The town of Ayr in the West of Scotland is facing an uncertain future without ice hockey with fears the last games could be played as early as this season.
Ayr Bruins, a once prominent name in the sport in the UK, continues to function as a junior development side, operating out of Limekiln Road, found next to Newton-on-Ayr train station and a five-minute walk from Ayr United’s Somerset Park.
But ageing and sub-standard facilities, little or no investment and dwindling numbers have left them on the brink unless things change and soon.
Bruins’ chairmen Eric Young and vice chairman Alex Strachan spelled out the dire situation faced by the club and the town as he hoped to put the word out about their plight.
“It’s a major concern for everyone involved and we’re working hard on a day to day basis to make sure we can continue to help and work with the kids who are still with us,” Strachan told British Ice Hockey.
“We’re always on the lookout for any kind of financial support. We’re talking not just for the rink, but the club too and it’s a genuine concern for us unless the situation changes.
“I want to make the point that we’ve taken serious measures to ensure we are covering our costs, but this is preventing us from buying new equipment for the kids. And that in itself will hold back the long term development of the kids.
“The costs are never coming down and we’ve lost players. We’re in the process of balancing the cost of ice with games and practice to allow us to function, but the numbers we have aren’t enough.
“The facilities have always been an issue and it’s in a poor state of repair. We’ve got dressing rooms without locks on them, the matts for them to walk on wearing their skates are years old.
“The parents are frustrated with things too. They’re now looking at the bigger picture too in terms of where their kids are going to play and get the best chance to develop. We simply can’t offer that and I completely understand where they’re coming from.
“That’s the feedback we’re getting and if we can’t give them what they’re looking for, then they’ll look at the best place where they’ll get six, seven, eight years worth of ice time and development.”
The town of Ayr has been synonymous with the sport of ice hockey for decades, starting under the guise of the Ayr Raiders in 1939 until 1955 before they became Ayr Rangers between 1963 and 1966.
The Bruins took up the mantle from there and ran until 199, winning the championship in 1976 and reaching the final in 1989.
Raiders returned for one more year, ceasing operations in 1992 until the Ayr Scottish Eagles came to fruition in 1996, playing out of the Centrum Arena in nearby Prestwick until they went out of business in 2003.
Since the formation of Braehead Clan in 2010, who leaned on the fans of the Eagles, ice hockey remains a popular sport in the town, but the death of this particular junior programme could kill it off once and for all.
Ayr Bruins were the first Scottish Club to start an ice hockey Academy for kids wanting to Learn to Play the sport, with a programme bearing that very much and run a 16 week development programme where they take in boys and girls from 4-12 years old.
They are taught to skate and play ice hockey and after they graduate we feed them into their age group teams ranging from under 8’s to under 12’s.
The first batch of graduates make up the under 8 team while the under 10’s are one of the best in Scotland while there are two players selected for the Scottish Conference squad at under 11 and under 13.
Most coaches have come through the Ayr junior set up and the Under 20 team, which is still going, have to play out of Kilmarnock as the SIHA won’t allow teams to play above under 16’s in Ayr.
The team is very much woven into the town’s fabric, but from there, it’s a bleak outlook as they lost the numbers to run Under 14 and Under 16 teams as a result of the poor state of facilities.
A complaint to Scottish Ice Hockey brought everything into focus, as Eric explained and while he was unhappy at issues that haven’t been addressed, he refused to point the finger of blame at the Limekiln Road building’s owners, Ayrshire Curlers, who he stresses have helped them out through this crisis.
Eric added: “There was a complaint made to the league in March, which they made us aware of. The club approached the owners of the rink to explain the situation and we’re still waiting for the complaints to be addressed.
“The showers apparently do work within the dressing room, but the other complaints regarding coverage and light fittings haven’t been sorted out.
“I’m certainly not going to throw the Ayrshire Curlers under the bus over this. They’ve always been more than accommodating to us and I think the financial aspect is the fear for them.
“For them to facilitate the rink to full hockey capability would take a significant amount of money. They are curlers and the rink is predominantly fit for curling so I think that’s where the Catch 22 is.
“They want to help us, but they can’t because of the outlay involved.
“The curlers helped us out last year and reduced the cost a bit, but we can’t keep going to them. They help us as much as they can and they’ve got their own costs they need to cover.
“I completely understand that, but we are a small club and a charity. But it’s the whole tradition of ice hockey in Ayr we’re talking about here.
“We need the facilities at Ayr upgraded to provide the huge potential we have currently playing at the Club to thrive and form the platform that will bring ice hockey success back to the town of Ayr.
“It’s not that long ago that Ayr applied for city status so if they want to be a city they need to have a that mentality.
“Ice hockey will attract people to the town and hopefully investment to complement the high profile already achieved by the town’s rugby and football teams “
Eric’s grandfather Arthur Young was the manager of original Ayr Bruins alongside coach Walter Campbell, while his dad Eric Snr played for the original team so his connection to the club perhaps goes far deeper than most.
Alex first became involved with the Bruins three years ago and became vice chairman to Eric as he helped the development of the young players in the area.
He revealed he has been in discussion with South Ayrshire Council for help and while they’ve assisted with minimal relief, he’s hoping there’s room for a new ice rink as part of a proposed leisure complex, which was announced in April earlier this year.
But with an opening date not looking to be any earlier than 2023, Bruins’ future may not last that long and Alex is hoping the council can do more by way of some assurance there can be a facility that can reinvigorate the sport and the junior programme.
But again, without that, he highlighted just how concerning the situation is unless there are improvements made to their current home that could help them in the short term.
Alex said: “If the council were able to come forward and develop a new rink, it would give ice hockey in Ayr a brand new lease of life, particularly the Ayr Bruins because we’re stagnating and treading water in Ayr right now.
“The rink needs a major overhaul for us to progress. The kids we have will grow older and release it is better for them to play elsewhere, where there are better facilities to help them. They’ve leave us and that will put us back to square one.
“A new rink would definitely encourage kids to come to us and basically give us a new lease of life in regard to ice hockey.
“The future of the sport is looking bleak at this moment in time and the kids are leaving to go to other clubs. That’s why we lost the under 14’s and under 16 teams.
“It’s my fear that unless things are addressed and quickly, you won’t see ice hockey to the point it could even cease to exist.
“Parents bring their kids here hoping to let them develop and if there’s no room for development, then they will go elsewhere.
“Once it gets to a point where it’s no longer financially viable for us to afford the cost of equipment and supporting the kids, we won’t be able to function and the doors will need to be shut.
“Unless things are addressed, there will come a point where even Scottish Ice Hockey may come to us and tell us we can’t play hockey out of Limekiln Road. It’s as bleak as that.”
British Ice Hockey contacted South Ayrshire Council for comment over the situation regarding ice hockey in Ayr and the plight of the Ayr Bruins.
A spokesperson said: “South Ayrshire Council is keen that residents have every opportunity to get active and stay active. We will always try to work with partners including local sports clubs to help achieve this ambition.”
A petition has been started by Ayr Bruins to South Ayrshire Council, urging them to build a new rink and so far, has over 1,500 signatures so far. You can click here to find the petition.