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Brighton Tigers - A Story of Sporting Passion by Stewart Roberts & Kevin Wilsher:

By Stewart · Sep 20, 2020 · Updated Sep 20, 2020
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  1. Stewart Registered User

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    This book reveals for the first time the remarkable story of how Canadian players came to Sussex on the south coast of England in the mid-1930s - in the midst of the Depression in Canada - and formed the Brighton Tigers, one of the founder members of the English National League, the country's first pro hockey circuit.

    The Tigers drew packed crowds to the 3,000-capacity Sports Stadium on West Street, Brighton, about an hour south of London, and started a 30-year love affair between the sport and fans who had never seen the game before. Their great hero was a charismatic Montrealer, Bobby Lee, who was the driving force behind their back-to-back league title campaigns. He had a cup of coffee with the NHL's Canadiens in 1942‑43.

    Their hour of glory came in December 1957 when they beat the mighty Soviet Union national squad, whose roster included many of the players who had recently upset the hockey world by winning gold in the 1956 Winter Olympics.

    So was popular was hockey in Brighton before World War Two that in 1938 the Sports Stadium hosted a game between the NHL's Detroit Redwings and Montreal Canadiens. The book has a rare photo of the Canadiens team lined up outside the rink.

    The book records tales of the league that unexpectedly flourished in the football-crazy nation during the years either side of World War Two. Based around three London arenas, each holding 10,000 fans and sometimes icing two teams, the league's clubs paid some Canadians more than the stars of soccer received.

    The league's surprising origins in intimate venues like the upmarket Grosvenor House Hotel in swish Park Lane are described, as is its unfortunate early demise. This was due partly to the enormous popularity of spectacular ice shows and partly to the changes in the economy which swung in North America's favour. By the late 1950s Canadian players could earn higher wages at home.

    The Sports Stadium stayed open throughout the war years and many Canadian servicemen played there in a specially created league. There is a photo of 'Monty' - Field-Marshall Montgomery, the great war-time leader - presenting a trophy to the winning team. (Episode four of the documentary 'Hockey: A People's History' showed some clips of war-time games in Britain, including one in the Sports Stadium.) Many of the players remained in the Old Country after the war and some signed for the Tigers.

    Brighton survived the league's collapse, continuing to attract full houses when the club was staffed by home‑grown players. But they couldn't overcome the Brits' general indifference to the sport. In the mid-1960s, despite the fans' protests, the art deco Sports Stadium was pulled down to make way for a shopping mall.

    The book's 265 pages are fully illustrated with several photos in colour. Every season has a team photo and there's a complete Player Register as well as biographies of the star players. The cover price is £18.95 sterling and is available on Amazon here - https://www.amazon.com/Brighton-Tigers-story-sporting-passion/dp/1527255638

    [​IMG]

    Book extract: Ice hockey comes to Brighton

    The swift, rough and tumble sport of ice hockey was a good fit for the colourful, restless town. The game was part of the craze for ice which swept the country in the 1930s and was then all the rage among the smart set. Played mainly in London and the suburbs, the teams were heavily dominated by expatriate Canadians, often students from Oxford and Cambridge, and the few Englishmen whose parents were wealthy enough to indulge young Johnny in his sporting passion. Some of these lucky fellows had even gone to Switzerland to learn how to play ‘the fastest game in the world’.

    The fans were the after-dinner crowds who enjoyed the helter-skelter speed and skill being exhibited on ice pads in Hammersmith, Golders Green, Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane, Queen’s in Bayswater, down the A23 in Purley and in nearby Hove. Many of the rinks were small, often with room for only a few dozen spectators but they attracted some important and influential people.
    Among the regular spectators at the rink in the basement of the Grosvenor House Hotel was Claude Langdon, a well-known showman of his day. Langdon owned the Hammersmith rink (sometime home of the famed Palais dance hall) where he had first discovered the attraction of ice hockey. He was impressed by the fact that the man behind the Grosvenor House team, Canadian businessman Freddie Summerhayes, paid his fellow countrymen to play, one of the very first British teams to do so. Summerhayes’ team, the Canadians, duly won the league in 1933-34.

