Allan Palmer's History of Streatham Ice Hockey.
Hockey fans of the Golden Era generation watched their sport at a time when watching hockey was, as much as anything, a "night out". Because TV had not, at that time, made its major break-through, people tended to spend more time at centres of entertainment outside the home (cinema, theatre or at the "local") and, consequently, hockey had to battle for its share of the audience. This meant that the quality of the "product" had to be good enough to draw in spectators and, as I have tried to show, this was achieved. But also, presentation is a key factor in drawing in spectators, and then keeping them. Thus, the rinks were a vital factor in the success of that era and they must be again if the resurgent climate of today is not to prove a false dawn. A safe, clean and comfortable environment was then, and remains, a vital element in encouraging spectators out to watch hockey added to which the presentation of the match to the public is crucial. In that I hold this to be so, I shall digress for a moment to say that even when Wembley Arena, as the, then, home of British hockey, staged the end-of-season play-offs and the 1992 and 1993 NHL matches, the presentation was poor. This is an important matter because whereas dedicated hockey fans will have put up with this inadequacy simply to see the NHL superstars, newcomers to the game may well have been put off to the point of perhaps not bothering in the future. It is a mystery to me where promoters get the impression that deafening synthetic "pop" music and radio d.j's as announcers have any place in what was, or should have been, a memorable HOCKEY occasion....an occasion spoilt for me (and I am sure many others) when one recalls the smooth and professional way that hockey used to be presented at Wembley in the "old days". Teams should come on to the ice football fashion...as a team; not shamble on to the ice in some haphazard manner as if presentation does not matter. It matters very much and could have spectators asking “well, if they don’t seem to bother, why should I?”. Ice preparation should be finished before the fans come in; the Zamboni should appear only to resurface the ice between periods. If we go to the theatre or cinema we do not expect (or want) to see the actors limbering up or the projectionist rewinding the movie. If hockey is being presented as “special” it should be so presented. Wembley used to do just that and if anyone wonders what I’m talking about they should talk to that great man of Wembley, Norman de Mesquita.
In those days, of course, Wembley was but one of three major rinks in London and although Wembley still remains, it no longer promotes a league hockey team and the other arenas, at Harringay and Earl's Court, have long since disappeared. Many in the game feel that the absence of a major hockey arena in London, which supports a league club, would jeopardises the progress of the game in Britain. Of course, Sheffield and Manchester have new rinks and these more closely approximate to that once wondrous arena on London’s Green Lanes N8, the Harringay Arena. In addition, we have new arenas in Newcastle, Ayr, Nottingham and Cardiff now all supporting hockey teams. Now, British hockey has a country-wide appeal with teams the length and bredth of the country and thus making hockey more marketable. However, this structure gives hockey a provincial feel and the absence of a London team denies the sport gravitas and much needed awareness in the media. This is a complete reversal of former times when the heavy emphasis was on London and, with London at its centre, English hockey flourished. It was later that the lack of appropriate rinks in other major cities meant that hockey failed to maintain interest when the sport hit hard times due to financial problems brought about, largely, by the on-set and growth of TV. At Intermediate level there was a significant geographic spread including centres such as Liverpool, Grimsby, Southampton as well as Durham and hockey had been played at senior level in Birmingham and Manchester between the wars. However, in the immediate post-war era the only outposts of senior English hockey were Brighton and Nottingham with Streatham completing the picture as yet another London club. Today hockey not only has country-wide appeal at senior level it has maintained, at junior and intermediate level, the wide appeal of yore. Although some rinks have now departed the scene (notably Richmond) others have been built and, even at intermediate level, the game is flourishing as we go into the 21st Century. But, whither Streatham?
