In the beginning:
The origins of the Manchester Phoenix go back to the 2002-2003 season of the now defunct Ice Hockey Super League (ISL). Manchester was represented by the Manchester Storm, who were in no small degree of financial trouble (just how much was largely unknown at the time). In the space of just 8 seasons the Storm had gone from the lowest tier of British hockey, to playing the elite of Europe. In this time they had been the best supported side in Europe, averaging almost 9000 fans per game in the late 1990s, to barely scraping 3000 most games. This situation proved untenable, and the club folded in late 2002, owing large sums of money to various creditors (it did not cease to operate due to ‘moral reasons’ as Wikipedia states).
When the Storm folded, a group of supporters and former sponsors got together and formed the ‘Friends of Manchester Storm’, which when the closure of the old Devonshire Road rink in Altrincham was announced became the ‘Friends of Manchester Ice Hockey’ (FOMIH). This group set about the task of bringing hockey back to Manchester in time for the 2003-2004 season. Around the same time, it was announced that the ISL would cease operation at the end of the current season, as not only had the Storm folded, but the Scottish Eagles did the same, and Bracknell announced they were withdrawing as well. This lead to the formation of the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL).
The first year:
The Phoenix chose to join the EIHL, after considering all the options available (in reality it was a straight choice between the new EIHL set up with its familiar roster of opponents such as Nottingham and Sheffield or the unknown quantity of the British National League). It was also announced that the Phoenix would return to the MEN Arena for its home games, albeit with access to a reduced selection of seats (@3,600, with 1,800 available on either side of the ice). Links to the Storm were retained, with fan favourite Mike Morin returning to the Arena as a Phoenix player, alongside old hands Jeff Sebastien and new player/coach Rick Brebant. Sebastien would leave the club early in the season after receiving a better offer from North America, whilst Brebant would find himself replaced as coach by Paul Heavy.
The new era began promisingly enough with a sell-out crowd of 3,600 turning out to see the new Phoenix take on the equally new London Racers (who had replaced the London Knights, who were another casualty of the season 2002-2003). After this though crowds fell to the more regular 2,200ish, as the new, lesser standard of hockey peddled by the EIHL seemed to deter a significant number of supporters. Sadly for the Phoenix, this proved to be unworkable, and despite assurances from the teams owner, Neil Morris, an agreement could not be reached with the Arena to secure a 2nd seasons play at an affordable cost. The Phoenix chose to go into a suspension whilst exploring the possibility of building their own rink in Altrincham.
Despite all the problems with crowd levels, and player movements, the Phoenix would ultimately finish 6th in the league, and qualified for the Play Off finals weekend, finishing 2nd in their play off group. They would face the Nottingham Panthers at the NIC, losing 6-1. It would be 2 long years until the Phoenix stepped onto the ice once more.
2006/07: After 2 seasons in the wilderness, the Phoenix announced that they were to return to action in the EIHL at the still under construction Altrincham Ice Dome in time for the 2006-2007 season. Despite this, the team still had to play almost half their home games in ‘neutral’ venues as delays affected the opening of the Ice Dome. The Phoenix eventually returned to Manchester on 25th February, in front of 1000 fans (the number of available seats in the still uncompleted Ice Dome). The Phoenix then played 12 home games in the space of 4 weeks to complete their fixture schedule.
in a surprise move, British ice hockey legend Tony Hand MBE was announced as the new player/coach of the club, much to the delight of the Phoenix fans. A total rebuild of the squad was required, as previous Phoenix players had either found new clubs, or retired from the game. The league itself was much changed, with fellow ‘new franchise’ the London Racers having themselves folded mid season the year previously, and new opposition the form of former BNL & EPL club the Hull Stingrays, former BNL side the Newcastle Vipers, and Coach Hands home town team, the Edinburgh Capitals (who had been coached by hand themselves in 2004/05). On ice, the club performed well, despite having no ‘home ice’ for most of the season, finishing 6th in the league, but failing to progress to the finals weekend. Off ice, things seemed much more secure, with a completed rink to play in, and a solid core of players being formed by the coach.
2007/08: This season saw many changes to the squad, with a slew of new imports being brought in to try and strengthen the club, and consolidate its position in the league. Despite the addition of a netminder with NHL experience, in the shape of Scott Fankhouser, the club actually slipped back, finishing the season in 7th position, and once again failing to progress to the finals weekend.
2008/09: The 2008/09 season proved to be probably the most successful season on the ice in the EIHL for the Phoenix. After the standard summer re-build of the squad (which included the return of old Storm favourite Dwight Parrish and the continued presence of fan favorite Brett Clouthier), the Phoenix had a very successful run in both EIHL sanctioned cup competitions. In both competitions, the Phoenix reached the finals, and incredibly both sets of finals were played against the Belfast Giants. The Phoenix lost both series, and the cost of the extra travel to Belfast for the away legs resulted in the club going via Scotland and taking a ferry for the 2nd trip, a far from ideal situation. despite success in the cups, the Phoenix once again failed to progress beyond the play off quarter finals, losing to the eventual champions Nottingham. After the season concluded, an announcement was made which most fans had barely even expected to occur…
2009/10: The surprising announcement was that as of September 2009, the Phoenix would be playing in the English Premier Ice Hockey League, alongside fellow former EIHL side the Basingstoke Bison. The financial pressures of maintaining an EIHL level squad had taken too much of a toll on the clubs finances, leaving them with a substantial debt. The lower cost base of the EPIHL offered a chance to stabilise the club financially. This required another comprehensive squad rebuild as the EPIHL is a league dominated by British born and trained players. despite this, there was some continuity, with Tony Hand staying on as player/coach, alongside such familiar names as Luke Boothroyd (promoted to club captain status), Ben Wood, Adam Walker, Carl Graham and Adam Summerfield. With limited space available for non British players, Coach Hand used all his influence to bring in legend of the British game Ed Courtenay, and infamous EIHL enforcer Andre Payette. On the ice, things were dramatically improved, with the club finishing in 3rd place, and reaching the finals weekend, losing in the semi final to the Slough Jets. The move to the EPIHL, and resultant improvement in the clubs win/loss record saw an increase in crowds over the previous season, leading many to note that move initially had appeared to be a success.
2010/11: The Phoenix’s 2nd season in the EPIHL proved to be a watershed one for the club. With the addition of Cutis Huppe and Marcus Kristofferson to the Phoenix squad, the club achieved its first ever league title. The clubs 1st forward line had become a free scoring points machine (355 points between them in the regular season for an average of 6.57 PPG), which went a long way to securing the league title. The club also reached the play off weekend once more, losing in the semi final for the 2nd year running. Off ice, crowds had increased once again, however there were some changes. Long time club GM, announcer and spokesman Andy Costigan stepped down, leaving a number of other staff to fulfil his duties.
TO BE CONTINUED…