Carrying on from part one to which the Manchester Storm had gone bust and saw no hockey in the city, we now start Part 2 in 2003…
Following on from the Storm’s collapse in the Autumn of 2002, a group of Manchester hockey fans got together called FOMIH (Friends of Manchester Ice Hockey) looked to try and keep the sport alive in the city and saw the newly formed ‘Manchester Phoenix’ rising out of the ashes of the Storm, and into the brand new ‘Elite League’ that was the predecessor to the Superleague. The Elite League was meant to be a league that would give British players more chance and saw virtually every team in the league with a 70% lineup of homegrown players. Looking back as a whole on the club now, they were the British Ice Hockey version of the old tv show ‘the Littlest Hobo’ due to the team having so many different homes over their 14 years, that bounced around place to place and more impressively, they still had fans travelling with them till their dying day. Some of the rinks they used once or twice, but overall, they would use SEVEN different rinks down the years that they would call home.
They were as followed:
- Manchester Arena (2003)
- Blackburn (2003)
- Ice Sheffield (2006-07)
- Deeside (2006-07/ 2015)
- Altrincham Ice Dome (2007-15)
The Phoenix as a club financially, was on the other end of the big money scale spectrum in terms of what the Storm was, as back in the Superleague days Manchester had a big wage budget over the years, whilst Phoenix had one of the modest bankrolls, yet played on one of the biggest ice pads in the league for their inaugural season at the MEN Arena. However, playing out of the arena came at a price, quite literally for the club and its owner Neil Morris, as they had to pay for every seat in the Arena for EVERY game and made for financial suicide. This led to the side needing to look elsewhere for a home and saw them left with no other option but to move out. The team was coached by ex-Durham, Sheffield, Nottingham and Storm forward in Rick Brebant, as he became the first player-coach in the clubs history. In February, Brebant headed back home to Canada and saw ex Cardiff Devils coach in Paul Heavey taking over the responsibilities of the club and led Manchester all the way to the playoffs finals weekend in Nottingham, where they were thrashed 6-1 by the hosts Nottingham in the semifinals.
Following that, the club mothballed for two seasons and saw the city going two years without a puck being dropped in anger and had to wait till the start of the 2006-07 Elite League season for the Phoenix to fly again. The team were under new management now, with Great Britain legend Tony Hand taking charge of the team and saw the side having to play out the majority of their season on the road at Ice Sheffield and Deeside for their ‘home’ games until their new barn was ready in Altrincham. After two postponements to opening night at their new rink, it saw on February 25th 2007, the first game taking place at the brand new ‘Altrincham Ice Dome’ as it was then called, with the Phoenix losing their opening game to the Basingstoke Bison and saw just less than a 1,000 fans allowed into the game due to there being only one side of the rink available to sit in and saw the rink being a building site for the rest of the season. For the first couple of seasons, I struggled to be a regular down there due to not having a job at the time and kept up to date with IH-UPDATES that would give you updates every 30 seconds. It took two years to finally see my first win at the rink, as I think it saw 8-10 before finally seeing a win against the Edinburgh Capitals.
The first game at the Altrincham Ice Dome – Phoenix TV
Manchester made it through to their first ever major finals in 2009 with appearances in both the British Knockout Cup and Challenge Cup finals, as they faced Belfast in both finals and lost out in both to the Northern Irish outfit. Their league form suffered greatly too due to their success in the cups, as fixture congestion saw them playing three or four times a week just to fulfil their fixtures and saw tiredness proving key and slid down the table. When it came to post-season playoffs, the Phoenix always seemed to always come up short in their playoff quarter-final ties, as defeats to Cardiff, Sheffield and finally Nottingham in their final Elite season saw them unable to punch a bit more above their weight. Their loss to the Panthers seemed to come full circle in a way, as with them having lost out to them at their first playoffs weekend in their debut season, the Phoenix would fall yet again to Nottingham in the last one.
