This is a Guest Post By Blair C. Dingwall
A Scottish Perspective: The Story of Ice Hockey In Paisley
There’s a street in Paisley you may never have heard of. Unspectacular, you’ve seen its like scattered through towns and cities all across the British Isles. Not suited to the sunshine, as it does little to compliment the road’s buildings, most at home in the dull, monotonous grey more frequent in Scotland. Here small businesses have been built into cramped spaces on the backside of the buildings on Glasgow Road. Amateur graffiti tags grace the walls every metre or so. Pigeons scurry across the pavements and rush above your head to their nests in the many structures.
For those too young to remember, East Lane is branded a shortcut with nothing to offer save the odd shop and a slightly quicker path to Lacy Street. For those who lived through the heyday of ice hockey in the town, if they squint their eyes from Tesco’s car park and observe the backside of the shop and Ingram’s to its side, perhaps they can picture what stood there before. If they listen hard, perhaps the sounds of work, the rattling of shopping trolleys and the hum of motors from the busy road fades, and they’ll hear the cheers once again as Scotland’s greatest ice hockey team dominates the 1953-54 season, powering towards three championship titles.
“Paisley is one of the strongholds of ice hockey in Scotland,” says ice hockey expert David Gordon, author of ‘Scotch on Ice.’
It was on this very ground at East Lane that ice hockey champions the Paisley Pirates, and the Paisley Mohawks in later years, fought battle after battle to secure a string of accolades in front of local crowds which challenged that of Paisley’s beloved St Mirren in size.
“I can remember going at the beginning,” recalls Bill Brennan, his memory sharp, “during the war before my Father went away to the forces.”
Bill Brennan is a veteran of the old East Lane ice rink. A Paisley native and former player for the phenomenal Paisley Pirates team of the 1950s. He has lived through, and participated in, Paisley’s on-off love affair with ice hockey. Bill’s work eventually took him away from Renfrewshire, finally to Aberdeen, where he and his wife Jeanette have lived for nearly 37 years. Now 78, and an inductee in the UK ice hockey hall of fame (where his name sits next to his brother Alistair Brennan), he remembers fondly his first experience as a youth on the East Lane ice rink.
“It was this new sport to us as kids,” he says, “It was the whole glamour aspect, you know, you were getting dressed up in (ice hockey) gear and you were skating.”
The story of the East Lane ice rink began on the 11th of April 1940. On the 1.5 acre ground once belonging to Abercorn football club, a seven-year old girl known to the history books simply as ‘Miss Price’ fronted the celebrations to unveil to the people of Paisley their new sports facility. The new ice rink of east lane was the biggest in Scotland and could boast an ice area of 200 by 95 feet, a restaurant, tearoom, a car park with 800 spaces and a capacity for exactly 5,657 spectators.
“The immediate post-second world war era for all of Scotland, including Paisley, was the most popular time for the sport in Scotland from 1946 to 1955,” says Gordon, “A relatively short nine year era, but you had a professional league that was spread right across the Country with teams in Dundee, Perth, Kirkcaldy, Dunfermline, Falkirk, Paisley, Ayr and then latterly Edinburgh.”
In 1946, whilst many of the youngsters of Renfrewshire took to the ice for the first time, a ship set sail from the shores of North America. On board a selection of 70 young Canadian athletes headed to the homeland of many of their forefathers. Hand-picked by Canadian sports journalist and hockey fanatic Claude Kewley for a newly reformed Scottish ice hockey league – the Scottish National League (SNL) – they set off into the unknown.
By the time 1950 came about East Lane’s SNL team, the Paisley Pirates, were struggling to draw a decent crowd, and they weren’t the only ones. Lack of interest in the sport all across Scotland led to poor support in many ice rinks and other teams, such as Dundee, were in particularly dire straits. Pirates’ manager Peter Mackenzie, unhappy with the lack of local support, decided something had to be done and secured an old fan favourite named Bernie Hill – a masterful defenseman – from England’s Harringay Racers.
Soon the Paisley boys were built into an unbeatable pack, and the Pirates powered through the 1950-51 season. With the likes of Stu Robertson, Bob Kelly, Ken Head and Canadian captain Elwood Shell; the Pirates brought the Scottish championships to East Lane and won the 1950-51 SNL final.
East lane, at last, was on the map.
The input of Canada’s Keith Kewley was crucial during the Pirates’ 50s heyday. Having departed from Scotland in 1948 to his homeland, and married to Scottish wife May Campbell – Kewley received an offer to return to Scottish shores and coach the Ayr Raiders, an offer he accepted. Under Kewley’s leadership, Ayr were instantly at the top of their game.
“He originally came to Scotland with Dunfermline Vikings, as a player and helped them to championships,” says Gordon of Kewley, “He then came back as a non-playing coach with Ayr. He had a couple of seasons and led Ayr to the Scottish National League and playoffs.”
It was during this period that the 17-year-old Bill Brennan got his first taste of home-town glory, albeit from the wrong side. “The first ice hockey – what we called “senior game” – that I played in was actually in Paisley, for Ayr, against Paisley,” says Brennan of his debut professional hockey match on the 21st of November 1951, at the East Lane rink. The Ayr Raiders, weakened by injuries, had searched for players to fill the void, and Kewley called upon Brennan to step in.