Successful as it was for those priviliged to enjoy it, London based senior hockey in mid-20th Century did not succeed in elevating our hockey to nationwide status. Those who cite the 1954-55 British League venture as disputing this view must acknowledge that this initiative cost England it’s most successful club (Streatham) and, in any event, was dead within two years. In financially straightened times there was neither the money nor adequate rinks to bridge the gap. Today there is a vastly different climate where “telephone number” finance is poured into sport willy-nilly and although hard pressed hockey rink financial directors would say that they sit at the poorer end of sports financial bonanza, hockey, today, gets sponsorship not even dreamed of back in the “Golden Era”. Furthermore, an era which saw the demise of arenas such as Harringay and Empress Hall has been replaced by one which sees the building of new, modern stadia of which Sheffield and Manchester are clearly the jewels in the crown. But new rinks, of themselves, are no guarantee of expansion. After all, the rinks that were homes to the old English senior hockey clubs were new during the “Golden Era”. Even as hockey began to falter, the Empire Pool and Sports Arena, Wembley was still less than twenty years old. Both Harringay and Empress Hall were even "younger" and Nottingham was the newest of them all commencing hockey after WW2. Streatham was somewhat older than these centres but it was a beautifully maintained Art Deco rink, which made up for its age (and possibly gained) by having a character all of its own, an attribute that it shared with Brighton. Both Streatham and Brighton could have done with many more seats, though. It was almost impossible to maintain a successful club on 2000 plus spectators in those days and, at senior level, impossible today. Brighton, in addition, must have been at the very limit of permissible ice pad size whereas Streatham, at one time, had the largest ice surface in the country, something it used to its advantage by trimming down to 195 feet by 95 feet to accomodate more seats.
So what was it like to go to a match in those far off days? What do I recall from my regular Wednesday visit to Streatham Ice Rink or my trips further afield? Well, even for a match at Streatham, I would leave home at 5:15 at the latest.....especially if I wanted my usual vantage point. I would arrive at the rink at 5:30 and then (for those readers who know Streatham Ice Rink) I would queue at the left hand side of the building as you face it. Arriving even at 5:30 I cannot ever recall being the first in the queue...and this was for a 7:30 face-off, with doors not opening until 6:30! Even when the face-off time was put back to 7:45 I still did not change my routine. So...my friends and I would spend at least two hours standing before the game started and to readers who may feel that this represents a serious form of masochism I have to say that the arena was invariably crowded enough to make such sacrifices necessary and worthwhile; after all, we are talking about watching STREATHAM you know! Having said this, the time seemed to go quickly enough; my mates tended to arrive at the same time as me but even if they did not, if they were not too late, they could hop into the queue. Later arrivals did not risk upsetting other queuers and they wisely went to the back of the queue but they were assured that we would save their place inside the rink. We had the "Hockey World" to look thorough and comment upon, and the London evening papers gave good and extensive coverage to hockey at that time. Some of the coverage by the national press could be bizarre and sometimes transcended the boundaries of being merely badly informed to being either mischievious or downright outrageous. Those of us who loved hockey and the great stars who performed for us were inclined to be a little peeved by some sports writers who really should (and probably did) know better. We could not fathom what was being gained by irrational reporting of our game. One very celebrated columnist (who I shall not name as he has now passed away and cannot reply, even if he wanted to) once described hockey as "that most outlandish of sports yet to be unleashed on a long suffering public" and, on other occasions gave his readers no doubt as to his hatred of hockey. That someone may not like hockey (or any form of human endeavour) is their right but it seemed to me that this columnist’s views were being foist upon "a long suffering public" just as much as he contended was hockey. Having said that, these kind of views were useful on a cold night for their ability to make the blood boil!
When 6:30 arrived the doors were opened and we would soon be in the foyer of the rink. There, we would profer our 3 shillings (or 15p in todays money...yes, 15p!) at the cinema-like cash desk and then rush towards the "down" stairs to ice level. Here, we would buy our programme (6d or 2.5p today), then run down the stair before proceeding round the right side of the rink to take up our position on the blue-line at the "clock end" of the rink. Once there we would secure our "territory" and keep places for stragglers by throwing coats over the backs of seats to denote ownership...something the Germans learned from us!! At this stage, the rink was lit only by house lights and these glittered across the new, pristine ice. Live music came from the balcony at the High Road end of the arena, provided by Stan Pearce as I recall. As 7:40 approached the ticket holders began to take their seats; most were season ticket holders so we knew the occupiers of the seats in front of us. Just time for general "hellos" before Stan struck up with "Happy Days Are Here Again" as Streatham took to the ice. Up came the arena lights as the lads made their way from behind the goal at the High Road end to take up position at "our" end of the rink. Derisive booing denoted that our opponents for the evening had now come onto the ice. Finally, the referees joined the party, checked the nets and Mr Sarjent, the Streatham announcer, whose son Michael was an aquaintance, read out the team changes. The first lines took up their positions and.....we're away!
