Icemen fire a passion play

Sir John Hall's Wasps are fighting the Warriors on the Tyne. Andrew Baker watched them slug it out
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The Independent Online
IT WAS not surprising that the sin-bin was a popular location at Newcastle Arena last Wednesday evening when the Newcastle Warriors played the Durham Wasps in an exhibition game: there is no such thing as a friendly ice hockey match.

"Kip Noble," the announcer declaimed, "Durham Wasps No 41, two minutes, unsportsmanlike conduct." A moment later: "Dale Lambert, Durham Wasps No 23, two minutes, unsportsmanlike conduct." Then a Durham helmet went flying across the ice, and a Warriors fan yelled: "Take his head off next time!"

This was no ordinary match: it was the first Newcastle derby to be held in the city itself. "The guys want to get the jerseys on," the Warriors' player Chris Norton said before the game. "They'd play this match on the Tyne if it froze over." Rick Brebant, the Wasps coach, was equally fired up. "It's a derby match, a real battle of Newcastle: we're definitely going there to win the game."

But this is not simply a battle of two clubs, it is a contest between two charismatic millionaires: Sir John Hall, founding father of Newcastle United Sporting Club, who last summer added the Durham Wasps to his collection (they are currently billeted in Sunderland while they await a new home in the city), and Chas Chandler, who was bass player with the Animals, managed Jimi Hendrix and Slade and, most recently, built the Newcastle Arena, new home to the Warriors.

Fans of the Warriors seem very happy with their new home, which is just a short hop from the old one in Whitley Bay. Fans of the Wasps fall into two camps: those who are delighted to have access to Sir John's wallet, wherever the team play, and those who are incensed by his plans to move the team. "We come to shout for the Warriors because the other team playing aren't Durham," said a middle-aged lady who until the arrival of Sir John had been a Wasps fan. "We just hope that Sir John doesn't get permission to do what he's planning. But he will, won't he? He's got money."

What Sir John is planning is a new stadium for the Wasps in Leazes Park. Permission has yet to be granted, but it probably will be, and the Wasps will be able to leave their cramped temporary home in Sunderland behind.

For the moment, though, the Warriors are the only team in town: a fact which everyone connected with them is at pains to point out. "There's only one team in Newcastle," the Arena's general manager, Colin Revel, declared. "Sir John's operation is all speculation. We're here." He tapped his foot on the Arena's concrete floor. "We're up and running."

Running indeed, with Sir John in close pursuit. Did Chas Chandler believe that there was room in Newcastle for two ice hockey teams? "That's Sir John's problem, isn't it? He hasn't even got planning permission yet." Chandler reckons that the Newcastle knight is going to have a hard time making the ice hockey pay. "He's going to lose his shirt," he pronounced. "He's going to make a fool of himself."

Sir John's past business record indicates that he is unlikely to mislay so much as a button, but perhaps Chandler can be forgiven a little crow: the Arena, built on time and on budget, is a splendid venue: bright, spacious and, above all, adaptable. It will also stage basketball, pop concerts and conferences.

But the Warriors are a key part of the business plan. Ice hockey is changing, seeking a wider audience and more money, and Chandler and Sir John want to be along for the ride. A group of the country's top teams are proposing a breakaway Super League, comprising only teams who play in large arenas in major population centres. Hence the Arena, and Sir John's plans.

But can the city support two big ice hockey teams, fill two large modern arenas? It is possible: the Arena was perhaps two-thirds full on Wednesday, and Sir John's people are confident that families who can get only one ticket between them for St James's Park will go along en famille to watch the Wasps.

The Warriors' fans have certainly taken to the new venue. Ian Lynn, the chairman of the supporters' club, was doing a roaring trade in team photographs in the first interval. He explained that there had always been enmity between the two clubs when they were at their old homes. "That has intensified now with this rivalry between the Arena and Sir John. We get people coming along to us saying 'We've come to support Sir John's Newcastle United Sporting Club'. We say 'Oh, all right', get them behind the team and then tell them later on that he's nothing to do with us."

Like all the Warriors' fans, and a few of the Wasps' followers, Lynn does not believe that Sir John ought to be allowed to bring his team to Newcastle. "Why doesn't he build a stadium in Durham?" Lynn suggested. "Newcastle United already train there. And that would keep the Wasps fans happy."

Other fans, who declined to be named, were unhappy about Sir John's impact on the sport in general. "He's split the town of Durham down the middle, and he's ruining the sport." "He's wrecked rugby, and now he's going to do the same to ice hockey."

Predictably enough, most Wasps supporters feel otherwise. "Sir John is the best thing that has happened to Durham Wasps for years," Nick Weaver said. "The club's been crying out for money - the sport's been crying out for money. Now we've got the best young players in the country." Barry Robinson had no objections to the move: "After all, Newcastle's only 20 minutes up the road," he said. "You've got to make sacrifices for the money."

Wasps officials point out that while it is true that the Warriors are the first team in the city with their own stadium, the Wasps are the better team. And with a good line-up of juniors ready to break in to the squad, they are determined to stay that way.

Last Wednesday's game finished 6-5 to the Wasps, and they dominated great chunks of the game with a below-strength team. A measure of their confidence in youth was the sight of Joey Watkins calmly resisting intense Warriors pressure as netminder for the last period. Watkins is 15.

The Warriors have the Arena, and a purple promotional dinosaur called Arenasaurus, four groups of cheerleaders, and a growing number of passionately devoted fans. This is just as well, for they will need all the help that they can get if they continue to play such crummy hockey.

No doubt the war of words between Newcastle's two sporting entrepreneurs will continue, and no doubt last Wednesday's game was the first of many noisy and fractious Newcastle ice hockey derbies. But the immediate future of the Arena is harmonious: Simply Red are on at the end of the month.