    An impresario with a knack for knowing what the public wants, Langdon was sure that ice hockey had a big future here and was keen to see more rinks built and have the game promoted professionally. He began by arranging for a new refrigeration plant to be installed at the Richmond rink, which had been closed for two years, and forming another hockey team, the Hawks.
    This was only the start of his great plans to promote the sport. It was he who invited Wembley’s Arthur Elvin to see his first ice hockey match, which led to the building of the Empire Pool and Sports Arena (now the SSE Arena Wembley). When Brighton’s Swimming Stadium ran into trouble, he was quick to spot the game’s potential in the town and he joined the board when it was agreed that the S.S. would be turned into a rink. Eventually he became the top man at Earl’s Court where he iced two more teams.

    The Authors

    Stewart Roberts produced The Ice Hockey Annual, the yearbook of the sport in the UK, between 1975 and 2016. A former press officer for the governing British Ice Hockey Association and secretary of the British Ice Hockey Writers Association, he has reported on club and Great Britain games for several national newspapers, and also helped to run area hockey associations.
    His interest in the game began when he was about ten-years-old playing roller hockey on the sea-front of his home town of Worthing, Sussex, a few miles along the south coast from Brighton where the Tigers played. He soon became an avid ice hockey fan, never missing a game from his first visit to the Sports Stadium until the team's untimely demise.

    Kevin Wilsher, Stewart's co-author and publisher, has always been interested in Brighton's local history, sport and architecture, and he kept hearing people mention the Brighton Tigers and their experiences at the Sports Stadium decades ago. The fact that people were still passionate about the team (and still angry at its demise in some cases) made him realise that this was an important part of the City of Brighton and Hove’s history that someone should record. He found plenty of fans and some ex‑players who were only too happy to talk about their memories of the Tigers, and discovered in the city's archives 25 boxes of Tigers and Sports Stadium photos, reports, programmes and other memorabilia. He was then put in touch with Stewart, who had the writing skills and first‑hand knowledge that he lacked. It turned out to be an ideal partnership for the project.
     
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  2. Theokritos Moderator

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    For those not familiar with this chapter of hockey history: the 1930s were truly the Golden Age of British hockey. Radio had started to broadcast games, new arenas were built and a lot of good Canadian amateur players went over to England – not necessarily to the delight of the bodies governing Canadian amateur hockey. One of the many Canadians who went, Clarence "Sonny" Rost, would later recall: "At the time, New York Rovers (a farm team of the Rangers) were offering a player $25.00 a week, while over there they were paying $50.00." And: "When I first arrived at Wembley Canadians I took home £5 a week. The football lads were getting a £1 less. Then they doubled my pay." The league was so popular that star players like Rost and Lou Bates began to appear in commercial ads for Gillette razor blades and Player's cigarettes.

    @Stewart, which role did the Brighton Tigers play in the heyday of the 1930s? How far up or down the pecking order were they, both on the ice and in commercial terms?
     
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    Thanks for adding those tidbits.
    In the overall picture, the Tigers played a fairly modest role in 1930s hockey. They started as second banana to owner Claude Langdon's main team, the Hawks, at Richmond-on-Thames where Percy Nicklin, coach of GB's Olympic Gold medal winning team, was in charge. Nicklin was nominally the Tigers' coach, too, but it is unclear whether he went to Brighton more than a couple of times.
    Their fifth-place finish in 1937-38 was their highest of the pre-war period when the coach was Billy Boucher. He had played six seasons with Montreal Canadiens alongside legends Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat on their 'Kid Line', and he may have played a part in bringing the NHL team over at the end of that season.
    Were they commercially successful? No actual figures are available as the rink was run by a private company but the game helped to put the town on the map in Europe as much as in Britain as the Tigers made regular trips to the continent each year. From what I've gleaned, thanks to the standing room only crowds ice hockey just about paid its way but additional income from other events was essential. In Brighton, this came from exhibitions by champion skaters and big ice shows which played to capacity audiences from May to September and Christmas to the end of January.
    Perhaps Brighton's claim to fame then, as always, is its proximity to London. Indeed, it's known as London-by-Sea. Londoners love an excuse to go to the seaside and Brightonians - and Tigers players - enjoy visiting the big city. And the Tigers quickly built up a rivalry with their nearest team, Streatham in south London, who would have taken as long to travel across the capital to Wembley in the north-west suburbs as they did to make the journey south to Brighton.
     
