BLOG: Phoenix demise inevitable once Storm returned

The writing was on the wall for Manchester Phoenix as soon as Manchester Storm joined the Elite League nearly two years ago.

Like it or not, there was never going to be room for two teams in a city where the only ice facility comes at the end of a tram line in a suburb that doesn’t even carry a Manchester postcode.

The history of these two clubs are intertwined, and perhaps now their future will inevitably be too.

It was the free ticket policy that ultimately brought down Storm Mark I that got me in to hockey back in the 1990s at the age of 11.

Barely three years later, there was nowhere to fulfil a burgeoning passion as the team disappeared after a handful of games.

The man who had taken me to my first match, my grandad, signed us up to Friends of Manchester Ice Hockey (FOMIH), the supporters organisation which would ultimately be the catalyst to the foundation of Phoenix, and the cornerstone of its fanbase for the last 14 years.

Founding members of the Elite League, Phoenix would play for just one season before taking a hiatus for the next two seasons, before eventually returning at the start of the 2006/07 campaign, albeit only moving to their home rink in February.

By that time I was old enough to drive myself to games, and so I did.

Soon after, the Phoenix became only the second club in my life that I would buy a season ticket for (the other being Widnes Vikings rugby league). I would never have called myself a passionate fan of the club, I just followed them as my most local team.

The Joe Tallari year was by far my favourite at the Phoenix, and the year after was pretty good too. Heck, I still have Scott Basiuk and Bruce Mulherin’s play-off gameworns in my house somewhere, back in the days where my student loan could be put to good use.

The sell-out play-off game against Sheffield Steelers in 2008 will live long in the memory, partly because of the scramble to get a seat on the other side of the rink to where we usually sat, as it was so full.

My first away game too, a 4-0 win at Sheffield Arena in the depths of January and perhaps the most horrific drive back over the Pennines ever.

The drop to EPL was disappointing, if understandable, and despite the drop in technical quality, the entertainment level remained. By now, I was joined by a close friend each week, and we thoroughly enjoyed watching Tony Hand roll back the years alongside Ed Courtenay.

There were some outstanding memories from the first few years in the EPL. I remember a 7-6 thriller against Basingstoke that was decided by Luke Boothroyd of all people in overtime, and Blaz Emersic put in perhaps the finest individual performance I’ve ever seen live in a 5-4 reversal for the Phoenix.

Ultimately, work commitments and perhaps a little disillusionment at the declining quality of the EPL saw me get to less and less games, and crowds by this stage had dropped off alarmingly.

The ticket prices were always a little too much for that level of hockey, and the club lost a bit of its identity when Andy Costigan left.

The sheer dedication of the fans is what has been most noted since the demise of the Phoenix, but there were times I thought the club could have been more welcoming to casual fans.

Sometimes you got instructions to “see person X for more details” when you didn’t have a clue who that person was or where they would be, which ultimately meant someone such as myself decided not to seek further info.

I was never a massive fan of the Phoenix name. I understand its origins and the meaning behind it, but it’s awfully difficult to market as a brand longer-term.

The basketball equivalent in Cheshire will experience the same problem in coming years, although they have at least tried to be ‘cool’ by adopting Nix as a shortened version.

Most people in the North West will have heard of the Storm brand, such was their reach in the 90s.

It was a point I made in a meeting with Neil Black in August 2015 – that the Phoenix’s problem was they should have adopted the Storm moniker that was so well known.

It was of course a mere coincidence, and a pleasant surprise, several weeks later when a source revealed that the Storm brand would be returning, in place of the Hull Stingrays.

That came as a result of Phoenix’s dispute with the Altrincham Ice Rink, and the ins and outs of that are probably a story for another day.

At that stage, it didn’t seem likely that Phoenix would remain. But they battled on.

Along with plenty of other casual fans the trip to Deeside to watch the Phoenix didn’t make a great deal of sense, particularly when the Storm was the brand that connected me to hockey, and also when it was still playing at the rink most local to me.

I did venture to Deeside once, for a defeat ironically against Hull Pirates, but it was clear from that visit that the Phoenix fire was starting to burn out.

