Rugby League: England's ice man cometh at last

Jonathan Weaver is the kind of clean-cut, wholesome, home-grown hero that could give a cult sport mass appeal.
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The Independent Online
THE THIRD season of the Super League got under way last weekend with hopes higher then ever of the game making the kind of breakthrough in this country from cult minority sport to the elevated status its devoted and growing following feels it deserves.

Just over two years have passed since British ice hockey underwent the upheaval that saw the introduction of the Super League and the start of a concerted effort to transform what is already Britain's biggest indoor sport into one that appeals to a wider audience. New money came into the game, courtesy of lucrative television deals and high-profile sponsorships, and with the new money came an influx of foreign talent, so much so that there are currently no more than a dozen English players on the rosters of the eight Super League clubs.

While the sport's administrators are justifiably proud of burgeoning attendance figures at places like the Sheffield Arena and the MEN Arena in Manchester, they are only too aware of the desperate need for a home- grown player to capture the imagination and entice the sort of numbers through the gate that would take the game here up to the next level.

In 21-year-old Jonathan Weaver, they might just have the very man. Not only is he clean-cut, intelligent and wholesome but he is regarded by many as the best British prospect for some time. Born and brought up in Sunderland, he was in the Durham Wasps first team at 16 before he moved on to Newcastle and this season will be his first for Manchester Storm after upping sticks in the summer.

During the launch of this season's Benson and Hedges Cup competition at the Kensington Roof Gardens in central London, Weaver explained the reasons behind his move.

"Obviously Manchester are the biggest set-up in the country with the best arena; they're the most professional and the chance of playing in the European Hockey League was a big incentive for me," he said.

He made his international debut for Great Britain at last year's World Championships in Slovenia, but the irony is that the more progress he makes the greater the chance of losing him to America.

No British-raised player has ever featured in the NHL, and Weaver makes no secret of his ambition. "Every hockey player who ever lived wants to play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup and I'm no different," he said. "I could probably play in North America now, but whether or not I can make the NHL is another thing."

One of his new coaches at Manchester, the Canadian, Darryl Lipsey, likes what he has seen so far. "He's still a young kid with a lot to learn," he said. "I'd like to see him put more weight on and get stronger, but overall he's got a very good hockey sense. I think he's proved himself in the Super League already.

"In the last two minutes of a pre-season game against London, we were leading 4-3 and we put Weaver on the ice. A lot of coaches would say you shouldn't put a British player on the ice in the last two minutes because he might make a mistake, but he came on and scored an empty-net goal. The kid's got skill, believe me."

Weaver's love affair with the game began at a very early age. "My dad took me skating when I was two," he said. "The ice rink in my local town had just opened up and he took me down every week. I used to hate it, supposedly, but he kept on taking me. There was a team just starting and the coach suggested I joined in. I played my first game against Streatham when I was four and I've been playing ever since.

"I played football at school like most kids, and I represented my town at cricket, but when I went to senior school I decided football was too dangerous." Football too dangerous? What about ice hockey? "I was more confident on skates than I was on a football pitch. I'm more aware on a rink where people are and how I'm going to get hit. The only injury I've had so far playing hockey was when I separated a shoulder a few years ago, but it wasn't really serious."

The only boy in a family of four, you might think he had to fight for attention as a youngster but Weaver revealed it was quite the reverse. "I was always spoiled, always the different one of the family," he said. "Everything I wanted I got through hockey; everyone else had to take a back seat and just enjoy watching me play. In that respect I was lucky because the girls never minded."

Now installed in a flat in Manchester, Weaver is looking forward to his latest challenge. He has made a good start, getting the Storm's European Hockey League campaign off to a flying start with an outstanding opening goal in the home victory over Ilves Tampere of Finland, to add to four goals and five assists in the fledgling domestic season.

But like so many others in the sport, Weaver's aspirations are not restricted to his own performances. "It's about time ice hockey took off in this country," he said. "It's been in the shadows too long. It's a great sport to watch, but when I played with the Great Britain Under-16 team, for example, we'd go to places where they didn't even know we played ice hockey in England.

"It's progressed so much in the last three years and hopefully it will keep going and become one of the major sports. It's 10 times more interesting to watch than, say, cricket." Now there's an ambassador in the making.