street in Cheetham Hill in October of that year. In 1910 the Manchester Ice Palace was the largest indoor rink in Britain, though little thought was given to space for spectators, with a capacity of only 2,000 in seats and standing. The Ice Palace quickly became one of Manchester’s most fashionable venues as the leisure pursuit of indoor skating (for those with the income to enjoy this pastime) really began to take off. Manchester Ice Hockey Club was founded in the opening year of the Ice Palace and it has been argued that it was here that the phrase "the fastest game on earth" was first coined (Smith, n.d.).

The team in Manchester started strongly beating Prince’s 5-3 in there first season, and competed at the highest level in Britain over the next few years. In 1913-14 Manchester Ice Hockey Club became one of the five founding members clubs of the British Ice Hockey Association (BIHA), along with Prince’s, Oxford Canadians, Cambridge and the Royal Engineers, though the initial rise in ice hockey’s popularity was to be bought to a sudden end in 1914 with the outbreak of war.

Similarly, in North America the coming of the Great War witness the end of the National Hockey Association, and organised ice hockey both in North America and the UK ceased for the duration of the war.

Manchester Ice Palace, like many entertainment venues in Britain, was turned over to munitions production for the duration of the war, though triumphantly reopened in 1919. Upon its reopening the Manchester Ice Palace was just as popular with skaters as before the war. Hosting the National ice skating championships for the next seven years, and the World Championships in 1924 (Smith, n.d.). Manchester was also the only location in Britain where ice hockey was played for almost seven years after the war, until the opening of the new Westminster ice rink in 1926.

1919 saw the formation of the National Hockey League (NHL) in North America. At first a small league of only four teams, it was over shadowed by the larger Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. Though, the NHL was quick to latch onto the rising popularity of radio, and CBC’s radio show Hockey Night In Canada which covered NHL games, secured the location of the NHL in the psyche of the Canadian public, and by the mid-1930s the league enjoyed uncontested access to the best players in North America (NHL, 1999).

Similarly, the late 1920s saw the recovery of ice hockey in Britain after the war, as clubs began to reform and new rinks open, and by the early 1930s ice hockey was becoming increasingly popular once more.

Playing standards began to rise drastically and Manchester began to get left behind as newer London clubs began attracting more Canadian players. The Grosvenor House Canadians (playing out of the newly built rink at the Grosvenor Hotel in London) became the first team British to play for ‘expenses’ in 1931/32, and the early 1930s marked the beginning of the end for Manchester Ice Hockey Club.

In 1932/33 Manchester reached a new low, losing all of their games that season. Manchester did not have enough good players, and could not attract new ones. All the best players were going to the London clubs who now had bigger venues, bigger crowds, and could pay higher ‘expenses’. The following season things did not improve and again Manchester lost all the games that they played. However elsewhere the sport began to move into what would be its most golden and memorable era.

As Manchester began to struggle in the early 1930s, the sport blossomed in London. The 1934/35 season is considered by many as the start of the golden era of ice hockey in Britain, with the building of the ten thousand seat Empire Pool stadium at Wembley, and then later that year another large rink was opened in Richmond (Drackett 1987). Canadian players continued to flood into the British game and press interest in the sport began to grow. Later that year a large rink was opened in Glasgow, and the Scottish Ice Hockey Association formed. Things grew worse however for Manchester. In 1934/35 Manchester only won one game in 14 and 1936 saw the demotion of the club out of the English National League into the Northern section of the provincial league structure that existed at the time. However conversely for the rest of the nation 1936 was to mark the greatest triumph in the history of ice hockey in Britain.

The Triple Crown and the Golden Era

By far the most important event in this early period of British ice hockey was the Great British ice hockey team’s victory in the Olympic, World and European Championships in 1935-36, becoming the first nation to hold all three titles — the triple crown. 1935-36 was the first year Canadian trained ice hockey players began to be imported into British ice hockey in large numbers (Drackett, 1992). At this point there were seven teams in the top flight of English ice hockey (Wembley Lions, Wembley Canadians, Earls Court Rangers, Kensington Corinthians, Richmond Hawks, Brighton Tigers and Streatham) from which the national squad could be drawn (Stinchcombe in Drackett, 1992). Drackett argued that since 1936 numerous books, magazines, television programmes and newspaper articles have referred to the British Olympic squad that year as consisting predominantly of Canadians. However, though the majority of the thirteen squad members had learnt their sport in Canada, all were British born bar two — who were Canadian by birth but held British passports.