“They were leading 7-2 or something and they got a penalty shot, and I was to take the penalty shot and I duly missed,” reminisces Brennan, “I was a bag of nerves.” Nonetheless, he had impressed the perceptive coach.
By 1952, Kewley had so impressed his peers that he received an offer to replace Red Thomson as head coach of the Paisley Pirates. Despite a shaky start in the 1952-53 season, the Pirates well and truly set sail, with the young Bill Brennan now on board.
“He became a great coach,” says Brennan of Kewley, “He was a big influence for us.”
Kewley had immediately realised Brennan’s potentials and moved the 10 stone 10 youngster from defence to a position on the wing, cementing Brennan’s status as a Pirate.
“It must have been a couple of months into the season and suddenly I discovered that I was a regular in the team and on the ice. I wasn’t sitting on the bench all night.”
The following year Kewley brought on board from the Vikings a solid defence in the form of the exceptional Syme brothers – Tom “Tuck” and James “Tiny” – the latter’s nickname being an ironic poke at James’ six-foot-two-inch stature.
With a mix of talent from both the UK and Canada, and Tuck as captain, Kewley blended together a team of outstanding players that well and truly reigned supreme in the sport throughout the 1953-54 season.
With the ice of East Lane as their training ground, Kewley shaped his Paisley team into champions and in the 1953-54 season alone they won the Scottish Cup, Autumn Cup and Canada Cup. What’s more, they brought the sport of ice hockey to a new level of popularity in Paisley.
The glory of the Paisley Pirates, however, would soon expire; and through no fault of their own.
“Unfortunately with the creation of the British National League in 1954-55, all the Scottish clubs with the exception of Paisley dropped professional hockey,” Gordon asserts.
As Brennan puts it, “They formed a British league which killed most of the Scottish teams. Paisley was drawing crowds of between four and five thousand regularly, but some of the other rinks began to suffer a wee bit. In fact I think Perth could only take just under 3000. So even if they got full houses every week – the financial aspects weren’t great.”
Paisley still had a strong side in the 1954-55 season, but finished third in the BNL and the Autumn Cup. Kewley, having coached the BNL all-star “A” team returned with his family to Canada in 1956, where he became head coach of the St Thomas Royals in Ontario. Here he recruited many former Pirates into his line-up – including a recent migrant, Tiny Syme.
“Eventually Paisley were the only Scottish team in the British league,” Brennan adds, “Brighton, Streatham, Wembley, Haringey, Nottingham – five English teams plus Paisley.”
During season 1958-59 the Paisley Pirates once again triumphed to become BNL champions; but it was the Pirates’ last taste of greatness in the heyday of British professional hockey.
“Paisley was the only Scottish rink that continued right through to the final collapse of the pro-British league in 1960,” says Gordon.
The Paisley Pirates of Britain’s greatest era of professional ice hockey played their last game – against the Brighton Tigers – on the 29th of April of the same year.
Out of the figurative rubble left behind by the BNL however, a new Paisley elite was born – The Paisley Mohawks.
Having left the Pirates prior to their final win, Bill Brennan took charge as player-coach of the amateur Paisley side. Following the demise of the Pirates, the team soon comprised of many former Pirates like himself and by 1962 they had made the finals of both the Southern Cup and the Altrincham Cup, and in the following 1963-64 season they made the finals of the BBC’s Grandstand trophy.
“It was a sport that just refused to go away,” says Bill, whose younger brother Alistair joined the Mohawks line-up alongside him. The two brothers were regularly selected for the British All-star teams as well as nationally for Britain. In fact, by the time Alistair had retired from ice hockey in the 1980s he had made a record 102 appearances for Great Britain’s national team, appearing in eight world championships.
With the support of Scottish boxing champion and ice hockey fan Peter Keenan in the mid 1960s, the Mohawks coasted into the 1964-65 season to win twice against rivals the Fife Flyers for the Grandstand trophy and Barbour Cup – the latter being a glorious victory in front of a riveted crowd at East Lane.
“There was obviously a much stronger desire on the part of the rink management to make hockey work and work successfully in Paisley,” Gordon states.
With Keenan, a well-known local figure, promoting the sport; ice hockey was as popular as ever in East Lane.
“Peter became a promoter and managed to get Paisley town council to license Paisley rink for games on a Sunday. Which was a big, big step forward,” asserts Brennan, “we were drawing crowds bigger than St Mirren at that time for about a year.”
When the Northern Ice Hockey Association formed in 1966, the Mohawks dominated the first season by a country mile with 47 points.
Season 1967-68 was nothing short of phenomenal for Paisley. They conquered the championships with victories in the Autumn Cup, the Northern League, the Icy Smith Cup, the Championship cup and the Barbour Cup; and were runners-up in the British Cup. Looking at the Herald Ice Hockey Annual 1967-68 you may have to rub your eyes when you see “Billy Brennan’s scalp-hunting Mohawks” listed on an honours list next to superstar NHL teams such as the New York Rangers, St Louis Blues, Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers.
