In 1996, when I was 12, I used to go to Manchester city centre on Saturday evenings to join 17,000 others who would pack out the NYNEX (now Manchester) Arena to cheer on Manchester’s very own ice hockey team.
The 1996-97 season was the year ice hockey in Manchester peaked. In February 1997, Manchester Storm broke the British ice hockey attendance record when 17,245 fans crammed into the NYNEX to see the Storm thrash rivals the Sheffield Steelers 6-2.
1998-99 was the season that the first top flight silverware came to Manchester. Storm won the Superleague title, scoring more goals, conceding fewer goals, winning more games and losing fewer games than any other team.
In 2002, Storm were forced to fold due to a shortage of income. It would be more than a decade before a team with the name Storm would take to the ice again. In 2015, they reformed, replacing Hull Stingrays in the Elite Ice Hockey League, and moved to a new home in Altrincham.
In the 2015/16 season, Storm finished in 9th place, 2016/17 saw a slight improvement with an 8th place finish, the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup and the first round of the play-offs.
That season would be the last for player/coach Omar Pacha. He was replaced for the 2017/18 season by Canadian born Ryan Finnerty, who is also Storm co-owner.
Ryan brought lots of ice hockey knowledge and experience with him, having previously played in the Elite League for Cardiff Devils and Sheffield Steelers before turning to coaching in 2011, first with the Sheffield Steelers and then Braehead Clan.
He guided a revitalised Storm to a second place finish in the league behind Cardiff Devils, but crucially ahead of Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers, making the play-offs and very nearly making it to finals weekend, losing out to an overtime goal to Fyfe Flyers.
When we caught up with Ryan earlier this month, he was full of optimism, insisting his side are ready for a dog-fight finish to the 2018/19 season.
“At this stage when you look at the table, every game is almost like a play-off type game. It’s going to be a bit of a dog fight all the way which makes it exciting considering there are still so many games left to be played.”
Having suffered back-to-back defeats to the Guildford Flames a fortnight ago, Storm got back to winning ways last week with a 3-2 victory over Dundee Stars and a 5-4 victory on Sunday 24th February over local rivals Sheffield Steelers.
Planet Ice’s capacity of 2,500 may be much lower than Manchester Arena, but Ryan believes this works in Storm’s favour, providing an unrivalled atmosphere which cannot be replicated by teams which often play in 7,000-9,000 capacity arenas.
“You can say what you want about our building, but there’s not too many places that can create an atmosphere like that. I think we have a team that feeds off that and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of when you’re on the bench.
“It’s something you don’t see and you can’t replicate it in the big stadiums. You’re this tight and fans react and they’re that on top of you, they’re that engaged and loud and the drums are going. It becomes a hostile place to play and a fantastic place for our guys to compete in.
“This is a team here that is fairly close in the dressing room, fairly tight knit. They stand up for one another on the ice. They’re an exciting bunch to watch perform. And when you’ve got pieces of the puzzle like Ginner, [netminder Matt Ginn], Long and Hammond the list goes on and on providing every night you give yourselves a good chance to win.”
Ginn is a quiet leader in the dressing room who, according to the coach, makes the others feel at ease around him and gives them all confidence on the ice.
“To me winning begins in the dressing room. Goalies don’t usually wear letters but a lot of the time they are the silent leaders in the group. Ginners is no different. He’s a popular guy in the room, he keeps guys pretty lose and when they go out there you can see that. He gives everybody else confidence.
“He gives us a chance to win every game, but the big thing is we have a ton of confidence when we go out the door. With him leading the way, we know we have a chance to win every night.”
Education is also a priority for the future success of the Storm. They have partnered with the University of Salford and get involved in every part of the club to help promote the sport and to inspire a whole new generation of Storm fans and potential future stars.
“Our guys are out there every week with the kids throughout all of the age groups, and we are heavily involved with the work at the academy. We see the damage the academy teams are doing. They’re beating opponents by American football scores.”
Storm have had their share of ups and downs since 1995, but there is now a renewed enthusiasm for ice hockey in general and a coach who has the knowledge and experience to progress within the league.
All in all, the signs are positive that Storm are back – and will be for a long time to come.
Storm have another important weekend coming up as they prepare to take on Dundee for the second weekend in a row. They travel to the Dundee Ice Arena on Sunday following last Saturday’s 4-2 victory at Planet Ice.