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    I wasn't aware Nicklin doubled as Brighton coach too. That sounds rather... impractical.

    How many Canadian players did they Brighton Tigers roster feature? You mentioned Bobby Lee who came over from the Eastern Amateur Hockey League to Brighton in 1936. Did Brighton also ice home-grown British players?
     
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    Re Nicklin, the first game programme describes him as "the greatest coach and trainer the Dominion has produced". But I never found any mention of him subsequently in game reports in the press. My educated guess is that the players were billeted in and around Richmond and went to training sessions where Nicklin was in charge and told the team what he expected of them. Coaching was nothing like as sophisticated as it is nowadays. Bobby Beaton, Tigers' top goal scorer, and goalie Leo Sargent shared the captaincy and one of them probably acted as player-coach.

    Re home-grown players, in Tigers' first season five of their 11 players had been born in England but went to Canada as children and picked up the game there. A lot of players in that season of 1935-36 had been selected for their eligibility for Great Britain in the Feb 1936 Olympics. The first 'true Brit' didn't join until 1946-47. That was goalie 'Nobby' Richardson, but after a dozen cup games he was replaced by Canadian Gib Hutchinson. Johnny Oxley, who was born a couple of towns away along the Sussex coast, joined in 1948-49. He played defence for Britain in the 1948 Olympics and remained with the Tigers for many years. It was 1951-52 before the next one signed: Mike O'Brien was actually born in Eire but he was allowed to play for Britain in the World Championships as his family moved to Brighton when he was three. It wasn't until the league collapsed in 1960 and most of the imports stopped coming that the majority of the Tigers were British-born and trained.
     
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    That's a good point. A few months ago we were discussing on this very board how Pete Green pioneered hockey coaching & game management in a modern sense with the Ottawa Senators. One can observe the terminology starting to shift from "trainer" to "coach" and "manager" in Canadian newspaper accounts around 1910 AD and the focus moving from physical preparation to positional deployment, strategy and tactical systems. (See here for the great research by one of our members, @ImporterExporter). Prior to that, you indeed had captains who were effectively acting as player-coaches, even in the leading professional leagues. No doubt it took quite some time for the new developments to trickle down to lower leagues and overseas.

    Do we know anything about Percy Nicklin's coaching in the strategy/game management sense from his time with his other club teams in England and with the British national team?

    Right. I've read that at some point prior to the 1936 Olympics, the league implemented a rule that each club had to play at least four British-born players (=eligible for the national team).
     
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2020
  8. Bear of Bad News HFBoards Escape Goat

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    Very glad to see this book published!
     
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    Percy Nicklin's strategy was described in a contemporary publication, probably by Canadian writer/editor Bob Giddens or his assistant Phil Drackett -
    'His success with GB was achieved with a defensive system, based on sound netminding and back-checking forwards. A big rugged defenceman himself, he was a thinker about the game. He based his coaching strategy on the theory that if the other team can’t score on you then the worst that can happen is that you tie the game.'

    A minimum of four UK-born players with at least five years' residence was the 'headline' rule imposed on the league clubs by the governing BIHA in April 1934. There were several sub-clauses which I find it hard to get my head around! The clubs found the rules complicated, too, and as a result they were hard to police. They were changed at the start of the 1936-37 season but were probably also enforced rather laxly.