Drackett (1992) recounted how that year the Olympic games were also to be held as the sport’s World Championships and for the competing European nations their European Championships too. All teams went through a qualifying stage with four teams making it through to the final of the competition — Canada, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain and the USA. All four teams were to play each once, though teams that had already played each other in the previous qualifying matches would not have to play each other again, results from these games carrying over into this round — a rule which Canada claimed they were not aware of at the time, having already narrowly lost to Great Britain 2-1 in the previous round. In the finals, Britain made light work of the Czechs beating them 5-0, as too did the Canadians beating them 7-0. The USA and the Czechs had also met in the previous round so that left the USA with Canada and Great Britain to play. The USA proved no match for the Canadians losing 5-1, with the final result of 0-0 between Great Britain and America enough to place Britain at the top of the final table for an historic (and wholly unexpected) victory.

This famous victory helped create a great deal of popularity for ice hockey in Britain in the late 1930s. The 1936/37 ice hockey season in Britain started with eleven teams in the English League, the most ever, plus two of these were located outside of Britain, in Paris. By now, Brighton, Hammersmith and Richmond all had new, large arenas and Harringay Arena was to be added in 1936/37. However, the famous Olympic victory of 1936 did nothing to revive ice hockey in Manchester where things got even worse as the provincial league in which they were now playing was disbanded. However, temporary reprieve was to come for Manchester later that season, as the two French teams playing in the League ran into financial difficulties. The Paris operators found themselves unable to continue funding their two teams and a deal was put together by the BIHA which saw one of the teams, Français Volantes, moving to Southampton and becoming The Vikings, and Paris Rapids relocating at the Manchester Ice Palace, changing name on route to the Manchester Rapids (Smith, n.d.).

Though, the return of ice hockey to Manchester was only temporary and the largely French Canadian Rapids never truly settled in Manchester, and were disbanded at the end of the season. As the English League continued to prosper, Manchester Ice Hockey club was reduced to a group of local youngsters playing non-competitive ice hockey.

Canadian talent continued to flow into Britain, and by the outbreak of war in 1939 the English National League had become easily the world’s second best ice hockey league, second only to North America’s NHL (Drackett, 1987). Ice hockey in Britain in the 1930s was extremely glamorous, with live music and skating exhibitions during the interval breaks, with famous actors and actresses of the day often seen at games. However, with the outbreak of war in Europe, 1939 was to be the last the English National League would be played for seven years. By this time Manchester Ice hockey club was long dead, left behind by the rapid grow of the Southern based clubs. As Adam Smith (n.d.: 79) wrote:

The greed of the new clubs in demanding instant success and acquiescence of the BIHA in letting them import as many Canadian as possible are the real criminals. They killed the sport in Manchester first and then, twenty years later, overlooked the death of ice hockey itself.

The rise, fall (and rise again) of hockey

Some ice hockey did take place during the war, mainly with exhibition matches and military competitions, and Durham ice rink (which had been under construction before the outbreak of war) was opened in 1940. However, it was not until the 1946/47 season that the English National League was reinstated.

The post-war entertainment boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s saw another golden era of ice hockey in Britain, as audiences began to flock back to the sport after the war. However, this was only to last until the mid-1950s, as competition from television and rival attractions, combined with the introduction of Entertainment Tax and rising Canadian wage demands saw the beginning of the end for British ice hockey (Roberts & Stamp 1999). Ice rinks began to put on alternative shows to raise money, such as pantomimes and circus acts, which slowly began to take over from the ice hockey as the major source of income for many rinks. The final nail in the coffin of British ice hockey came with the decision to combine the English and Scottish Leagues in 1954/55, with the increased travelling expenses proving too much for many teams. As Drackett wrote:

The game had forced itself into a corner — it was no good getting less expensive players because a public reared on good-class hockey would not accept a lowering of standards (1987: 133).

Ice hockey teams around Britain began to fold, and in 1959/60 the British League itself, finally collapsed.

Very little ice hockey was played in Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s, though some amateur hockey continued at a few clubs largely in Scotland and the North of England. In 1966 a Northern League was formed, with the Greater Manchester team Altrincham Aces as one of its founding members. The Aces had been playing out of the Devonshire Road Ice rink in Altrincham since its building in 1961 (B. Waddington, n.d.). In 1970 a Southern League was formed, though in the early days of these leagues, the teams were all very small scale, attracting spectator sometimes in the tens rather than the thousands seen in the 1930s. Many teams had to beg ice time from local rinks, or play all their matches away from home (Drackett, 1987). But slowly the sport began to recover, and in 1981-82 the English and Scottish Leagues were resurrected. The sport began to attract sponsorship and some television coverage, and by 1986/87 there were forty-nine teams playing in three Leagues in Britain (Drackett, 1987).

In Manchester in 1986 the Aces took on sponsorship from the Trafford Borough Council, changing its name to The Trafford Metros. However, the real Arena era of British ice hockey began in the early 1990s with the building of the Sheffield and Manchester Arenas.

