Sometime ago, while doing research for a new Podcast interview with former Durham Wasp hero, Frankie Killen, I discovered this excellent article by Isaac Abraham.
First published February 19th 2015 in the Palatinate, Durham’s independent Student Newspaper, it’s a read not to be missed.
Durham Wasps: the rise and fall of the north-east’s finest team
By Isaac Abraham
Half a mile from Durham Cathedral once lay a building that held almost as much, if not more, significance for those that call this city home. From the outside, the building was nothing in comparison to the Norman works of human ingenuity that dominate the landscape. Made out of corrugated steel and concrete, it was a grey, dull structure that, if you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t look twice at. On the inside, however, it was the lifeblood of Durham.
Prior to its controversial demolition in March of 2013, when it was replaced by a new block of offices, the Riverside Ice Rink had been home to the greatest sports team many around these parts would argue the North East has ever seen: the Durham Wasps. From 1982-1992, the Wasps were the dominant force in British ice hockey. Five league championships, four British Championships, four Autumn Cups (the annual season-opening cup) seven Castle Eden Cups (a competition between the major teams in the North East) and a ferocious crowd quickly cemented the Wasps’ position as one of the best-known names in British ice hockey.
To trace back the fascinating story of the Wasps and their Riverside Rink, one has to look to the Second World War. Just south of Darlington lie a swathe of RAF airfields, which airmen from the Royal Canadian Air Force called home during the war. During their stationing, the Canadians were understandably keen to partake in their country’s national pastime. However, this being North England as opposed to North America, ice skating rinks were hard to come by. That’s when “Icy” Smith stepped in.
John Frederick James Smith, known simply as “Icy”, was a local businessman who would go on to become one of the forefathers of British ice hockey. Smith made his fortune running an ice business out of Bishop’s Mill, selling blocks of ice to the public, most of whom didn’t have a fridge. Come the late thirties, as fridges became more common, Icy’s business was rendered far less profitable than it had once been. He decided to move away from ice production, but stuck with what he knew, devoting his time and money to the construction of an ice-rink on the bank of the Wear.
Full construction of the Riverside Rink was hampered by the lack of manpower in war time, and so Icy made do with a massive marquee which, legend has it, was one of the largest in the world at the time. The new rink was hugely popular among locals and Canadian pilots alike.
Come the end of the war, Icy was finally able to construct a more permanent rink, famously using coffin wood to construct the stands. In 1946, the Durham Wasps emerged, formed by an ex-Canadian airman, Michael Davey, and a handful of his countrymen who had made their home in Durham. The rest, as they say, is history.
Peter Johnson was born in the same year that the Durham Wasps were founded. Jonker, as he became affectionately known, is something of a legend in Durham. A member of the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, Jonker enjoyed a forty year career with the Wasps, first as a player and then as a coach. As a child growing up in Durham, ice-skating and ice hockey quickly became the done thing, ice ran through the city’s veins. From the age of ten, Jonker would make his way down to the rink almost everyday after school. “There was nothing else to do”, he says. The rink was not only popular among kids, but adults as well. Head down on a Friday night, and such were the crowds that Jonker guarantees that “you wouldn’t be able to see the ice.”
After making his way through the youth system, Jonker made his debut for the Wasps at the age of sixteen, a moment that he describes as “everything I ever wanted.” Jonker was an early product of a youth system that would become known nationwide for producing quality, homegrown talent. In the words of Andrew Walker, a life-long Wasps fan who has been at the forefront of attempts to revive the team, the youth system was a “production line, right from the age of three, four years old all the way right through breaking into the team… It was junior self-sufficiency.”
Both Jonker and Walker agree that the constant stream of local talent was one of the main reasons why the Wasps were so successful, not only on the ice but also in garnering such support. “The majority of the kids [playing for the Wasps] were from Durham”, Jonker says, “British kids playing for the fun of it.” People came out to watch the Wasps, it seems, because they were truly the team of the city.
Great home grown talent was complemented by world class foreign players. Under league regulations, teams were only allowed to have four foreign players, called imports, on the books at any one time. The Wasps were notoriously ruthless with imports. One season, Jonker recalls, the team brought in thirteen imports. “If they farted when they came in Smithy [Icy Smith’s son who was manager at the time] threw them out. If one came in and said, “I’ve got a bit of a bad knee”, he’d be on the plane home the next morning.” It was a tactic that paid off for the Wasps, as throughout the years quality imports were brought in who not only had a massive influence on the team at the time, but also how ice hockey was played in Durham. “We started bringing the good imports in and they started teaching us how to play hockey. Before the Canadians [the imports] came we used to just chase pucks around the rink”, says Jonker.
As the Wasps grew, so too did the crowds. Hockey season ran in the winter months, with games taking place on Sundays. Even though tip-off was at 6:30, from as early as 10:00am, a queue would be forming outside the rink. By five o’clock the queue would “be wrapped three times around the car park”, with three to four thousand Durhamites united in an air of excitement about seeing their beloved Wasps take centre-ice. Once the doors opened, people would stream into the ramshackled building that became locally known as “the Shed.” “It was an old place”, Jonker recalls, “but people loved it because it had real character and spirit.” “It was shite but brilliant”, says Walker.
From a player’s perspective, Jonker says the atmosphere was unmatchable. “I used to love playing in front of that crowd. They were great. Once you stepped out on the ice, the roar went out. Everyone was scared of coming to Durham. Singing, chanting. Everyone used to join in.” One corner of the rink in particular stands out to Jonker. “Hecklers Corner. That’s where everyone used to stand. You used to have a dog in there behind the goalkeeper. When the opposition came into the corner, the dog came in and bit the opposition’s shirt.”
