Increased Ice in the Northwest

Some of fans of British ice hockey that have seen the sport for many years may still insist that the northeast of England is the hotbed for the sport. The rinks at Billingham, Durham and Whitely Bay turned out players on a conveyer belt in the late 1980’s. Players that not only produced intense rivalries in the northeast but went on to play all over the country and the world. GB internationals such as David Longstaff and Jonathan Weaver are examples of the talent that has stood the test of time.

But now there could be a new challenger to that crown as shortly before Christmas the northwest’s 5th ice rink opened. In just 10 years the Northwest has seen the number of ice rinks more than doubled and with it comes the opportunity for new players to come through the junior system and possibly emulate the likes of Mark Thomas and Jason Hewitt who came through the ranks at the old Altrincham ice rink.

The northwest’s journey has not been an easy one. Despite the popularity of the sport and skating in Blackpool and Altrincham in the 1990’s new rinks where hard to come by to replace those decaying and ageing facilities. Altrincham finally closed its doors in 2002 after years of petitions and campaigning for a new rink without success. That left just two rinks in the northwest Blackburn and Deeside. The turn out in ice fortunes came literally rose like a phoenix. The formation of the Manchester Phoenix provided a major boost as the team strove for a new rink. After a number of set backs and delays they did succeed in building a temporary rink in Altrincham in 2007. A rink that would be home to ice sports in Manchester until the completion of the Altair project with its new rink.

The Old Altincham Ice Rink

The Old Altincham Ice Rink

Since then in 2011 a new rink has appeared on Fylde coast a tram ride away from the rink that was home to the Blackpool Seagulls. Whilst this rink may not be full size it is a still an ice pad and one on which the Fylde Flyers have taken to the National League on. And just weeks ago a full sized pad on the banks of the Mersey in Widnes opened its doors. All of this is of course not guaranteed to produce a top superstar but it puts the northwest up there in having the facilities to be able to nurture talent.

However despite all of this the northwest still has the same problems as anywhere else in the UK. Number one on that list is a lack of ice team. With public skating providing rinks with the vast chunk of their funding ice sports are still squeezed to the side and offered high rents and late night time slots.

The Altrincham Ice Dome is a prime example of this. Situated in the south Manchester suburb the Ice Dome has been unable to be a permanent home to the University of Manchester Metros. Instead the Metros are playing many games and training sessions at the Deeside Leisure Centre in North Wales. Even the new formed Manchester Phoenix Sledge Hockey team has begun moving some training sessions to Widnes.

Availability is not the only problem though. The range of ice sports offered is also a struggle.  Curling for example is a sport in which Great Britain has enjoyed some success. Whilst predominantly a Scottish past time the Great Britain team did win gold at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano even though there are very few rinks in the country that offer or cater for curling. In the northwest Deeside is the only rink to have curling facilities and there are no long tracks for speed skating anywhere in the British Isles. Hopefully the increase in the number of ice pads opening in the northwest will spread to rest of the country and create another boom in players. And hopefully as well Sir Steve Redgrave’s plan of a long track and curling ice centre will one day see the light of day as well.

Neil Tucker

Neil has written on ice hockey for many websites concentrating on British ice hockey mostly. Neil also covers ice hockey in other countries and organises his Blueliner Hockey Tour. A graduate of the Manchester Metropolitan University Neil turned his hand to hockey writing in 2009. As well as contributing on Blueliner Hockey Neil has contributed to Get Real Hockey and Slapshot Magasine.

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