Manchester’s Unsung Heroes: City’s ice hockey heritage preserved thanks to Phoenix legend Neil Morris

By Ross McLean

Ice hockey’s presence on the Manchester sporting scene is taken for granted these days, but rewind a decade and the story was very different – step forward Neil Morris.

In 2002 the iconic Manchester Storm, once the best supported club in Europe, folded after running into serious financial trouble and accumulating unsustainable debts.

No professional ice hockey representation for the city was unthinkable given the sport’s heritage in Manchester and the Storm’s billing as a powerhouse of the game.

At one stage, Storm were mentioned in the same breath as Manchester’s two leading football clubs and were being used to drive the city’s Commonwealth Games bid.

But reality hit seven games into the 2002/03 season when liquidation struck, which is when Morris founded a group called ‘Friends of Manchester Ice Hockey’ (FOMIH).

“The trouble at the time was a lot of people including children, pensioners and sponsors had all bought season tickets and lost vast amounts of money,” he said.

“There were players who couldn’t go back to their apartments because the rent hadn’t been paid, there were no flights home and there was a player in hospital that wasn’t having his bills paid.

“Fans started to raise money so I put together the group so we could do it properly and the money was accountable.

“The idea was just to bring things to a close and make sure we had some respect with bringing ice hockey to a finish in Manchester.”

Over the following months the FOMIH banner captured the imagination of the city’s ice hockey-supporting public.

So much so, Morris believed a good enough product and a sufficient fan-base remained to bring professional ice hockey back to Manchester.

Manchester Phoenix was formed from its previous incarnation’s ashes, becoming founding members of the British Elite Ice Hockey League and playing in the Manchester Arena for the 2003/4 season.

But despite a promising campaign on the ice, it became apparent playing in such a venue was unsustainable leading to the temporary suspension of playing operations.

“I brought ice hockey back with the original contract for playing out of the arena, which looked pretty good,” added Morris.

“The contract wasn’t the cheapest in the world but we felt it was do-able and we were in a great arena.

“The problem was with the terms of the deal we weren’t bringing enough people in so I invested the money to see the season out and moth-balled the team for two years.

“At that point I made some comment that I was going to build an ice hockey arena which is the one we play out of today.”

FOMIH always operated with two stated aims – to bring top-flight ice hockey back to Manchester and build a new public facility within the area.

And during the 2006/7 campaign, Morris and Co realised both ambitions as Phoenix competed in the English Ice Hockey League while competing in their newly-built stadium in Altrincham.

But this too was far from smooth as construction issues meant their first game at their new home was not held until February 25 2007.

“The first half a season when we came back the building wasn’t finished on time because of contractual problems,” said Morris.

“We had to play out of Flintshire and Sheffield so with all our fans travelling on the road we were an away team playing at home.”

These early trials and tribulations have certainly calmed with Phoenix now well-established and Morris responsible for realising the dreams of ice hockey fans across Manchester.

Simply having a club to follow seemed a distant thought at times but former glories were rekindled in 2011 as Phoenix were crowned champions of the English Premier League.

And while trophies are the currency of all sports clubs, Phoenix has also enabled the 52-year-old to be a force for good with the club operating a charitable arm.

“Everybody thinks the highlight has been winning the championship but for me it’s the people I have met along the way,” he said.

“And we have built a foundation for kids that goes out to deprived neighbourhoods and helps kids in situations where families aren’t too strong.

“We’ve also got a lot of disabled kids who come here and watch games with us as well as school road shows which cover things like the environment, bullying, drugs and healthy living.

“There are lots of things outside this game of ice hockey which for me are more important.”

The community work which Morris has been able to roll-out to the wider Manchester area has certainly resonated and struck a chord with the club’s South Manchester-born owner.

“For me the things that you do that make a difference are probably nowadays more important than playing ice hockey although I still love the game,” he said.

“I love to win – our coach Tony Hand and I are born winners and we love to win, that’s what we do.

“But there are so many things which allow me get more out of it and sometimes these things are a little bit better than silverware.”

Morris – who runs PR company Comtec Presentations – remains a keen motocross fan having ridden for Kawasaki and coached the under-16 national squad.

He has also been a keen amateur boxer and one statement he has always believed in encapsulates the Manchester Phoenix project more than any other.

“My dad always used to say ‘If you believe in a dream long enough it becomes a reality’ and I think he’s right,” he said.

“Most things go wrong because people give up but if you don’t give up you’ll achieve most things in life.

“If you put the hours in and the work and the research, then one day it will become a reality but you have to believe in it and work hard at it and you have to be prepared not to quit.”

Such a philosophy has seen Morris resurrect ice hockey in Manchester and will no doubt see Manchester Phoenix continue to thrive going forward.

And despite him playing down the 2011 championship win, returning home at the weekend with the end-of-season play-off trophy will surely have given the club’s owner enormous satisfaction.

Picture courtesy of Richard Allan, with thanks

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