If a Streatham fan of today was to be time-warped back to this era he would find many changes. First, the preamble to the match would, in my opinion, be better presented than today. There seemed to me to be more sense of "occasion" than attends todays matches, possibly denoting a more wholehearted acceptance of hockey as a major presentation at the rink. Also, the time-traveller would, I am sure, find the rink in better order and much more of a hockey arena than today. But then, the “Golden Era” was 50 years ago and the ravages of time and unfortunate "improvements" to the rink have taken their toll. Hopefully, Streatham's new owners can address this and turn the rink back into an environment for hockey spectators AND skaters. Next, our time traveller would observe the players and see that few, if any, are wearing helmets and neither of the goaltenders have face-masks. Also, they will note that there is no plexi and that the only protection for the crowd is netting at each end of the rink behind the goals. This can be seen in the picture of the Streatham versus Earl's Court Rangers game that concludes the "Eat 'em Raw...The Beginning" chapter where the inverted "V" where the netting crosses can be seen. The clock was a two dimensional affair; in those days only the Harringay Arena had a cube styled "hockey clock" and my recollection is that it was superior to those of today. There are two referees rather than a ref and two linesmen. The players changed ends at the 10 minute mark in the third period; this was to ensure that there was no "rink advantage" and ensured that both teams played 30 minutes each way. Like a number of rule changes, I do not believe that stopping this practice was for the better. Depending upon which of the seasons that our Star Trekker may choose, it is possible that he (or she) would note that there is no red-line. Players visiting the penalty box would serve their full penalty and not be given remission should a goal be scored...another old rule that should be brought back. Between periods gentlemen stewards would sweep the ice to be followed by a hand-drawn resurfacing machine that makes the Zamboni look positively space-aged.
After the game, our travellers may wish to meet some of the players so they would make their way to the High Road end of the rink, proceed up the central staircase, first to street level and then up onto the first floor, balcony level. Move to the left, walk about twenty feet and the door on the left is to the players changing room. The players had left the ice from behind the High Road goal and just like our travellers, they would have taken the public staircase from ice to first floor and then to their changing room. Before long, the players would emerge from the changing room, en route for the club room at the clock end of the rink and some well earned refreshment! Invariably they would stop to exchange a few words and sign autographs. If our visitors want to do so, they can go downstairs and skate because the price of their ticket for hockey included after match skating. They would have to be fit, though; in those days Streatham had the largest indoor ice pad in Europe...a massive 21000 square feet (210ft X 100ft). This was later cut to 195 X 95 as Streatham added another row of seats at ice level. As they lace their skates (drawn from the skateshop at ice level at the High Road end) they would note the better symetry of the rink when compared with today, with ordered rows of seats at ice and balcony levels. No paraphernalia hanging from the roof and general levels of repair far superior. The cafeteria/buffet at ice level at the clock end seems to be doing good business whilst, upstairs the bar and Streatham clubhouse are full of animated patrons, press and players doubtless talking about the game.
So would end a typical hockey night at Streatham. A few goodbyes until next Wednesday (or 'til Saturday if the Red, White & Blues happened to be in London for an away match) and then the quiet walk home to warm in the excitement of another Streatham win...or to find the words to explain to mum and dad how Streatham had lost.
