Champagne on ice: How the Durham Wasps dominated 80s ice hockey

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In May, local artist Lewis Hobson created an exhibition at the Dead Dog Gallery, remembering the achievements of Durham Wasps. Created in 1947, the Wasps played their matches at Durham Ice Rink, a space which was sadly demolished and stood right nearby to the gallery in central Durham. Its closure saw the club fold in 1996.

It was in the 1980s and early 1990s that Durham became an ice hockey behemoth, as the team won a remarkable 22 trophies from 1984 to 1995, including five league titles. Much of the population of the city, especially students, are unaware of such a glittering sporting history on their doorstep, so it was wonderful to see the old jerseys and trophies being appreciated by ex-players, fans, and the general public alike. 

Palatinate spoke to Hobson, the man behind the exhibition, about his interest in Durham Wasps.

“I do have connections to the hockey. My mam and my auntie used to go and my grandad played a little bit for the recreation team, the Durham Dragons. They were a group of dads set up to raise money through ticket sales to fund training for the younger teams like the hornets and the midges. I’ve known about the ice rink for a long time. The building was a bowling alley when I was younger and stood there derelict for a while, so I’ve been aware of it but never quite imagined I would be doing an exhibition. Thanks to the artist in resident scheme at Durham Sixth Form Centre and it being so close, I thought now was the time, as nobody else was going to do something on the Wasps.”

The team won a remarkable 22 trophies from 1984 to 1995, including five league titles

From Palatinate’s visit to the gallery, the exhibition had seemed to draw large amounts of people. Hobson agreed that the reception to his work was an overwhelmingly positive one.

“Close to a thousand came through the doors, and we were only open for ten days from 10am to 4pm so we had a really good turnout. You’ve seen the story and know the ending was quite sad and there was unresolved problems. There was a definite split between the members who went to Newcastle with John Hall’s Wasps and the part that stayed in Durham with the Durham City Wasps. I wasn’t sure if it would be too raw for people and we have had a lot of tough emotion in the exhibition, but in a positive way. Some people met up for the first time in thirty years at the exhibition and we’ve had people for whom this is the first time looking back at the club, since the nasty ending left some not wanting to consider hockey again. It’s been touching to see that and be part of that.”

It was following the voluntary liquidation of the company that owned the rink in 1994 that the Wasps were forced to fold in 1996. Many people were unhappy with the apparent lack of aid from the local council and wider area, resulting in a split in the fan and player base. The team was moved to Newcastle and was renamed the Cobras, but they struggled and, after multiple failed name changes, the team that was once the Durham Wasps folded for good in 2001. However, it’s not just the team that’s missed in the city. Not building a replacement for such an important venue as the ice rink had been a massive source of disappointment for Hobson and the public.

“I didn’t really know anything about the ice rink before I asked around for this project. There was a team from the university that used to come down and play and you can imagine if we had a space like that now, the students would 100% have a team there. They’d be going to discos on Friday nights and visiting the bar. We don’t have many spaces where university students and locals are on even terms. Just a space where people from different demographics meet is what the rink was famous for. Parents would take their kids. One of the first women’s teams in the UK was set up there. It was like a family business and the atmosphere and sense of community there was huge.”

The Wasps’ goalkeeper from their 80s super team, Frank Killen, concurs with Hobson’s perspective on the rink.

“It’s very sad there isn’t a rink – not just for ice hockey but for the general public and the kids to use as a social space. It’s such a shame that the people in authority don’t see the benefits that an arena like that can bring. As a multipurpose venue it could be used for ice hockey, basketball, by the university itself for exams and conferences. It’s such a shame we don’t have a facility that can cater for 5000 people or so. We do still have lots of expertise in Durham from ex-players and coaches who would gladly give up their time to help coach local kids and create another dynasty of Durham Wasps for the year ahead. You don’t see it happening in the near future, but you feel a city like Durham deserves an ice rink and somewhere where the history of the club can be displayed. I don’t think all those trophies should be locked up in a broom cupboard; they should be shown to display Durham’s sporting heritage and the history we have.”

A city like Durham deserves an ice rink and somewhere where the history of the club can be displayed

Despite hailing from northern Scotland, Killen is extremely proud of his connection with the City of Durham and was keen to talk to Palatinate about the journey that took him there.

