Friday, 27 January 2012

Brighton has Seagulls and Sharks - time to bring back the Tigers

As a Brighton and Hove Albion fan I have never enjoyed the thrill of knowing my team was the best in the land.

Best in League One? Yes. More than once. Best in Sussex? Every year. Best in England? Not on your nellie.

In ice hockey - my other favourite sport - I root (as our good friends across The Pond would say) for the Guildford Flames and the New York Rangers.

The Rangers were the first team I ever saw live (well, them and Buffalo Sabres) and Guildford are the nearest team to sunny Sussex. Choices explained.

With no rink in town, Brighton does not have a hockey team. More is the pity. In fact, temporary ones aside, Sussex as a whole does not offer a single place for ice skating, let alone watching hockey.

Imagine my surprise then when, having dragged my dad along to watch The Flames, he announced my dear old grandpop was once an avid fan of the Brighton Tigers.

True, his main interest in hockey seemed to be standing next to the boards, warming pennies in his hands and throwing them on the ice to make players fall over, but as anyone who has lost an older relative before really getting to know him will appreciate, anything in common with them is seized upon.

My mum's mum liked collecting cactus. I like collecting cactus. Who would have thought it eh? It was suddenly the same with ice hockey and my dad's dad.

So, I wondered, what happened to The Tigers? I thought I would have a look online. To be honest, I was pretty much expecting to find out they were crap.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that not only were they not crap, but they were actually pretty good. The best in fact.

Formed in 1935 they played at Brighton Sports Stadium, or SS Brighton as it was known (presumably not during the war years) up until their demise in 1965.

During that time they became one of Europe's leading teams - due in no small part to the guidance of the Bobby Lee.

A Canadian born in the French-speaking hotbed of hockey that is Montreal, Lee made his debut in 1936, scoring 32 games in 40 games that first season.

Quickly established as a favourite with the partisan crowd Lee took a break from the game during World War Two but returned once the small problem of Nazi Germany had been dealt with to get back to the far more pressing job of establishing The Tigers as the country's top team.

Juggling the jobs of player, coach and manager he guided The Tigers into a golden era. They won the league in the first two post-war seasons and three more major trophies in 1946-47.

Lee would stay on the south coast right up until 1954 - becoming the first player in the UK league to score 400 goals - regularly cheered on by as many as 4,000 fans each Thursday night.

A super centre, Lee though missed out on what is considered The Tigers' greatest ever victory - a 6-3 defeat of the then mighty Soviet Union team.

Played on December 5 1957 the match-up came just a year and a half after the Soviets had won gold medal in hockey at the first ever Winter Olympics.

It is fair to say that, despite their national prowess, Brighton were not considered anything other than goal fodder for the Big Red Machine.

Legend has it that the reason for the defeat, humbling as it was, was the size of the Brighton rink. At just 175 feet by 175 feet it had acquired the nickname of The Goldtenders' Graveyard and the Russians struggled to get to grips with the awkward conditions.

The Tigers went 3v0 down by fought back to score six unanswered goals - leaving the then BBC commentator Alan Weeks to claim, "I've got nothing to say. I'd only blubber. I'm excited, exhausted and stunned."

Weeks became a vital cog in the Brighton Tigers wheel, filling a number of roles and campaigning for the once bustling West Street arena to be replaced with a new state-of-the-art complex long after it had been knocked down.

Sadly he died in 1996 having never seen his dream of a new hockey home in the city realised.

More recently, the early plans for the Albion's new stadium at Falmer included an ice rink, getting hockey hearts a fluttering. Sadly, nothing came of it.

Similar proposals mooted for the site near Brighton Marina have also come to nothing, leaving Brighton, Hove and all of Sussex without a venue for a re-launched Tigers team.

A recent debate on a Brighton and Hove Albion forum once again raised calls for a new rink somewhere in the city.

With money tight and the council facing difficult decisions on spending, that sort of outlay seems unlikely for the time being at least.

But wouldn't it be great to see The Tigers back in town? Then maybe people like myself and generations to come might get to see some new heroes worthy of following in the footsteps of players like Lee and fellow old boy Gordon 'Gordi' Poirier - a Canadian defenceman who ended up being inducted into the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame.

Maybe then I wouldn't have to go to Surrey or New York to get my ice hockey fix.

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