Still, there was always next week and, possibly a week end trip to one of the big rinks, where Streatham would, of course, redeem themselves. With any luck it would be Harringay...with all of the high badinage described in the "Eat 'em Raw" chapter. We could be anything up to 50 strong for our night out in north London and it was inevitable, I suppose, that non-hockey loving travellers on the tube would be a little put out by our youthful exuberance. I recall that, on one occasion, we got split into two Piccadilly line train carriages on our way to Manor House. In order that we might re-form into one group, one of our number shouted, as we stood stationary at a station, "O.K., everybody out!", whereupon ALL of the passegers within hearing also left their seats and were promptly left at Russell Square station looking quizzically to see why they had been asked to leave their train. Those of us for whom the shout was intended went on our way unperturbed.
Photo copyright Hammersmith & Fulham Archives, London, UK
Photo copyright Hammersmith & Fulham Archives, London, UK
Soon we were progressing down Green Lanes and, at a time when even football fans could mingle and interact with opposition fans, our progress went largely unobserved despite our clear fervour for Streatham. Before long, the pavement led to a vast clearing and there stood Harringay Arena, scene of many great nights of boxing, showjumping and, of course, hockey. Our tickets having been purchased a week before the match, we quickly make our way through the turnstiles, find the block in which our seats were situated and then up the concrete stairway into the auditorium.
What a sight!
Harringay Arena was a spectacular arena built with spectator viewing in mind. A bowl-styled configuration with rows of seats well raked for perfect viewing it was a fine place to watch hockey. The investment of their wonderful hockey clock left no-one in any doubt that the primary purpose for Harringay Arena was hockey and the quality of their players over the years merely endorsed this feeling. They had a magazine styled programme light years ahead of soccer at that time (Chelsea either had or were about to have the first magazine programme in the Football League) and Harringay generally presented hockey very well.
Photo copyright Hammersmith & Fulham Archives, London, UK
Photo copyright Hammersmith & Fulham Archives, London, UK
Their north London rivals at Wembley also presented hockey (and, indeed, everything) very well. I personally did not think that the rink was so much of a hockey rink as Harringay and Wembley was, of course, world famous for its presentation of sports generally. It was perhaps its universal coverage of sport that meant that it was not regarded as specifically a hockey arena as was the case at Harringay. However, as stated earlier, their presentation was outstanding with clear-as-a-bell announcements and everything timed to a nicety. The configuration of the arena has changed only slightly over the years and it remains a fine auditorium but, dare I say it, it is now over 70 years old and.......
Over in west London the Empress Hall at Earl's Court was a truly fine arena and it was the chosen sight, in London, for the NHL teams visit to England in 1938 when the Detroit Redwings played a series of matches with Montreal Canadiens. The Brighton Sports Stadium was also selected. Empress Hall had many of Harringay's attributes but somehow failed to capture the "hockey atmosphere" so much in evidence at the Green Lanes stadium. It seemed too cultured or too plushy to be a backdrop for a sport such as hockey but, down the years, many fine players played before fans who were just as devoted to the Earl's Court Rangers as any Wembley Lions fan was to their favourites. I attended matches on both Saturdays and Sundays at Empress Hall and on some occasions I even remember going to Earl's Court when it became Racers temporary home whilst Harringay became the venue for its Christmas show...a necessary evil to bring in much needed revenue but not conducive to team continuity and training. Both Racers and Lions were impacted by mid season eviction from their home by pantomimes and suchlike and although they often embarked on Continental tours during these breaks, they also continued to play Cup and League fixtures .... exclusively "on-the-road". This tended to unbalance their programmes and I often wondered if the poor ratio of points scored to matches played at the start of the National League programme had a demoralising effect on their teams. Possibly that is why Racers began playing some "home" fixtures at Empress Hall in 1953/54 but, if this was so, it was not a great success and Panthers and Streatham were far and away too good at that time anyway. It also should be said, however, that during this season Empress Hall was not "foreign" ice so much as "different" ice so far as Racers were concerned; Earl's Court had quit the League the previous season and this despite the fact that "Red" Stapleford had apparantly been asked to provide some players to lay the keel of a new, winning club for Earl's Court. Earl's Court did not follow through on this and in 1953/54 Rangers were out of business for good...or, rather, bad! Some said that Racers using the arena was a good test of public reaction to see if hockey could restart at Empress Hall but how can this be? Rangers fans wanted to see Rangers...not homeless Racers doing an audience check! So, hockey died at Empress Hall and, although we did not realise it at the time, the pall-bearers work was only just beginning.