“I grew up in a place called Aviemore, in northern Scotland. There used to be a joke that you either skated or you skied. It was a very cold and wintry place to live. As I was a young apprentice up there as a joiner, I sort of chose skating, and joined a team called the Aviemore Blackhawks. I progressed to playing in goal for them when I was seventeen. By the time I was nineteen I was playing for Sunderland, a better level of hockey. From Sunderland that’s where Durham gave me an opportunity to come over to play. They were such a huge club, so the fact they opened the door was an experience I couldn’t turn down. The rest is history. I’ve always been classed as a Durham lad and people within ice hockey recognise me as that despite spells at Nottingham and Humberside. It’s just one of those things that goes with you – you’re targeted as a Durham player.”

Killen spent a decade at Durham Wasps, and saw the club reach its highest points during his tenure there. 

I joined Durham from Sunderland in 1979 and I played there for two years, becoming their number one goalie in my second year there. I had a successful second year there as I was voted the club’s player of the year and supporter’s player of the year too, which was a nice honour. I had a spell where I left the club and went to Nottingham Panthers, who were another big team. Then I returned to Durham and was first choice for another seven or eight years. We won a couple of matches at Wembley, and I ended up getting fourteen appearances in the European Cup too, along with regular week-in week-out matches. There are usually a couple of goalkeepers in each ice hockey team but was always seen as the number one goalkeeper at the club. That was my role.”

Not many British ice hockey players were fortunate enough to play in Europe. However, such success saw the Wasps qualify for the European Cup, from which Killen recalls some of his proudest memories.

“Back in those days we were the whipping boys of Europe. The matches we played were almost like non-league vs Premier League teams to use a football analogy. We were on a hiding to nothing really. We played in a fourteen-team round-robin European cup, which included the French champions, Paris Saint-Germain, Polish behemoth Polonia Bytom and a team from Holland called the Panthers too. Bytom were the favourites, as seven of their players had faced the Canadian national team with Poland the week before, so were obviously very very good. We managed a 7-7 draw, which was the first time a British club had got a result in Europe in the modern era. That was our biggest achievement in the continent.”

We played at home for fifty games without being beaten and ironically when we finally lost it was on national television

“We also played the champions of Norway, Fredrikstad. They beat us 8-1 and I face 80-90 shots that game, which is what you would expect across a three-game stretch. It just shows you their dominance. But it was great to represent Great Britain and regardless of whether you’re winning them, playing in the big events is the main thing.”

Despite creating a dynasty, it is clear now that the Wasps, like any sports club, would be unable to hold such high standards forever. Killen was conscientious enough to realise he was in the good old days while they were happening, but they came with their bumps in the road.

“In those days a lot of people referred to us as the Liverpool of ice hockey as, at that time, Liverpool were pretty dominant in European football. It was tougher than people thought because everyone wanted to beat you. We played at home for fifty games without being beaten and ironically when we finally lost it was on national television. There was a lot of pressure playing for Durham. People would tell me I must have an easy job because Durham were such an attack-minded team but that wasn’t true – we were attacked as much as we attacked. If you weren’t on your game, you would concede a lot of goals. Hou had to be very focussed on the ice as you had periods where you didn’t have a lot to do. There were periods where you were under pressure and you had to be sharp. Our fans were very expectant and knowledgeable. They knew whether you had played badly or well. They were fair, but critical of you if you weren’t playing well. From a playing perspective, we were a team full of very good players so we would lift ourselves up. If you were having a bad game there always someone to clear up behind you. I had a lot of faith in my defence such as Mike O’Connor and Steven Cooper. These guys were superb players and helped me out a lot. I met Steven’s mum and dad at the exhibition. Someone had introduced me as the Wasps’ goalkeeper in the 80s and 90s and I jokingly said, “along with your son Steven”, because he was the best defenceman I’ve worked with. It was nice to play with guys like that in front of you.”

But no good thing lasts forever. Killen admitted that he was one of the reasons the team began to fade.

“In 1991, the year after we won the Grand Slam of the league cup, league, and Wembley, the team started to break up a little. The Johnson brothers and I were offered a chance to play at Humberside Seahawks, who were offering a lot of money and were a very professional side. I only joined a season or two after the Johnsons, but the money they offered at the time was far ahead of anything Durham or other teams could offer, so it was hard to say no to it. So I ended my career there. Ironically, I was only going to go there for a year but stayed for three or four years. We played against Durham Wasps, which was rather strange as there were a lot of ex-Durham players at the Seahawks, so it felt like Durham versus Durham.”

The Wasps represent a level of sporting dominance this city has not seen in any other capacity. Hobson’s exhibition hopefully reminds people of the glittering history here, and what progress can be made with an adequate venue.

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