    By the way, I found this information in a marvellous book, Lion in Winter, written by SIHR members David Gordon and Martin Harris and published last year via www.lulu.com. Have you seen it?

    Referring back to your earlier question about coaching, I've just spotted a line in the book that confirms your thought: trainer Nobby Clarke was listed as coach in 1935-36 - but only retrospectively. He wasn't given this title until it appeared in a match-night programme in 1962!

    I'm enjoying your questions. Keep 'em coming!
     
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    Very interesting.

    The residence clause is surprising to me because obviously none of the many Canadians who came over in the mid-1930s would have qualified. Was there a respective requirement by the International Hockey Federation for players to be eligible to represent Great Britain in the World Championship and Winter Olympics?

    I haven't yet, but I've heard of it.

    That does indeed seem pretty telling.
     
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    The eligibility of players to represent Great Britain in 1936 was so complicated that the parties (IOC, LIHG, BIHA and CAHA) were still arguing over the details after GB had already played a game or two at the Winter Olympics. Bunny Ahearne, then the BIHA's influential secretary, was a shrewd and stubborn negotiator and was on top of all the finer points of the law, if not the quite the spirit. David and Martin's book takes a couple of pages to go through all the fascinating machinations so I'm reluctant to try and summarise them here.
     
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    I understand.

    You have mentioned Bob Giddens who, if I understand it right, played some crucial role in 1930s boom in England as a tireless promoter of hockey, right?
     
  13. Stewart Registered User

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    He certainly did. Briefly, he founded “Ice Hockey World,” the world's first weekly hockey newspaper in 1935. Between 1938 and the mid-1950s, its circulation rose from 8,000 to a staggering 35,000, mostly sold in the huge arenas in London. Over 500 editions were published as well as nine Ice Hockey World Annuals from 1947 to 1955, and “Ice Hockey,” a Foyles’ Handbook, in 1950. Several sports journalists cut their writing teeth on the World before going on to cover other sports in the national press or on the BBC.
    As part of his newspaper he created Britain's own Hall of Fame in 1948 and was posthumously inducted into it in 1986. He died in 1963, aged 57, after a long illness probably caused by overwork, promoting the sport he loved. His Hall of Fame continues today under the auspices of Ice Hockey UK.
    As a player, he was the first Canadian to captain Harvard University in the early 1930s (he graduated in 1931) and when he came to Europe in 1933 he joined Stade Francais in Paris before crossing the channel to London and lining up with Streatham as player/coach. A year later he moved across the city to Earl's Court and signed for the Kensington Corinthians as their player/coach and publicity manager. Then he devoted all his time to writing about and promoting the sport.
     
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    That's an impressive number. Would be interesting to know how this compares to "The Hockey News" in North America as well as to other British sports newspapers, in particular football/soccer newspapers or magazines. The latter because I find it quite surprising some hockey players would earn more than football/soccer players. Even if hockey enjoyed a big boom, its popularity could not quite have matched the Football League, right? For example, it seems Arsenal FC averaged around 40,000 spectators per game in the second half of the 1930s.
     
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    Football's top teams would have attracted more spectators than hockey but there was a maximum wage of £10 which didn't apply in hockey. Hockey club owners were entrepreneurs who knew the value of publicising high wages figures. Moreover, in Brighton the football team was in the third division so on a good day the Tigers drew more.
    I don't have any circulation figures. There were quite a few sports magazines in Britain then but most football fans would have got their news from the mass circulation daily papers. The hockey coverage was small in comparison but at least it was reported on, which is more than it is today.
     
  16. Theokritos Moderator

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    Interesting, I was unaware of a maximum wage in the Football League. Considering what NHL stars made, English football stars like Dixie Dean & Co only earned peanuts.

     
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    That's right. The weekly wage of a British footballer in 1958 was £20. They had to travel to matches on public transport! The max. wasn't abolished until 1961.
     