Thursday night was hockey night at Brighton although, later, they too went for hockey on Sundays. Although, like Streatham, Brighton was looked upon as a "small rink" in Brighton's case it was literally true; whereas Streatham had their huge expanse of ice, Brighton's ice surface was very small. Some would say "too small". I guess that once their new players had acclimatised themselves to the surface a good Brighton team did have an advantage over less regular users of the rink but that, I suppose, is one of the perks of home advantage. As if the tightness of the playing surface was not enough, then, just as at Streatham, the crowd was right on top of the players and the cacophony of sound at both rinks was intimidating. Led by Charlie Connell their band of fans, with their gold and black favours, were a noisy but good humoured bunch and a visit to Brighton was always worthwhile...especially if Streatham netted the points. Only rarely did we have the luxury of a car journey to the seaside; more often it was train. But from the station, down West Street and then into the Sports Stadium...it was very smoothe and easy to get down to the rink-by-the-sea. Nottingham posed more problems for the car-less in those days; a trip from Marylebone to the Lace City was no easy proposition for their Friday night games. But a visit to their excellent stadium full of their passionate fans was always a delight particularly as, just like Harringay, Nottinham had the authentic feel of "hockey" about it. Also, it was a mixed blessing to see the likes of Zamick and Strongman; they were very good! Mind you, I well remember a 12-8 win at Nottingham and a 9-1 drubbing in March 1953...but that was an exceptional Streatham team and Panthers had their moments, too. In the modern era, until Streatham dropped out of the Heineken League, Nottingham more than exacted revenge for those far off embarrassments.
Sadly, the closest that I have come in contact with a Scottish rink was when I drove past Kirkcaldy on my way to St Andrew's.....where they play a somewhat more sedate game! As today, the Fife Flyers played in that famous rink and, as mentioned previously, became the home of the much loved Stubby Mason. Paisley (Pirates) is a rink where several Streatham favourites first showed their worth; the great Art Hodgins was one such and Stu Robertson and Rheal Savard were two more. Ayr (Raiders), Dundee (Tigers), Perth (Panthers), Dunfermline (Vikings), Murrayfield (Royals) and Falkirk (Lions) completed the itinerary of Scottish rinks.
In those far off days and, I am sure today, Scotland produced many fine players and they formed the nucleus of the GB team. Although it was often felt that the English League was stronger than that of Scotland, the Scottish League invariably gave a good account of themselves in tilts against the English League and against English Clubs. Having said that, when the Leagues combined in 1954/55 Harringay showed the way in no uncertain terms. As the league shrank to five clubs in 1959/60 only Paisley survived. At senior level the huge distance between Nottinham and Glasgow always was a problem in that it left a void in the middle of the country so far as hockey was concerned. With the opening of rinks in Sheffield, Blackburn, Humberside, Manchester and Newcastle a clear and very necessary attempt is being made to fill this gap and make hockey a NATIONAL sport. This is all for the good...but our game will long rue the loss of such cathedrals as Harringay and Empress Hall. But what of Streatham, one of the oldest and most revered clubs in British hockey history? Well. if the rebuilding of the rink, that has been mooted leads to a new hockey era then we may one day once again hear "Eat 'em Raw" echo from the roof of the once proud home of some of Britains greatest teams. However, for this to happen the club will need almost as much faith as it does sponsorship money to turn the trick. One wonders if Streatham is quite the environment and has quite the set-up for it to move into the "big league" that must be in the mindseye of todays hockey planners. It must be BIG stadia, with BIG money and BIG exposure; in the 2000’s does this sound like Streatham? Maybe not. But then, who would have reckoned on Streatham taking its first title in 1935 against the powerful Wembley Canadians in their, then, new Wembley home? Or become the greatest of all post war teams when confronted by three "big-rink" clubs?
I must be doubtful...but even sceptics can dream!