There’s a Storm coming
There’s a Storm coming
Big name in British hockey is back on the ice
An all-time best UK attendance of 17,245 in February 1997 was testament to the passion for the game in a city more widely known for its famous football teams.
But just five years later the original storm had blown itself out, with financial problems forcing the club to crash out of the British Superleague seven seasons after it took to the ice.
Now, though, the Storm is back – and riding a new whirlwind as it takes its place in the Elite League. And after settling the team into a new home in the 4,000-seater ice dome in Altrincham, one of Greater Manchester’s most sought-after suburbs, GM Neil Russell is looking forward to building on that old fan-base.
That process even includes one of the players. Young forward Jared Dickinson, a regular in the team’s opening games of the season, provides a direct link between the old and new editions of the Storm, as Russell explains.
“Young Jared was just a baby when his family took him along to the MEN Arena, and now he’s out here on the ice wearing our jersey,” the GM said. “He’s an Altrincham lad as well and hopefully he’s going to be training with the guys throughout the course of the season. Things like that are a big part of what we’re trying to do here.”
On the ice, Quebecois player-coach Omar Pacha has been given the task of establishing a competitive roster in double-quick time, aided by Team GB Head Coach Pete Russell throughout a frantic recruitment drive as the season got closer. Pacha promised fans that the Storm would be the Elite League’s “hardest-working” team and was rewarded with a resounding 8-1 win over the Edinburgh Capitals in the first home game of the season.
However, not every game has gone so well. Ahead of this weekend's home game against bottom-placed Fife Flyers, the Storm lie ninth out of ten with three wins in seven games. However, given the effort required to get a team in the Elite League at all, just competing at this level is a huge achievement.
“It’s come around very, very quickly,” he said. “My first day as GM was on something like August 2, and it was only a month before that the club was reformed and accepted back into the Elite League.
“Since then it’s been a complete whirlwind, and it’s pretty remarkable what we’ve managed to achieve in that time. We’ve had maybe six or eight weeks to do what you’d normally try to do in six or eight months.”
Attracting young hockey fans is vital, especially in a city with so much competition. During the first six weeks of the Elite League season Manchester hosted a decisive one-day cricket international between England and Australia, the rugby league Grand Final between Wigan and Leeds, a rugby world cup clash between England and Uruguay, and a busy schedule of Premier League and Champions League football involving Manchester United and Manchester City. That busy sporting environment is partly why the first month of the season saw under-12s receiving free tickets to games and a longer term effort will promote the club in schools throughout Altrincham and the Greater Manchester area.
Meanwhile, in the face of so much sporting competition, Russell – whose previous hockey experience includes a stint behind the mic at Belfast Giants – is keen to talk up the unique attractions of hockey and the special relationship he is looking to build with the team’s supporters.
“Our PR and marketing efforts will really intensify over the next couple of months and we’re working to get our match night entertainment right,” said Russell. “Jon Hammond is very much the face of that and he’s brilliant. He engages the fans really well and that’s a big, big part of it. You don’t necessarily get that at the football matches, where people come, watch the game and then they’re out the door. There’s no real fan interaction there but we have that in hockey. We also have the best hockey league in Britain: it’s fast, it’s physical, it’s skilful.
“This season is a work in progress, something to nurture and grow. Game by game the crowds will grow and I’d like to think that by Christmas we’ll have this place more or less packed. This rink isn’t the MEN Arena, but there’s not too many venues like that even among the big boys. That was a very special arena but we’re making this place better and better, and from speaking to a lot of fans here they’re noticed a marked improvement in this rink.”
Hammond himself is definitely a crowd-pleasing recruit. Resplendent in his yellow jacket, he was very much the voice of the Storm in the Arena days. Now he – and the jacket – are back, working the crowd during the intermissions and even persuading the home ‘ultras’ in sector 109 to indulge in a spot of Irish dancing. It’s part of bringing the club and fans closer together, and Hammond is loving every minute of it.
“It’s really exciting being back with the Storm. I remember getting a call 20 years ago asking if I wanted to work with the original Storm,” Hammond said. “I told them I knew nothing about hockey, so they took me to watch one game in Blackburn and then we were right into it. I had five fantastic years and the Arena was an amazing experience.
“Skip forward another 15 years and the phone rings again and I was asked to be part of the new Storm. Neil Russell and I sat down and I was captivated by his enthusiasm and passion for the Storm and what the Storm can do.
“I probably shouldn’t say this but I think I’m enjoying it more than I did 20 years ago.”
And as for the infant Dickinson? “After the game last Sunday his Dad was asking me if I remember going up to a man holding a little baby – the baby was fast asleep – and giving him a Storm watch. That was Jared, and now he’s on the ice for the Storm.”
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