  18. Theokritos Moderator

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    Another area where hockey had a leg up on English football/soccer is international club competition. From what I've read a few years ago, I seem to remember an attempt was made at an international league or tournament involving clubs from both England and France. Additionally, some kind of annual transatlantic club competition was envisioned and one year the champion of the English league did indeed travel over to North America to play against the Allan Cup champion and an US amateur champion club. But it remained a one-off, perhaps due to World War 1?
     
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    Bunny Ahearne was always keen to create a European League in the 1930s but the European teams weren't as strong as they didn't have as many good Canadians. English League champs Wembley Lions did indeed go to Maple Leaf Gardens for an international tournament in April 1937. The other teams were Sudbury Frood Mine Tigers (Allan Cup winners), Winnipeg Monarchs (Memorial Cup junior winners) and Hershey B'ars (E American Lge winners). Sudbury won. But again the governing bodies (this time the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada and the CAHA) squabbled and almost ruined the games. I'm hoping to write a report of this tournament for SIHR sometime.
     
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    Looking forward to it.

    It's fascinating that as early as the 1930s a regular transatlantic club competition was not just envisioned but actually attempted.

    Speaking of a European club playing on Canadian ice: do you know what dimension the ice sheets had that Wembley Lions, Brighton Tigers and other clubs in Great Britain played on? I'm aware that the LIHG (IIHF) made several attempts to standardize European rinks throughout the 1920 and 1930s, but reality didn't necessarily align with their wishes, at least not yet.
     
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    All except Brighton and Wembley were roughly today's international size of 200 x 100 ft. Brighton was a converted swimming pool and was only 175 x 75 ft. Wembley was modelled on Maple Leaf Gardens and had NHL ice size of 200 x 85 ft.
     
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    Did it still have the swimming lanes marked under the ice? Game officials on the diving boards to spare ice surface area for the players? ;)
     
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    One of the big new arenas in the mid-1930s was the Empire Pool and Sports Arena at Wembley (opened in July 1934). Two hockey clubs, Wembley Lions and Wembley Canadians (renamed Wembley Monarchs in 1936) were literally playing their games on top of the swimming lanes there. A Canadian player, Tommy Robertson, wrote:

    "The Empire pool, Wembley, is as fine a hockey arena as exists anywhere in the world. In the recent test match Canada vs. England, a crowd of ten thousand was present. But the weekly league games average between 5,000 and 8,000."​

    Source: Montreal Gazette, February 14th 1935 (link)

    Wow, that must have been cramped. Some of the old NHL arenas were undersized, but I think Boston Garden was the most extreme example with 191 x 83 feet.

    Another of the big arenas, Empress Hall at Earls Court (opened in November 1935), was said to be built "along the lines of Detroit Olympia".
     
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    Speaking of Wembley, the following footage from hockey practices & games was filmed there in 1936:

     
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    The letter by Tommy Robertson also gives some insight into the international league I've mentioned.

    In 1934-35, clubs from England (Streatham, Richmond, both Wembley clubs), France (two clubs from Paris), Germany (Berlin, Riessersee), Italy (Milano) and Czechoslovakia (Prague) took part in two groups/pools. Attendances Richmond Hawks drew on their trip to the Continent according to Robertson: Paris 12,000 – Prague 9,000 – Berlin 10,000.

    Here's some footage from the November 1934 international league game between Riessersee (Germany, playing at Munich here) and Stade Français (one of the two clubs from Paris):



    In 1935-36, only the clubs from England and France returned to participate in the international league again. The other countries dropped out – perhaps because the LIHG (IIHF) had spoken out against it? The international federation, championing amateurism, was concerned about "professional tendencies" and it's not hard to see why when you think back of what Canadian players in England earned. How did the English league manage to keep its official amateur status? The clubs restored to "shamateurism" and created well-paid jobs the players were nominally hired for.
     
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2020
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