In the wake of their success, East Lane was buzzing. The Mohawks could even afford to undergo a tour of Europe. However, like the Kewley Pirates before, as the Mohawks reached the end of the decade; their future headed towards uncertainty. By the 1968-69 season, Bill was forced to leave the club when his work required him to move to Birmingham, and soon the only original Mohawk players left were Alistair Brennan, Alistair McCrae and Gordon Hughes.
What’s more rumours began to spread in 1969 that East Lane was to be closed, that buyers were looking to get their hands on the plot. Support was dwindling for the team. On Saturday the 11th of April 1970 the East Lane ice rink, the alluring ice arena opened by the young Miss Price thirty years before, closed for good – only opening in November of the same year to house a professional wrestling match.
East Lane was sold in December 1971 and in 1973 was demolished. Built in its place was a ‘Coopers/Fine Fare’ supermarket.
The Mohawks, reduced to just two original players, soldiered on at Crossmyloof ice rink for many years until 1977 when they were forced to accept their fate and fold.
“It goes through periods of boom and bust,” says Gordon on his treasured sport in Scotland, “It’s always going to have this image problem; it’s always going to struggle. Probably the last rink built in Scotland that was done with an ice hockey element in mind would have been the Lagoon at Paisley.”
Gordon speaks here of the doomed council-run ice rink opened in Paisley during July 1992, the Lagoon Ice Rink. In the early 90s, with nearly twenty years without a game of ice hockey in the town, word began to spread of a Pirates revival. £25,000 was put forward to the new squad, and the Pirates were reborn – the only council-run ice hockey team in the UK. The game had returned to Paisley, with the new Pirates playing in the Scottish First Division League.
Following their rise to become Scottish champions in 1993, the council invested a further £60,000 towards the Pirates squad as they arose to the UK league; but come April 1994, they withdrew from funding the team further.
As they moved forward into the new millennium, the Pirates faced a tough, financial situation. Pirates Chairman, Lex Shields, underwent a large fundraising venture around the town to save the team from collapse and succeeded, taking the team away from the threat of almost certain liquidation. The Pirates survived and played on at the Lagoon rink until August 2006, when the building shut for repairs caused by “heaving.”
The Lagoon hosted the 2005 woman’s world curling championships. During the specialist preparation for this event ‘heave’ of the ice was noted by the team specially brought in to prepare the pad, says Tony Finn, Business and Service Development Manager at Renfrewshire Leisure, This event triggered further investigations and over time the condition of the pad deteriorated due to continued heave and build up of ice. The deterioration of the pad structure culminated in the decision to close the rink on health and safety grounds due to the increased risk to skaters.
The Lagoon never reopened, an estimated £4 million was needed to save the rink, a sum deemed too massive given the economic climate of the time.
“(It’s) Tragic what happened with the new rink that they built…this Lagoon centre,” says Brennan.
“Unfortunately we’ve lost further rinks in Scotland in that time,” says David Gordon, “Centrum Arena’s gone, the Lagoon has closed to ice sports, Aviemore. Aberdeen was closed for quite a while.”
Aberdeen’s LYNX arena – closed due to rising maintenance prices – re-opened in 2009, but Paisley was not so fortunate. Once again, the town was rid of ice, and their much-loved sport.
Luckily, Glasgow’s Braehead Arena stepped in to save the team from folding, offering their ice rink as a space for the team to train and play, and the “Braehead” Paisley Pirates are alive to this day; still a force to be reckoned with in the Scottish National League.
“It is good to see the team continuing to attract albeit in Renfrew and not in Paisley,” comments Finn.
“It’s a sport that should be taken seriously,” Gordon states, “I think it’s on the up at the moment in Scotland.”
But can ice hockey in the UK ever be considered in the same light as the NHL?
“It’s not viewed as a sort of a mainstream, participative sport in this country, as long as you’ve got the sort of major professional teams dominated by imported players,” he continues, “People watch NHL but won’t necessarily relate that to something happening in Scotland.”
“Paisley took it seriously,” says Brennan, resoundingly speaking of his beloved sport, “Friday night was hockey night in Paisley.”
But it’s a Sunday on the night of Paisley Pirates vs. the Kirkcaldy Kestrels, the final game for both teams in a Scottish National league season which has been cut short without even going to playoffs by what is described in the programme as a “deafening” silence on the part of ruling body, the SIH. No matter what the outcome of the match, the Pirates will finish a solid second in the league behind the Dundee Comets.
Sadly however, there are a lot of empty seats at the Braehead arena. Nonetheless, the game is high-pressure. Paisley grab a 2-1 victory. From the back row of seats, a young Pirates fan with a drum plays in rhythm to the speed of the game. Next to him his friend bellows through all periods, with all the air in his lungs, “MON PIRATES!”
Something about the call echoes, back to East Lane.
a stick tap to: Bill Brennan, David Gordon, Tony Finn and Donald Kennedy for their contributions to this piece.
Blair Dingwall: http://www.facebook.com/TheBig