Ice hockey’s British renaissance

Ice hockey began its return to an era of arenas and stadium size crowds with the opening of the Sheffield Arena in 1991 and the creation of the Sheffield Steelers — the ice hockey team that was to occupy the new arena. The Sheffield Arena was built as part of the city’s facilities for the staging of the World Student Games, and is a sizeable stadium originally seating 8,500 and located close to the city centre (O’Brien 1998). Dave Biggar was at the helm as the Marketing Director at the club and set about promoting ice hockey to a city raised on the footballing success of Sheffield Wednesday and United football clubs. Biggar had a specific target, seeking to attract children and families to the city’s new sporting Arena. As he stated in an interview in Sluyter (1998: 23) "we were sending guys around schools. We wrote to all the schools in Sheffield and said "Bring the kids, see the Arena, sit down, experience the whole thing" ". They also began taking players to local football matches and parading them around the ground with mascots in an attempt to pull in football fans too. Another marketing ploy was to give certain players nicknames to help the crowd associate with the new (and as yet unknown) players.

Sheffield Steelers were the first ever fully professional ice hockey team in Great Britain, and O’Brien (1998: 45) suggested that there was a lot of resentment from the followers of other hockey teams who saw them as a "cheque book hockey club" able to buy whoever they chose. Likewise, Sluyter (1998) questions the authenticity of the majority of Steelers fans in the club’s early days. Though he admitted that it was a generalisation, Sluyter suggested hockey fans of teams like Cardiff, Fife and Nottingham were ice hockey fans first and foremost, while Steelers supporters were only Steelers fans, and knew very little of ice hockey outside of Sheffield. However, whether their supporters knew or cared about hockey elsewhere, made little difference as Sheffield began breaking several British ice hockey attendance records, and in March of that year added an extra 1,200 seats to the Arena to meet the growing demand (O’Brien 1998).

Sheffield Steelers had begun their first ever season in English Division One — a change of rules had allowed them to bypass the lower divisions. Even though by far the best supported team in Britain, they failed to gain promotion in their first season. They had finished second in the league, but due to a mix-up concerning icing an illegal player they were stripped of promotion. One year later Sheffield Steelers won promotion into the British Premier League, before going on to win this in 1995 — the last team to do so before the formation of the new British Ice hockey Super League (ISL) that year. 1995 was an important year in British ice hockey, not only did it see the formation of the ISL, but it was also the first season of the newly created Manchester Storm, set to become the (self proclaimed) biggest ice hockey club outside of North America (O’Brien 1998).

The Coming of the Storm

The building of the 17,500 seat Manchester Arena in the centre of Manchester was to a large extent the result of the City’s failed attempt to win the competition to host the 1996 Olympic games. It was decided that the Arena would boost the city’s chances of capturing the games in the year 2000. After 3 years in construction the was open on July 4th 1995. However, long before its opening it was decided that if the Arena was to survive financially, it needed to attract sizeable crowds each and every week. The answer was to bring in a basketball and ice hockey team. Basketball had established itself in many cities in the UK attracting crowds of three to four thousand spectators at many top class games (cf. Nisse, 1996) but Sheffield had proved that ice hockey could pull in much larger crowds, and this was to be the main focus of the Arena’s marketing.

The owners of the Arena (Ogden Entertainment Services) began negotiations with the Cook Group to run the basketball and ice hockey teams. However, the Cook Group were basketball people first and foremost, and were not willing to get involved with ice hockey. Several organisations were approached, but no taker came forward to run the ice hockey team, which left Ogden no choice but to run the team themselves (Sluyter 1996).

Dave Biggar had been bought in from Sheffield, and quickly set about trying to repeat the success of the Steelers — but here on a larger and grander scale. Again, marketing was directed at schools, giving away a sizeable amount of tickets to children in an attempt to pull in families. As with Sheffield players were given nicknames and paraded out for numerous publicity opportunities. It was decided that the presentation of ice hockey was to be bigger, more glamorous and with more razzmatazz than Sheffield. The compere Jon Hammond was bought in with the express instructions to create a ‘family atmosphere’ within the stadium, and a huge four-sided score board and screens (‘the cube’) was erected at a cost of one million pounds (Sluyter ,1998). At the first home Storm game supporters who were wearing shirts of other British ice hockey teams were admitted for only one pound. Though Dave Biggar (in Sluyter ,1998) denied that this was an attempt to poach fans from other teams, if nothing else, it demonstrated an eagerness to attract existing ice hockey fans to the Arena.

On the hockey side, Ogden bought the franchise to the Trafford Metros from Altrincham moving this to the Arena, and changing the name to The Manchester Storm in the process. Later that year, Altrincham Aces would reformed at Devonshire Road to replace the Metros. John Lawless was bought in from The Cardiff Devils as the Storm’s first head coach. Lawless had previously led Cardiff Devils from Division Two obscurity to dominance in British ice hockey, and was widely considered as one of the British game’s best coaches.

