By mike Landers (Plissken)It is common in sport to find stories of teams suddenly finding themselves homeless, through accident or mismanagement. Sometimes the story has a happy ending, with a return to a clubs traditional home, sometimes a club is stuck in limbo or simply dies quietly. But for the Manchester Phoenix Ice Hockey club, the solution was simple - build their own ice rink.
In the late 1990s, ice hockey in the UK went through a boom time. With fans packing the arenas in Manchester, Sheffield, Belfast and Nottingham, the Ice Hockey Superleague (ISL) offered a high standard of hockey in brand new facilities. The problem was that the ISL was built on a foundation of sand with large numbers of imported mercenary talent combining with epic financial mismanagement to lead a league to collapse as quickly as it arrived, taking names such as the Cardiff Devils and Sheffield Steelers to the brink of disaster and Manchester Storm and Ayr Scottish Eagles into high profile liquidation.
After the Storm blew itself out, the remaining fans created the Friends of Manchester Ice Hockey with the twin aims of restoring a team in the top flight and finding a new place to play. The first job was accomplished with the help of local businessman Neil Morris, who financed the newly named Manchester Phoenix, entering the brand new Elite Ice Hockey League - which tried to correct the neglect of British talent by reducing import numbers.
There was no fairytale ending. A disappointing season in the Elite League was played out in front of an average of less than 3,000 supporters, rattling around the cavernous (and expensive) 17,245 capacity MEN Arena. The team was nowhere near financially viable in such a building and with the smaller (and dilapidated) Altrincham facility closed down, the Phoenix were officially put into hibernation at the end of the 2003-04 season.
For the next two years Morris fought red tape, council intransigence, even politicking by other members of the Manchester ice sports community in order to realise his dream of building a new ice sports facility. Sites both permanent and temporary were considered all over the city, from west near the Trafford Centre to north, in Bolton. Eventually, in early 2006, Morris was able to announce he was going to build the new Ice Dome in Altrincham, for years the area which was the spiritual home of the sport in the city ready for that September.
With the hard part seemingly over, the Phoenix prepared for the new season with an opening date of 24th September in their new rink. Nothing would be that simple - problems with the site forced a three month delay until 2nd December. Committed to playing in the league, the club had to arrange "home" games at in North Wales and Sheffield, forcing fans into 100 mile round-trips. Players had to make the same trip two or three times a week. The equipment manager sat in laundrettes washing used hockey gear, the teams own washing machines stuck in storage awaiting their new home. Then in November, another body blow - the rink would not be ready until the end of January. More trips, more travel - and in January... another three weeks of delay. This forced the Phoenix to cancel home games, caused a fixtures pileup and 14 homes games to be played in the space of 40 days.
On Saturday, after almost three years of struggle, top flight ice hockey will return to Manchester when the Altrincham Ice Dome opens with the Phoenix hosting the Edinburgh Capitals. Despite being played in what is effectively a building site, with no amenities except for toilets and changing rooms for the players, the game is sold out. Such has been the determination from the fans that around fifty of them have been organised to spend Saturday afternoon wiping down seats and sweeping up brick dust in order to make the new home habitable. None of those fans will receive anything more than a thankyou, they will still pay full price to get in to see the game.
But for them, the fact that the team will finally play in its new home is enough.