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Ice hockey: Knights set to usher in new ice age

After an illustrious pre-war history, tomorrow sees the capital's first fully professional match for almost 40 years
WHILE LEADING personalities from other sports have been stealing headlines through reconciliation or recovery, ice hockey completes a remarkable comeback of its own tomorrow night when the London Knights meet the Nottingham Panthers in the Sekonda Superleague at the London Arena - the sport's first fully professional appearance in the capital for nearly 40 years.

Until now the Knights have been playing their "home" matches at Milton Keynes, but the new venue is finally openafter a pounds 6m facelift and will be attempting to fill the 10,000 seats at the first time of asking.

While many recall watching the Streatham Redskins playing Premier League ice hockey as semi-professionals as recently as 10 years ago, the game in London has a rich and colourful history that dates back as far as the "Great Freeze" of 1895 when, as youngsters, the future King Edward VII and King George V took part in a game on a small lake in the grounds of Buckingham Palace against a side captained by Lord Stanley of Preston, then Governor-General of Canada. One year earlier, the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association had become the first winners of the Stanley Cup, still the most famous of all ice hockey tournaments.

The Palace team and the two princes were heavily beaten on the lake at Buck House, but media attention was enough for the sport to catch on among the British aristocracy and by 1903 a five-team league had been established with matches played at venues such as Grosvenor House, Queen's and the Park Lane Ice Club. After British success at the inaugural European Championship in 1910, the British Ice Hockey Association was formed in 1914 with the London clubs, Princes and Royal Engineers, joining Cambridge, Manchester and the Oxford Canadians as founding members.

Development of the game in the capital was accelerated by the opening of the Westminster rink in 1926 but the game really took off when Wembley's Empire Pool - now Wembley Arena - was opened in 1934, home of the Wembley Lions. The Harringay Arena and the Empress Hall at Earls Court soon followed and the game's first "big-rink" era was established, assisted then as now by the presence of several Canadian players. In addition to the British League there was also an international club tournament comprising four London sides - the Lions, Richmond Hawks, Streatham and the Wembley Canadians - who competed against the likes of Berlin, Milan, Munich, Prague and Stade Francais.

At that time the Streatham club was especially strong and in 1936 its captain, Carl Erhardt, led Great Britain to a totally unexpected Winter Olympic gold medal at Garmisch in Germany, along the way beating Canada who had won every previous Olympic title. The war halted the progress of the national team, but the game flourished in London at club level in the immediate post-war period with Streatham facing stiff competition from the Lions and the Monarchs, who also played at the Empire Pool, the Racers and the Greyhounds at Harringay and the Rangers at Earls Court.

By the end of the next decade, however, the arenas at Harringay and Earls Court had both closed down, the Monarchs folded and the British League was abandoned in 1960. The Wembley Lions continued, drawing big crowds to exhibition matches, but by 1968 a lack of opposition brought even the Lions to their knees.

Two years later, though, a new Southern League was instituted on a strictly amateur basis and in 1974 Bruce Norris, president of the Detroit Red Wings, tried to instigate a European Superleague by re-forming the London Lions and filling the roster with players from north America. After just one season the project collapsed but in the following year Streatham, by now known as the Redskins, became champions of the Southern League.

The Richmond Flyers, Lee Valley Lions and Romford provided good opposition until the advent of the Heineken Premier League in the 1980s and the start of a professional revival nationwide. The London sides struggled to keep up with their provincial counterparts, Richmond and Lee Valley disbanding altogether and Streatham eventually losing their home.

The game is still played at a minor level at Romford and Streatham, as well as Alexandra Palace in north London, but now it is the London Knights who have picked up the mantle from their illustrious predecessors. That presence of Nottingham Panthers as their first opponents tomorrow night should be particularly poignant for those with longer memories.

Only two players have scored more than 1,000 goals in Britain - one was George Beach, who played with distinction in the 1950s and 1960s for both the Wembley Lions and the Monarchs; the other was Chick Zamick, who spent much of his career with the Nottingham Panthers before joining Beach and the Wembley Lions. If the Knights can find talent to match that, then ice hockey would once again become a sporting force to reckon with in London.