PROFESSIONAL ice hockey in the region is no more after Newcastle Vipers were forced to accept defeat in their battle to sustain a club without a home.
England’s only professional team north of Hull has ended its involvement in Britain’s top flight, the Elite League, after six years. General manager Jaimie Longmuir does not expect a return at any level until a permanent venue can be found.
The Vipers are the successors of Durham Wasps, incorporated into Sir John Hall’s Newcastle Sporting Club in 1996 along with what are now the Newcastle Eagles and Falcons.
Hall moved the club to Newcastle Arena via Sunderland’s Crowtree Leisure Centre, and Durham’s rink soon closed.
The politics of that decision played its part in Newcastle’s demise, with some Whitley Warriors fans refusing to watch a team they recognised as their fierce rivals from the heydays of the sport in Britain.
But when the Vipers’ temporary move from the Arena due to lack of ice time in late 2009 became permanent the following season because of high rents, they were forced to share the North East’s only remaining venue, owned by the lower-league Warriors.
The plan was for a new rink to be built in Gateshead, but when that was mothballed indefinitely, Longmuir and the league had to accept the arrangement was unsustainable.
“It’s a very sad day when you’ve seen people investing everything in this club,” said Longmuir, whose stoical leadership is the main reason the Vipers completed last season.
“People like (former owners) Rob Wilson, Paul Ferone and Paddy O’Connor have invested a lot of time, money and energy into it.
“It’s just not had the success everyone wanted, including the hardcore fans.”
Beneath the Elite League are the semi-pro leagues of the southern-dominate English Premier League and the regionalised English National League.
“The Elite League was the only viable option,” reflected Longmuir.
“The EPL isn’t an option just now purely because of the location of the other teams. It would need other teams in the North.”
Manchester Phoenix and Sheffield Scimitars are the only northern representatives in the 10-strong division.
“The problem all along has been the lack of a home venue,” he added. “Without it, you don’t have the fundamental basis to succeed. The whole strategy to keep the club alive was to move into a permanent facility.
“Speaking as someone who’s tried to run a club without its own venue, I know better than anyone the evidence is that is doesn’t work.
“Billingham are coming back into the ENL (after the refurbishment of their rink). Whitley Bay is the venue of the Warriors and Billingham is the venue for the Bombers.
“They have to look after their own clubs first.
“It’s really hard because local authorities just don’t have the finances to build an ice rink.
“Five years ago we maybe would have had a rink. But the way the world is right now, I don’t think it’s a major priority.”
The Vipers have been without an owner since December, kept afloat by the league since January, despite gates lower than the Warriors were attracting.
Longmuir joined in 2006, the year the Vipers left the now-defunct British National League for the Elite League, having recently been bought by then-players Wilson and Ferone, and former Durham Wasps star O’Connor. They won the league Play-Offs, its most prestigious competition, in their debut season, but were never able to build on their success.
Wilson and Ferone cut ties last summer, when O’Connor returned as chairman after three years away.
Despite chronic financial troubles which saw a transfer embargo introduced during a mid-season player exodus, rookie player-coach Danny Stewart guided the Vipers to the Challenge Cup semi-finals, winning the Coach of the Year Award.
Newcastle, whose previous incarnations were the Cobras, the Riverkings and the Jesters, twice won the Findus Cup in 2003 and 2004.