Looking back at some of the players that iced during the Elite era, it saw a mix of skill and physical players in the squads over the years. Players like, George Awada, Miroslav Skovira, Mika Skytta along with Mark Bultje and Mike Morin (both of who played for the Storm previously). Brett Clouthier, ‘Super’ Joe Tallari, D.A.B (David-Alexandre Beauregard) and Johan Molin. Both Beauregard and Molin would move to Nottingham a season later in their respective seasons.
Shortly after losing to Nottingham, it saw dissension amongst the ranks in the league, and with Edinburgh, Hull, Newcastle and Manchester all unhappy at things, it saw Manchester joining Basingstoke in the EPIHL (English Premier Ice Hockey League) with the Phoenix looking at stabilising themselves and looking to stay within their means. That first season in the EPL saw the club going through a transition phase and shock to the system to some fans, as a few fans didn’t like the standard of hockey on offer and saw a few picking and choosing Hull or Sheffield games in the top flight instead,
One noticeable thing I saw when I became a regular and transitioned from Elite to EPL was the difference in attitudes from the two leagues fanbases. Over the years I saw the Phoenix fans and players bonding more than any other club have and they felt very much like a family and can’t say I have seen anything come close to any other team since. It also saw me on a personal level making more friends within the game (or as the Inbetweeners would Ooooohh Hockey Friends!) and they were not just with other Phoenix fans either. Some I am still mates with now around the leagues. In the 14 years that I watched ‘Phoenix hockey’, I’ve seen the club go through it’s highest highs and it’s lowest lows. As the team moved to the second-tier of the British Ice Hockey spectrum, it saw the skill being a step down compared to the Elite, but the league was sold as mostly a British player league than a team made up of foreign players. One main rule the league had was that only four Imports could be in a lineup for a game, yet you could still have more imports in the overall squad.
Due to holidays, I missed the first couple of home games against Swindon and Milton Keynes, as after they beat Basingstoke thanks to an Ed Courtenay hat trick, James Neil then scored the game-winner for Manchester against Swindon for their first four-points on the opening weekend. MK Lightning gave them a reality check as the Lightning led by ex-Storm forward Nick Poole saw his side winning the league and inflicting a huge 8-2 home loss on the Phoenix. The first EPL game I saw was a “War of the Roses” clash with the Phoenix against the Sheffield Scimitars (now Steeldogs) and played host to a few players now plying their trade in the top flight, namely Robert Farmer and Rob Lachowicz both at Nottingham and also saw a young Ben Bowns who is now the Cardiff and GB goalie.
Altrincham Ice Rink
Over the years at Altrincham, I saw the home side having some barnburners at the dome, with normally the MK Lightning, the Guildford Flames and Basingstoke Bison. However, one rivalry that was a late burner was Manchester and Sheffield and didn’t really start to catch fire until the middle of the 2010-11 season. Most of the rivalry seemed to come from Sheffield themselves, as their player-coach was a Phoenix player from the year before in Andre Payette. Payette, who has always had the ‘Enforcer’ label levelled at him, saw him taking a young Sheffield team along with another ex-Phoenix linemate in Greg Wood and saw him targeting their local rivals in Manchester. Sheffield played a very aggressive and agitating style that was very much in the mould of their coach. After a few physical games against the Dog’s, it saw Hand going out and bringing in ex Edinburgh tough guy in Andrew Sharp as their ‘policeman’.
When the sides met next time, it saw Payette targeting Hand and saw Sharp coming off the bench to keep Payette in check but instead saw him almost blindsiding the Sheffield player-coach and threw a few more punches at him while he was down on the ice. He was handed a suspension for the incident and would see this battle between Payette and Sharp come to a conclusion later on in the season during the Phoenix title run-in. Late on in the season, the two teams met in Ice Sheffield and saw both Sharp and Payette dropping the gloves three times in the game, as they clearly wanted to settle the score. Manchester took home the points and after a nervous final game against Swindon at home, the Phoenix landed their first major trophy in the clubs history as they won the English Premier Ice Hockey League title. They were made to fight to the wire by a strong Guildford Flames side that year and saw three Manchester players racking up ridiculous points on the year too, as Tony Hand finished on 133 points, with 25 goals and 108 assists. Linemates in Swede Marcus ‘Toffee’ Kristofferson racked up 112 points with 62 goals and 50 assists and to finish it off just two points behind was Canadian Curtis Huppe, who bagged 110 points with 59 goals and 51 assists in the season.