In the summer, I met with Neil Morris to discuss his plans for the new rink in the centre of Manchester. His main trump card was the unwavering loyalty of Tony Hand, a legend of British Ice Hockey.

But by this time, Storm had started to flex their muscle. Their marketing and fan engagement has been tremendous, far superior to anything the Phoenix had managed, themselves perhaps too reliant on the faithful that had kept them going for so long.

As it was, the race against time proved too much, and the Phoenix will cease to exist.

Whatever your opinion of Morris and the Phoenix, they kept the hockey flag flying in Manchester for the past decade and without them the foundations for what is turning into a successful Storm franchise wouldn’t be there.

Here’s hoping that the Phoenix fans aren’t lost to the game. Their value has been acknowledged almost immediately by the gestures of goodwill from Sheffield, Telford and Widnes, to name but a few.

While the Phoenix as a club may no longer exist, they have provided memories that will last for a long while yet.

4 Comments

  1. Hello

    Thank you for your views in your Blog.

    As a former Storm Mark 1 fan and a Phoenix fan, I ask you how successful is this new Storm like you say they are?

    They have no history, no trophies and the attendances are average at best and not that much higher than when Phoenix were playing out of Alty. Rumour is that financially Storm (Whilst being better than Phoenix) compared to other teams in the league they are not close to the top.

    On top of all this there is still no team in Manchester and young players are not going to get a chance in the Elite League.

    So I ask you… How has the return of Storm been good for the game of hockey in Manchester?

    Perhaps it will all turn out good in the end but so far all I can see is that two men at the top of two hockey organisations in and around Manchester had a row and now fans in Manchester suffer… again.

    As a Phoenix fan having abuse thrown at me from Storm Mark 2 fans for 2 years, I am happy for a break from the Manchester Hockey team and instead will be happy to support teams such as Deeside Dragons. Perhaps time will heal wounds, but so far the fact that Storm have still not learnt from their mistakes means that many Phoenix fans will probably not be rushing to get a hockey fix in Alty any time soon. This one certainly wont be.

  2. Interesting to read your article about hockey in Manchester. I reside in Seattle, Washington, USA, and have had similar experiences with our hockey teams. I don’t know a lot about ice hockey in England, but have subscribed to this newsletter and try to follow along, learning as I go. We have several former players from our area playing in the UK, so it’s fun to get an understanding of things in your leagues. We have had two teams in Tacoma (near Seattle) that had good followings, yet for different reasons, the teams left – one went out of business, the other relocated to Canada. I certainly appreciate what you’ve gone through, and it’s tough sometimes to support teams when you realize they may well not be around for the longhaul1

  3. A great shame and Phoenix will have the sympathy of all true ice hockey fans.
    There will be a welcome for Phoenix fans at the Den as emphasised on the Deeside Dragons website,even if it’s only to keep an eye on netminder Dennis Bell .
    Best wishes, guys.

  4. The passing of any sports club is indeed lamentable, but your comment that a free ticket policy brought down the original Storm is slightly innacurate. The free ticket initiatives were largely finished by the end of the Kurt Kleinendorst era and the subsequent Terry Christensen era failed miserably to build on the success of his predecessor.

    Marry that to the withdrawal of Ogdens, the loss of some hugely influential people right at the very top and the substantial funding they provided and SMG not wanting to run a hockey team, and the early warning signs were on the door only not enough people realised it at the time.

    Sadly, the emergence of the Phoenix failed to recapture the imagination of the vast majority of Storm fans, and the crippling costs of playing at the MEN Arena inevitably led to the mothballing while a smaller, more cost effective venue, could be acquired.

    There are a myriad of reasons why the Phoenix never grabbed the attention of the sports fans in the area, but certainly in the early days in Altrincham it was not for the lack of trying.

    Mistakes were made, and with the benefit of hindsight, one or two of them were absolutely crucial, one could even say catastrophic, but what’s done is done and regrettably despite valiant efforts and sacrifices made by many, the Phoenix was destined never to fully escape the ashes it rose from.

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