Manchester Storm, as Sheffield before them, were allowed to enter directly into the English Division One, and again as Sheffield had done, Manchester Storm set about breaking all British (and European) ice hockey attendance records. In their first season Manchester won the Divisions One championship, winning promotion into, what would be the first season of the newly created, Ice Hockey Super League (ISL). The ISL began with eight teams, with the promise of more to follow. The League was formed on the franchise basis, with no promotion or relegation; teams who met the criterion of the League would be invited to participate. This caused a considerable amount of animosity from teams in the British Premier League (the league superseded by the ISL) who were not invited to participate in this new league — therefore being effectively relegated from the top flight of the British game. Such teams included the likes of Humberside Hawks, Milton Keynes Kings and Fife Flyers — the latter are also one of the oldest hockey teams in Great Britain, celebrating their 60th anniversary in 1999.

Ice hockey at Manchester was to be sold as a full entertainment package. An evening’s entertainment aimed directly at family units, and presented with all the razzmatazz of a full show biz spectacle. As the marketing director at Manchester Storm, Dave Biggar stated:

…it was a case of "so, it’s another show", in inverted commas. That’s all it is…[…]…it’s fast, it’s violent, it’s breathtaking, it’s skilful, it’s got all of that, and "oh by the way, it’s a hockey game". So, once you’ve taken the hockey side out of it, all you’ve got is an event that people should go to because of it’s own individual attributes, irrespective of the sport itself…[…]…We just went in with the Disney, concert mentality. Give them the entertainment package, make it cheap enough, get ‘em hooked…[…]…Nobody wants to be educated in their time off. They just want to have fun, laughs, jokes, giggles and a good time (interviewed August 1999).

This philosophy instantly began to pay off. In the 1996/97 season average attendance figures at Manchester Storm continued to increase, on 23rd February 1997 (against rivals the Sheffield Steelers) setting a new European ice hockey attendance record of 17,245. However, on the ice Manchester Storm were not quite so successful, finally finishing seventh out of eight teams in the ISL. John Lawless was sacked from Manchester Storm, and ex-Canadian Olympic team player Kurt Kleinendorst was bought in as the new general manager and head coach.

Kleinendorst instantly bought about radical team changes bringing in 12 new players into a squad of 19 in his first season (Sluyter 1998). In the 1997/98 season, Manchester Storm narrowly missed out on the League championship to Ayr Scottish Eagles who proved rampant that season winning every British competition. Though in 1998/99 it was Manchester Storm’s turn, easily running away with the ISL title to bring Storm their first major trophy.

 

References and further reading

Crawford, Garry (1999) The Second Manchester Storm Supporter Survey March 1999 (University of Salford: Salford).

Crawford, Garry(1998) "The Gathering Storm: Manchester Storm Supporter Survey 1998", Salford University Papers in Sociology (University of Salford: Salford).

Drackett, Phil (1992) Vendetta on Ice (Ice Hockey World: Norwich).

Drackett, Phil (1987) Flashing Blades: The Story of British Ice Hockey (Crowood: London).

NHL (1999) NHL.com (http://:www.nhl.com)

Nisse, J. (1996) "Big game gives rivals a run for their money" The Times, 23rd September 1999, p38.

O’Brien, Alice (1998) Rinks to Arenas: Ten Years of British Ice Hockey (Castle: Nottingham).

Pietrasik, Andy (1997) "Jolly hockey schtick", The Guardian Weekend. (November 19th).

Roberts, Stewart (1999) The Ice Hockey Annual 1999-2000 (The Ice Hockey Annual: Brighton).

Roberts, Stewart (1998) The Ice Hockey Annual 1998-99 (The Ice Hockey Annual: Brighton).

Roberts, Stewart (1997) The Ice Hockey Annual 1997-98 (The Ice Hockey Annual: Brighton).

Roberts, Stewart & Stamp, Phil (eds.) (1999) A to Z Encyclopædia of Ice Hockey (http://www.azhockey.com).

Sluyter, Liam (1998) A Game of Three Halves (Mainstream: London).

Sluyter, Liam (1996) Seasons To be Cheerful (Mainstream: London).

Smith, Adam (no date) The Puck Chasers of Manchester: The history of Manchester Ice Hockey (TLH: Manchester).

Waddington, Brian (no date) Manchester Storm History (http://user.universe.com/~brianw/biha/teams/manstorm.html).

Windsor Hockey Heritage Centre (1996) Windsor Hockey History (http://fox.nstn.ca/~hantsrda/hockhist.html).

 

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