Captain Luke Boothroyd holds league title aloft
As good as the attack was that season – the defence was the unsung heroes without a doubt. With Steve Fone backing up in the nets, he had great support from his Import defencemen in Ladislav Harabin and Pavel Gomeniuk, who both showed their experience down the stretch. Meanwhile, Luke Boothroyd and Ben Morgan were massive too for the Phoenix and one signing that doesn’t get much credit from that title-winning side was Joe Miller, as he made his return to the Phoenix fold from the Peterborough Phantoms and scored a vital game-winning goal down at MK in the run-in.
The Phoenix failed to defend their crown the following season and in truth, it was a bit of a disappointing season despite finishing second to Guildford in standings. Another Playoffs Weekend came around and saw Manchester meeting old foes in Sheffield at the semi-finals stage, and despite letting slip a two-goal lead late in the game, it saw them overcoming them in a thrilling shootout as former Sheffield man Stephen Wallace scored the winning penalty shot to take Phoenix into their first final. Sadly, they couldn’t build on their heroics the night previous and a visibly tired Manchester side was lambs to the slaughter for the eventual winners in the red-hot Slough Jets.
Playoff Winners 2012
The 2011-12 season saw Manchester making a big signing in former NHLer Robert Schnabel, as the 6″5 Czech defencemen made an impact on the side after a bit of a slow start to his early Phoenix career. It saw also a return to the playoffs weekend in Coventry and had the Phoenix looking for redemption after last year’s final loss and were forced to show their grit and heart to prevail in yet another epic semi-final, this time against the Basingstoke Bison, as Manchester won a shootout thanks to James Archer’s penalty shot for a 5-4 win to set up a final against Guildford. Games against the Flames were always entertaining affairs and purely hockey based between the sides. This was to be the year of the Phoenix, as goals from Luke Boothroyd, semi-final hero James Archer, Tony Hand and two goals from ‘the man from the Czech Republic’ in Michal Psurny helped seal their first and only playoff title and second trophy in three years with a 5-2 victory at the Skydome Arena.
Manchester was still sailing on a crest of a wave when the new season started up and saw them going on to win their second league title after a thrilling ‘winner takes all’ game against the side that pushed them all the way in the Basingstoke Bison. Phoenix went into the clash knowing that they needed to win by two clear goals to effectively clinch the title as only goal difference was against them. The Phoenix did just that, as they won 5-2 to lift the title and set them up for another run at the playoffs. For the third season in a row, Manchester reached the grand final having disposed of Swindon in overtime thanks to a Frankie Bakrlik goal and see a battle between the league champions and the EPL cup winning Basingstoke Bison in the final. Sadly for Manchester, they lost out to the Bison 5-3.
Things then seemed to change in the EPIHL as we knew it then. As with the Telford Tigers being taken over, it seemed to see a split between Planet Ice/SilverBlades rinks and Wayne Scholes who owned RED Hockey UK and had purchased the Telford Tigers. He also brought 49% stake in struggling Bracknell and a 34% stake in the Manchester Phoenix, with both clubs looking for investment. Politics off-ice saw seemed to have the hockey taking a back seat throughout the season. On the ice, Manchester struggled and finished in their second-worst position since joining the EPL in sixth place. After their miracle victory down at Basingstoke to make their fifth trip in a row to the playoffs weekender, the 2015 playoffs weekend would soon become a weekend that no Phoenix fan will ever, ever forget! The Saturday evening saw the side beating the Milton Keynes Lightning 7-4 to book their place in the final for a fourth successive time. Looking back now, it saw the happiness I had for Ice Hockey waning and I have never really recovered from.
