Is It Time to Think the Unthinkable? Professional Ice Hockey Is Teetering on the Brink in the North East. It Should Be Put out of Its Misery, Danny Stewart Tells Stuart Rayner
IT may sound like heresy to the 600 or so diehards who made Danny Stewart's season from hell worthwhile, but the Canadian believes it could be time to mothball professional ice hockey in the North East.
General manager Jaimie Longmuir took hope from Tuesday's Elite League meeting but the widespread view is that Sunday's match in Dundee was Newcastle Vipers' last.
Durham Wasps' descendants have been homeless since November 2009, ownerless since December. When a proposed Gateshead rink was put on the backburner, owner Paddy O'Connor quit and Whitley Bay attendances dwindled.
After a perfect storm of bad weather, attitudes and finances wrecked his debut coaching season, Stewart is concerned for the future. "Playing out of Whitley Bay in the Elite League is a very difficult situation," he says.
"This is character-building and for public skating and junior hockey it's a good facility. Without it we wouldn't have anything. But it's not a facility that should be in the league.
"For now, maybe the league is better solidifying the top eight teams until Edinburgh or Newcastle become viable. I don't think it benefits anyone to come back to Whitley and try and scrape through. That played a huge part in fans not coming.
"Playing Saturday instead of Sunday definitely didn't help, and the location. People would go to (Newcastle) Arena, then drinks after. Here you drive all the way, watch the game and head home." Some ex-Wasps fans boycott Hillheads out of loyalty to a team which disappeared in a previous Millennium, contributing to a bewildering mindset.
"One of the things I first noticed was the negativity towards the Newcastle Vipers," Stewart says. "After this year there's even more. We have a core of 600-700 fans that are amazing, as amazing as the players. They deserve a team more than anyone in the country.
"But it might be better to have the team not exist for a couple of years, so long as we know the Gateshead project was going to be done. You could come back fresh with a whole new identity." Starting afresh is what this season was supposed to be about.
"(Then-coach and co-owner) Rob Wilson got in touch at the end of last season," Stewart recalls. "Paul Thompson at Coventry suggested I might be a good fit for a coaching job. We thought they'd be playing out of the Arena at Newcastle. I believe it was at the second interview it became known we might be coming to Whitley Bay. Paddy and Jaimie assured me although it would tough, things would be secure.
"Paddy sold a good situation and Jaimie was selling as well. Plain and simple, one kept to their word and one didn't.
"We said if we could make some noise in the cup - which we ended up doing - and make the play-offs, that'd be a fantastic season. We were spending the lowest in the league.
"I had thought we'd go through two tough seasons at Whitley Bay and try to build a core of players. I thought Gateshead would be a fantastic place to play, and coach especially. A couple of months into the season that project was pushed back and it changed a lot of people's minds." O'Connor, who has promised to break his silence in next week's Journal, is not high on Stewart's Christmas card list. "We'd hit some bad weather in November and December and had a few gates that were pretty poor," he explains. "At home to Coventry it was 7-1 after the second period and I think Tommo took the foot off the gas out of respect for me.
"I think that turned fans off a bit. We had a few bad gates but it was stuff we were prepared for. That's why it was so surprising Paddy left.
"The first time I was aware things were starting to head south was when we tried to acquire Nick Duff around the end of November. The next thing I knew we were without an owner. What Paddy's reasons were, I'll never know.
"I'm not sure it was handled correctly.
I didn't get chance to talk to Paddy after he made his decision. …