BRISTOL, UK – It is no secret that operating a league hockey team in the UK is a tough job, but for the Bristol Pitbulls the challenge is to keep a team alive without a home rink. PHN speaks to Pitbulls defenseman Mike Hargreaves who believes some thing’s are worth fighting for.
There was a sense of relief in the tightly knit Bristol Pitbulls camp when it was agreed that the team could play out of Oxford ice rink for the 2013/14 season. A season on the road in 2012/13 saw the Pitbulls play home games and train in numerous venues across the south of England.
“It’s nice to know exactly where your next home game will be” said 33 year old Mike Hargreaves.
“We owe a lot to the teams that helped us last year and Oxford this season, finding the spaces for us in the already congested ice time at their rinks”
“It’s funny as Dicky (Richard Hargreaves – Player Coach and owner) started the team out of Bristol when we left Oxford, so we wouldn’t have to travel so much, and now we are taking the whole team there”
Mike wore the ‘C’ for the second consecutive season last year as the Pitbulls finished a respectable fourth in the National Ice Hockey League South 2 behind champions Oxford, Peterborough and Wightlink.
“I think the main problem last season was we really didn’t have a regular training slot” said Hargreaves.
“We took ice whenever we could, training at midnight the night before having to travel to the Isle of Wight and some weeks not having training as there was no ice available”
“It was tough and at one point we were thinking of rebranding ourselves the M4 Pitbulls, but the boys stuck together and we finished the season strongly, maybe not quite as high as I would have liked, but it gave us a platform”
That platform will have to be reached again and bettered this year in a league that should be stronger than ever thanks to the decision of Oxford City Stars not to accept promotion and the addition of Haringey ‘London’ Racers to the mix.
The Racers have made a lot of waves with their return to Alexandra Palace and some solid pick-ups roster wise and both the aforementioned Stars and Peterborough Islanders show no signs of weakening.
“I’m quite happy in NIHL 2 and the league surprised me a lot” said Hargreaves, who has enjoyed a long career in the game at various levels.
“It has moved on massively in the couple of years since I was playing in NIHL 1. There is still a large gap in quality at the bottom end of the table, but I take my hat off to those teams as they turn up ready to play and just never give up”
“The top end of the league is full of teams with ambition, which is great. It’s no longer the ‘glorified rec league’ it was said to be”
“I think Haringey will add a bit of spice, but don’t think they will find the league as easy as some think they will”
Despite the optimism about the season ahead, the sad truth is that Bristol were in the league above two years ago and on the rise. A growing fan base, a strong roster and signs of development both on and off the ice made the Pitbulls one of UK hockey’s emerging and strangely quirky success stories.
This was despite playing out of a Frogmore Street rink that was admittedly in poor shape and not the greatest venue to either watch or play league ice hockey.
A ramshackle rink is however, better than no rink, and when the doors closed for good, it was a devastating blow to the Hargreaves family and the hardy band of fans and volunteers that had worked so hard to rekindle the fire for competitive ice hockey in one of the UK’s biggest cities.
“I don’t think we really thought they would shut the rink doors, but they did” said Mike, who made his senior hockey debut in 1998 with Wightlink Raiders.
“Dicky had worked so hard building the club and our supporters club was really taking off”
“I think we were close to 200 members and it’s really sad as Bristol had fallen off the ice hockey map before we launched the Pitbulls and we are a major city”
“Plans were in place to really make the game grow in Bristol and now they are on hold. What we had built was more than just a team; it became a real social club and a place for people to enjoy a new sport”
“Even though the rink was in a horrible state, people would look past that as they had found something different”
“Our supporters are amazing and most still follow us on a weekly basis, we really appreciate their dedication and it shows in the players commitment to the cause”
The size of the city and the prospect of growing hockey as a sport is a tantalising one for everyone associated with the Pitbulls but as yet there are no concrete proposals for a new facility in Bristol itself.
“We really don’t know when we will be getting a new rink, there is a lot going on, however the goal posts keep getting moved” admitted Hargreaves.
“The potential is massive here, as we proved in our old rink. We had games where we had to turn people away, as they had no chance of seeing the game”
“I think in our last season, we had a regular gate of around 400 supporters”
“Think of what we could get if people could buy a drink from the bar, get a hot meal from a clean cafe, go to the toilet without having to hold the door shut with their foot, or actually see the ice without a massive pillar in front of their face”
“The potential is huge”
One thing is for sure; the Hargreaves brothers will be giving their all on the ice again this season in their hometown colours and have already arranged pre-season games against Solway Sharks and Deeside Dragons to make sure they are prepared.
That alone shows how seriously the Pitbulls take things relative to their position in UK hockey, and that is before mentioning their merchandise range and team car.
Lithuanian international Egidijus Bauba will continue to provide a cutting edge alongside Finn Janne Virtanen, and former Swindon blue liner Tom Asprey will give Mike Hargreaves assistance on defence.
It will also mean that the Hargreaves brother s line up alongside each other on the ice for the seventh consecutive season.
“I signed a long term deal when Dicky formed the Pitbulls” laughed Mike, who is two years younger than his sibling Coach.
“I think I have about 5 years left to run on it”
“It’s strange because not only do I play for him; I have to work with him as well in the day job. So if I make a mistake I hear about it all bloody week”
“What I think is nice, is we are two completely different players with different ideas. I’ve always helped out on the ice or on the bench, but this year he’s made me his assistant coach and in turn there will be a new Pitbulls captain”
“He’s always looking to evolve the club and give people opportunities”
It would be nice to think that the city of Bristol gives these persevering brothers the opportunity to put ice hockey back in the sporting psyche; however time will tell if the west of England becomes a hockey hotbed in the future.
Without a rink, the Pitbulls continue to fly the flag for another season at least.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on the Bristol rink campaign: http://www.bristolneedsarink.com/p_home.html