Deeside Ice Rink
Just as the dust was settling and fans were streaming out of the Skydome Arena in Coventry after an entertaining couple of semifinal games, literally seconds after the Phoenix had beaten MK to reach what would be their last ever playoff grand final – a post was put on a website called the ‘The Hockey Forum’ and saw someone called ‘Sledgewomble’ and someone that had links to the rink operator Silverblades that the Phoenix played out of in Altrincham, posted an ‘Official’ statement by the company the Manchester Phoenix had been evicted from Altrincham with immediate effect and that no senior hockey would be played there the following season. That evening saw me sat in a Premier Inn (other hotels are available) with friends who were all on their laptops trying to get to the bottom of this developing story.
What should have been a joyous and fun occasion for all Manchester and hockey fans too in Coventry instead, it saw a huge dark cloud hanging over it. The announcement looking back now really seemed to set the wheels in motion for would be the end for the club. The final saw a loss to Peterborough but to Manchester fans that were the furthest thing away from anyone’s mind. The ‘Phoenix Faithful’ was left to wait anxiously on what the future held for the club and where they would play! A few weeks removed from the playoffs weekend, a meeting was held for fans to attend at the Mercure Hotel in Manchester City Piccadilly Gardens. News had gone to press about the team moving back into central Manchester and saw the club looking at new possible venues. One spot eyed up was a disused building on the edge of SportCity and seemed ideal for fans.
With the announcement, that the side was carrying on playing, a vote took place as to where the fans wanted to watch their hockey from, as Morris said he had spoken to both Ice Sheffield and Deeside about playing their games there. The majority of the fans voted for Deeside, North Wales and so it saw them going back to where the Phoenix played half their Elite games at back in 2006. With talks ongoing about this new potential rink happening, Deeside became their adopted home for the 2015-16 season and soon saw the attendances slowly falling away. Despite the crowds, the Phoenix made their maiden EPL Cup final bow against big-spending Telford Tigers, and to no-one’s’ surprise at all the Tiger came out on top and saw Manchester having to play out their home leg in Telford due to no ice availability for the club. That would prove to be the closest that the side would ever get close to in challenging for honours and now it was just battling to survive.
To make matters worse for the Phoenix, the Storm name had been reintroduced to British hockey following the demise of the Hull Stingrays and that this new side would now be playing out of the Altrincham rink. Understandably, bringing back something much loved previously in people’s childhood had stirred up serious emotions and saw bad will between fans of both clubs.
Widnes Ice Rink
With North Wales being far out of the way for me to travel and with no transport too, my hockey took me to see the new Storm, but I still kept tabs on the Phoenix and would try to make sure I attended as many games as I possibly could with at least 8-10 games over the course of the season. It was around this time that I noticed that I was getting cold-shouldered by a few at the Phoenix, as they knew I was watching the Storm and was seen as a traitor for going and in hindsight, I do see their point. However, going to both was helping me with my ill-fated journalism future and I felt so awkward. I would go to Storm games and be like an outcast with me not knowing anyone there and then when I went to Deeside I felt like the black sheep of the family.
It was also a period in my life too where I was struggling badly with my depression and anxiety – and at times made me feel so bad and low that I wanted to stop going to hockey games and even worse. As you can tell, this situation wasn’t helping me at all and I just became worse and felt like a guilty person. A year after everything kicking off, I had hoped that things would improve but with both teams struggling and Phoenix now playing out of their sixth venue and building that quite frankly was not remotely ideal for second-tier hockey in Fylde near Blackpool, the club was on its last legs now it seemed. With the planned rink not coming off, it saw the Phoenix being effectively given their last rites and had them looking to play out what would be their final two games nearer to home and saw Widnes Ice Rink being their seventh and final home.
Fylde coast Ice Arena
Many people thoughts that their last game would be a 7-0 shutout loss against the Peterborough Phantoms which featured ex-Phoenix players in James Archer and Slava Koulikov. The big picture was bleak and saw Manchester Phoenix Ice Hockey club looking to have played their last game on ice and saw both fans and players themselves in tears together. The sight of Phoenix stalwarts in James Neil, Luke Boothroyd, Steve Fone, Robin Kovar, Ben Wood all in floods of tears really brought it home that was a real ‘end of an era’ and also a heartbreaking sight to see. After the game, captain Luke Boothroyd was asked to say a few words to the fans but he was choked up and devastated with emotion that he literally couldn’t talk. A couple of days later saw the side given a slim glimmer of hope to rectify their problems and see an extended stay of execution so to speak, but in truth, it was always a long-shot and saw the club unable to attract any new investors to the club.