While the Wasps got great crowds for every match they played at the Riverside Rink, by far and away the most well attended were local derbies. Many of these derbies happened during the Castle Eden Cup, a tournament that featured the big teams in the North East. Durham were the dominant force in the Castle Eden Cup, winning the competition nine times in as many years from 1986-1995. While all of the Castle Eden Cup games were a matter of regional pride, the team with whom the Wasps held the strongest rivalry were the Whitley Bay Warriors: “When you went to Whitley,” Jonker says, “you knew you were going just for a good fight.” It had begun as a sibling rivalry involving the Smiths. Soon after building a rink in Durham, and seeing how successful it had become, Icy Smith built another in Whitley Bay. He ultimately split the two amongst his sons, with John taking Durham and Tom taking Whitley Bay, setting the stage for a passionate, intense, but ultimately respectful rivalry.
Walker pinpoints the 1992 season as the beginning of the end for the Wasps. Even though during 1991-1992 the Wasps were, according to Walker, “at their absolute peak”, winning seven major trophies in a two year period, at the end of the ‘92 season a number of key players left the side. Of note were the Cooper brothers, Durham born and bred they were “as good, if not better than the imports” says Walker. At the end of the 1992 season, the Cooper brothers left Durham, poached by the new big money club in the league at the time, the Cardiff Devils.
A couple of months later, Mike Blaisdell, a Canadian national team winger who had been a first round pick in the 1980 NHL Draft was sacked amidst murky circumstances. As a result, the 1993 season was a write-off: “We finished bottom of the league. The only reason we didn’t get relegated was because the league got expanded the same year”, says Walker.
The Wasps coasted for the next few years, however. British Ice Hockey was transforming and they were struggling to keep up. Spurred on by the booming popularity of ice hockey around the country, huge arenas started to pop up in the big cities. The contrast between “new teams being put in these next generation arenas and Durham playing in this shed of a rink”, as Walker put it, couldn’t have been clearer. The impact that the changing face of British ice hockey had on the Wasps was compounded by a deteriorating rink that the Smith family couldn’t afford to maintain. Therefore, when in 1996 one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the North East came knocking with a big money offer, things changed forever.
Sir John Hall is not a popular man in Durham. In the early ‘90s, while still owner of Newcastle United, Hall had plans of creating a sporting empire moulded on that of Barcelona. While best known for their football, the ‘FC Barcelona’ brand also has basketball, futsal, handball, roller hockey, ice hockey and rugby teams. Envisioning something similar in Newcastle, Hall began to buy out teams from across the North East. In rugby union Newcastle Gosforth became the Newcastle Falcons, in basketball the Newcastle Comets became the Newcastle Falcons, a motor racing team from Surrey was bought out and named the Newcastle United Racing Team and the Durham Wasps were to become the Newcastle Wasps.
Hall’s master plan was to develop a massive sporting complex just west of Newcastle’s city centre at Leazes Park. The Wasps were to move into a purpose built modern arena, a step above ‘the Shed’. While planning permission was being obtained, the Wasps were moved to Sunderland. However, after a petition signed by 38,000 was submitted in opposition to Hall’s proposal to develop Leazes Park, the vision of the Newcastle United Sporting Group collapsed. The Wasps were left in limbo, the people of Durham had lost their team and Sir John Hall did not have his empire.
“It was devastating”, says Jonker speaking about the sale, “it was the lifeblood of this city, gone. The fan base was split”, says Walker. “Half went to see them in Sunderland, and the other half stayed.” An attempt was made to replace the Wasps with a new team called the Durham City Wasps but the damage had already been done – the Wasps had lost their sting. With all of the players gone, and half the fan base off in Sunderland, the new City Wasps only managed to go for a season until “the rink was in such a bad state that they [the Smiths] couldn’t feasibly maintain it.’ The Smiths sold soon after, the ice-rink disappearing and being replaced, on one side by a bowling alley, and on the other by a fitness club.
It has been 19 years since the Wasps left Durham but local residents haven’t forgotten them. According to Walker, there is a“strong desire for an ice rink. You still have families from Durham taking their kids all over the country just to play ice hockey. Thousands of people have signed petitions saying that they want one back in Durham.” In 2009, they very nearly got one. A local businessman, Jan Eskildsen, went as far as announcing the construction of a new rink at a Wasps reunion game only for plans to fall through soon after. Since then attempts at reviving the Wasps have been next to non-existent, with Walker citing “money and land” as the biggest issues, “there’s no shortage of desire.” Speaking about life after the Wasps, Jonker adds: “I cannot understand where kids go to now. What do they get up to after school and at night? They had everything at the ice rink. There’s nothing for leisure over here anymore.”
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this story is the fact that now the Riverside Rink is gone, there no longer exists any physical sign that the Wasps ever existed, let alone were as successful as they were. Every physical remnant of the Wasps, it seems, has disappeared, even the trophy haul that the team amassed in their fifty-year existence. “Nobody even knows where the cups are,” says Jonker, “in John Hall’s era, all the trophies went missing and nobody has seen them since.”
Article reproduced by kind permission of Isaac Abraham
Photographs: John Crosby, Andrew Walker
Click the links below to hear former Durham players Frankie Killen and Mario Belanger talk about their time playing for the Wasps (and other teams);