In December 1994, John Lawless had been approached by the owners of the Trafford Metros to see if he was interested in running the new team that would play out of the under construction Manchester Arena. It was one of the options under consideration but, like the plan to have an IHL team in a European League, it was a plan that was not realised. Instead, Ogden Entertainment Services, the operating company at the Arena, decided to run the hockey team themselves.
Ogdens decided that Lawless was their man … and approached him the moment that Cardiff Devils were knocked out of the Premier League playoff finals weekend at London’s Wembley Arena in April 1995.
John Lawless recalled the moment he was approached with the oldtimehockeyuk.com podcast. “We lost in a shoot out at Wembley and I had to go and do the interviews. I felt pretty bad and it was the end of the season for the Devils. A guy comes up to me (who would have been Dave Biggar), says he’s an executive for the Manchester Arena thats getting built, and they are looking for somebody to help them with the hockey team. I’m going what – an hour after losing – he’s got me in the corridor and I’m going ‘oh, Is this really happening?”
In 1996 Lawless told Liam Sluyter ” At the time I said that I would think about it for a while, but it took me about a second. I just thought “YES” It was perfect timing”. For its part, Ogdens were delighted. Lee Esckilson proudly intoned “The best needs the best and we’re absolutely delighted we have been able to work out a deal with him”
Once he had officilly accepted, Lawless made the journey p to Manchester. “I think I went up to see them probably a couple of weeks after that. I had a big decision, you know, as it had as much, if not more, potential than when I went to Cardiff. It just seemed too good to turn down. And it was great. The challenge of a 17000 seat arena with a full time marketing team. It was so cool to be a part of”
John’s problem of course was that the only player he had at that time was himself. So who would join the team? He had the pick of the Trafford Metros team to which Ogdens had acquired the rights. “When I first came here, I wasn’t sure how strong Division One would be. I was recommended a good three or four players. David Smith was top of the list as far as the Trafford players were concerned. Then you had Colin Downie, a solid Division One goalie, and Paul Fleury, plus a lot of potential players, not just to make the numbers up, but to be given a part of all this” . As a result Lawless signed players like Alan Hough, Nick Crawley, Tim Dempsey and Ged Smith.
On the import front, John signed Hilton Ruggles from Cardiff who “… didn’t need any convincing” but offers to others, like Shannon Hope, were turned down. In the end of course Lawless assembled a division winning team that delivered results on the ice and big crowds in the seats.
There were many wins in that first season, but what was the highlight? “We were 7-3 down to Paisley.. and we tied it 7 all”
In the 1996/97 season, the Super League arrived … and John Lawless admits that his side were somewhat under powered due to wrong information coming his way. “I thought I had a little inside information on what the rules were going to be and I got that it was going to be five imports and so many dual nationals. Two weeks later rules come out from the Super League and it’s UNLIMITED imports and I’m like what !!!” John had created a great Premier League team, unfortunately the rule changes allowed the old Premier League teams to go to a higher level. “I mean, the guys I signed were good but, it was a tough year , we built everything up from the first year.”
On the ice, John Lawless also faced problems with injury and paperwork. “I remember as well , one time , we had some injuries and we signed this guy (Bart) Vanstaalduinen, I signed him, everything was approved by BIHA , then the BIHA said ‘no you didn’t get the release form from the other team’, and Im going ‘I did all the paperwork that you sent and you said I could play him’. And they deducted us 2 points. And so we finished 7th out of 8th .. those 2 point would have made us 6th which would have made a little bit of a difference. It was a tough year.” Vandstaalduinen was a player who defined many of the challenges John Lawless faced. In the era of player nickmames fans knew him as ‘Bart “not icing” Vanstaalduinen’ and despite all Lawless’ effort the players stats show played 2, Goals 0, Assists 0, Points 0, PIMS 6 !
The 17245 crowd.
The night Storm set the UK attendance record is clearly remembered by JL. ” It was amazing, you almost had to really pinch yourself to say , was THIS really happening, am I coaching in this world class venue.. bigger than some of the venues in the NHL. It was sold out. TV as well. It was amazing. That was definitely a highlight.”
Farewell to the Storm
At the end of the 96-97 season Manchester Storm parted company with John Lawless. “When they made the decision, they said we are going to go in a different direction, I totally understood. I go ‘You’ve so much potential here, you don’t want to let that slip’. So that had to make a change and, at that point, I was like I had done everything in British hockey so ….”
John Lawless will be remembered for creating the team that generated the extended ice hockey fan base in Greater Manchester. He’ll also be remembered for all his work in British Ice Hockey both on the ice as player and off the ice as a coach.
Interview quotes fully attributed to both Liam Sluyter and the “Old Time Hockey UK” podcast.