James Neil, Luke Boothroyd being consoled by teammates after the initial final game
Sadly, none was forthcoming, and so the team took to the ice for the final weekend in their history, with games against Bracknell and then on January 29th 2017 against the Swindon Wildcats, the Manchester Phoenix took to the ice one final time. In the lead up to the weekend, it saw the club trying to buy themselves more time and were forced to release all their import players in order to just keep the side afloat for a little bit longer and saw the club drafting in guest players from the Bradford Bulldogs, Deeside Dragons, Bristol Bulldogs and the Blackburn Hawks.
In what were the last embers of an Incredible and emotional ride with a team that I spent most of my life supporting, it did see something of the club returning to its roots in a way and going back full circle. Back in 2003, the original side was a bunch of young local upstarts in the area and saw a young 20-year old from Manchester called ‘Mark Thomas’ (who would make his name at Sheffield and with Team GB in the future) being the first ever player in Phoenix history to score for the club. Fast forward 14-years later and a young 21-year old in Myles Dacres of the Bradford Bulldogs, saw him scoring what proved to be the final ever goal from a Manchester Phoenix player, and in doing so, saw him writing his name into Phoenix folklore and end with a youngster scoring the first and last goal in the clubs incredible history.
Final Game Phoenix v Swindon Wildcats
A brave performance by a very youthful side saw them losing 11-3 and even had Robin Kovar scoring against his former club, just days before he was released by the club and was took on by the Wiltshire outfit. After all, was said and done, and the final player in a Phoenix jersey stepped off the ice for the last time, it saw supporters hugging each other in the cases for many, too be the last ever time they would see their friends at hockey or even come to a game again.
However, I don’t want to end on a sad note as upsetting as I found doing this blog at times. Looking back over the good times, saw me thinking about the friendship that I built up and in some quarters have lost too, but in those happy times, I met some rapscallion characters over the years, ranging from Ben Knight who recorded the clubs podcast every week, to Alex Seewald who would produce it at Playoffs weekend. Mark Woodcock the Coyotes fan from the infamous podcast segment (What’s in the flask) fame or better known as ‘The Angry Budgie. Nigel McFarlane from the Bolton Press who would regale us with intellectual chat…on occasions, Arron Mortimer the Guildford fan, Thomas the Newcastle fan and of (6-4 in Overtime fame) and Pete Hagan, also Tambo (Jim Piper).
Live PLAYOFFS Show from Coventry in the Old Windmill Pub
Other notable mentions go to ‘Mags’, Brenda, Chelle, Nichola, Yvonne, Graham and Matt the ‘doormen’, Nadia and Dave Ireland (Man of many hats..literally!) Emily Mort, Stuart Kilburn, Mr Predictor, Mrs Trellis from N.Wales (HOORAY!!!) Dave and his ‘Garden tips’, The Jenkinson family and Max and Pete. Plus people that just turned up at times in Paddy from ‘A View From The Bridge’ podcast fame and Alex from the BBC as he was known. During the years, we had a laugh doing the podcasts and when I tried to stand in – I was scared Sh*tless!!
Special T-Shirts made for the Podcast live show
However, the live shows in Coventry at playoffs finals weekend will always be favourite memories, having Anthony the Bison fan from ‘Banners On the Wall’, Swindon friends Joe and Ben, Dan from the Peterborough Phantoms and not forgetting MK ROB! Though my personal ALL TIME favourite memory being the ‘Sneaky Russian Night’ where are al downed Absolut Vodka between period breaks and as a non-drinker I had 6 shots and stand upright.
ROLL OF HONOUR:
ELITE League KO: Runners-up 2009
ELITE League Challenge Cup: Runners-Up 2009
EPIHL League Champions: 2010-11, 2013-14
EPIHL Playoff Champions: 2013
EPIHL Cup: Runners Cup 2014
#9 Tony Hand MBE
#17 Dwight Parrish