October 2002 Remembered: Part 1
It is hard to believe that is now 10 years since one of the most controversial, upsetting and momentous weeks in British Ice Hockey. It is 10 years since the once most popular team in Europe, Manchester Storm closed its doors mid way through the season and were joined days later by fellow successful side the Scottish Eagles.
That week in October effectively marked the end of the Superleague in era in British ice hockey. The Superleague at his creation in 1996 was a massive step forward for the sport in the UK. Whilst professional players had been seen the UK since the 1930â€™s a league with each team having a squad full of highly paid full time players had never been seen before. It was a league that had been coming for a long time with money entering the sport on large scale for previous ten years or so and with new facilities such as the arenas in Sheffield and Manchester. By 1996 the sport was poised for an explosion in popularity, spending and coverage.
With an increase in the number of people willing to spend and an abandoning of any import restrictions the new league was flushed with players from Europe and North America at a cost of yet more money. The years were paved with gold as the attendances rose and teams competed against the top sides in Europe. The Manchester Storm broke all European records at the time with a sell out crowd of over 17,000 for their end of season game with the Sheffield Steelers. The Storm were also playing in the European Superleague against teams such as Dynamo Moscow.
The warning signs that there may be problems with the free spending styles that had developed during the early years of the Superleague were missed. Even after the Basingstoke Bison, Cardiff Devils and the Newcastle club left the league the remaining sides did not heed the warning. By the time the 2002 season started the league had shrank to just 7 sides and it was soon announced that Bracknell would leave at the end of the season, as would the London Knights. It was also announced that the Manchester Storm who played in Europes biggest arena would no longer be owned by the arena operators. This scene was played out against a back drop of falling attendances and a national team that had plummeted in the world rankings.
Just weeks into the season the news came that there was a dispute on the rent between the arenaâ€™s owners and new owner Gary Cowan. It was an untenable position for the Manchester Storm and after cancelled home games the team travelled to Belfast not to return following a 7 -2 loss.
In the midst of the troubles in Manchester a similar tail was being played out in Scotland. The Scottish Eagles had been one the most successful sides in the Superleague. They had started life in Ayr playing at the cosy Centrum Arena but new owners and a need to expand sent the team to the new Braehead Arena in Glasgow. Just 6 games later that team also folded.
This month we will look at the league and ice hockey in Manchester and southwest Scotland since the dark days of October 2002. Has the league learnt its lessons? Has ice hockey recovered in these areas? What about the future?