Bracknell Ice Rink and Bracknell Bees logo

Bracknell Ice Rink, Bracknell

Bracknell Bees vs. Leeds Chiefs
NIHL National

"Fortune, fame. Mirror vain. Gone insane. But the memory remains," sings James Hetfield in the opening line of Metallica's 1997 single 'The Memory Remains', taken from the album 'ReLoad' which everyone claims to hate (but I like it, and it's certainly better than the 2003 monstrosity 'St. Anger') because musicians are meant to churn out the same sounding album repeatedly until they die.

Exterior of the Bracknell Ice Rink & Ski Slope
They stopped caring about what league the "Bees" were a long time ago. Never quite worked out why they use quote marks.

The song allegedly describes a once-great, but now washed up celebrity who must deal with becoming something of the past and no longer being the star they used to be, all while still being desperate to regain their stardom. Seems like the perfect metaphor for the boom and bust period that British ice hockey and the Bracknell Bees have gone through during the time I've been watching.

Exterior of the Bracknell Ice Rink
Nobody likes a show-off.


The rise of rich people wanting new toys to play with and large, multi-purpose arenas took ice hockey in the UK to heights never seen before in the 1990s. The sparkling and unsustainably large new arenas in Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle brought the sport to new eyeballs, away from people sitting in poorly lit, and dingy rinks without plexiglass for a few hours on a Saturday and Sunday night.

Thousands of curious fans started to turn up to watch a minority sport and like most things, if people suddenly start flocking to see a sport, people just assume that that is how things will remain for all time. As a result, ambitious millionaires decided to capitalise on some mild curiosity and take charge of the sport themselves. This ushered in a whole new era of professionalism and so, the Ice Hockey Superleague was born.

Main entrance to the Bracknell Ice Rink
Walking through these doors used to bring so much excitement and anticipation.

It was in this era I first discovered the Bees and the John Nike Leisuresport Complex Bracknell Ice Rink. The plucky little underdogs in a small rink (which was always spoken about as if their ice pad was smaller, for some reason), of whom nothing was ever expected, outperforming their more generously funded rivals was a common feature in these seasons.

I made my first visit to the strange little Ice Rink and Ski Slope tucked away in the outskirts of Bracknell back in December 1997. I can't remember exactly why I came, since I didn't know much about the sport, but I liked the Mighty Ducks trilogy and I think my mum may have got free tickets through the school where she worked.

Ice hockey at the Bracknell Ice Rink
Bracknell popularised the rainbow well before LGBT groups got a hold of it.


I remember nothing of the first game against the Cardiff Devils, except for sitting on one of the yellow and blue benches (still there) and hearing cries of "chiiiiiiiieeeeeeef" anytime Chris Brant touched the puck. The fans were passionate and loud, you could actually hear the PA system, the building was mostly full and each trip to this hive of activity was an occasion to look forward to. It's sad to think that this atmosphere will likely never return.

That first game, and the TV deal with Sky Sports, exposed me to a whole generation of new heroes. I was immediately blown away and captivated by these new "superstars" gracing the ice in front of me. Gone were the names of Morley, Lovell, Solskjaer and Beckham in my affections. In were Junkin, McCosh, Brant and Côté. I created them on NHL 98 (overall ratings 99, of course) and put up poorly printed photos of them on my wall.

Face off in the game between Bracknell Bees and Leeds Chiefs
The rink remains largely the same as it was 20 years ago. The hilariously low ceiling tiles may now have gone, but the ice looks exactly as it did in the 1997/98 season.

Mirror Vain

If there is one thing you can't accuse the Bracknell Ice Rink of having, it's vanity. For having excessive vanity in one's appearance would mean that somebody would feel suitably embarrassed about constructing a building with an interior containing such a staggering amount of blue and yellow and a hideous colour scheme. It's charming to think that somebody once thought that they could pass this building off as being located in Los Angeles.

But vanity, an overinflated sense of self-importance (and salary cap) was what brought an end to the ambitious, but hopelessly mismanaged Superleague, and the golden era of ice hockey, at a time just before the NHL decided taking a year off was a great marketing strategy and killed my passion for the sport. It really was the end of an era.

View from the upper tier at Bracknell Ice Rink
The Bracknell Ice Rink's top row offers superb views of the back of heads and a tiny bit of the goal.

Gone Insane

The growth period proved unsustainable. The promised new arenas, including one for Bracknell which would have housed 10,000 spectators (🙈), never came. The Superleague took a catastrophic TV deal with Premium TV, a group which didn't even have a TV station, which predictably never materialised, losing all the exposure from Sky Sports and setting off a downward spiral from which it would never recover. The league fell to three teams by the end of 2003 and folded without so much of a whimper shortly afterwards, in heavy debt.

There were also lasting damages to the sport as a whole. British players were largely ignored, with teams preferring to fill their teams instead with players who had appeared in an EA Sports NHL game and were desperate for a new job. The use of native players would drop year on year throughout the Superleague era until only four were left.

Behind the netting at Bracknell Ice Rink
They've done a great job at bringing back spectators over the years, but there still feels like something is missing.

I have long argued that whilst it really was a great league, it wasn't just the ridiculous salary cap, the neglect of youth development, or the removal of promotion and relegation with a closed shop league that truly damaged the sport from a spectator standpoint.

The Superleague was so good, once being touted at being a level between the American Hockey League and ECHL, that it might accidentally have removed the one thing that would get people to come out and watch, goals.

View from downstairs at the Bracknell Ice Rink
Once packed to the rafters, the downstairs part tends to resemble a ghost town now.

Rosters filled with experienced, former NHL talent, as well as import goaltenders, immediately brought about such an increase in playing standards that the high scoring shootouts people used to come and watch regularly were suddenly no more. Go back and look at league standings and player points from the late eighties and early nineties and the goal numbers are insane. And people would come and fill up the rinks for every game. Teams hitting double figures every night was commonplace (I have a video of Nottingham beating Edinburgh 19-2 in the B&H Cup back in 1994).

The standard was terrible and yet people would go watch that. Suddenly goalies weren't so terrible and it's a trait that has carried over to this day. Watching the NIHL is quite a poor experience, and the standard objectively isn't very good. But the British goaltenders are a hell of a lot better than their counterparts 25 years ago and I wonder if the game was more high-scoring, would that bring the crowds back? It's certainly something the NHL constantly wrestles with.

View from downstairs at the Bracknell Ice Rink
At least the view through the glass isn't quite as terrible as it used to be.

But the memory remains

The Bees's 2000 Ice Hockey Superleague title winning success still ranks as one of the best sports moments I've ever got to witness, and will probably remain that way until Reading actually win a playoff final or win the Premier League. The memories of little Bracknell's ridiculously good team (with players like Denis Chassé, Paxton Schulte and Bruno Campese triumphing over the big city powerhouses of Manchester, London and Sheffield will never leave me, even if the team all left for Belfast the next year and the photos I took of the trophy presentation long since disappeared.

It only seemed fitting that the visitors for this game were the Leeds Chiefs. Their Superleague connections went all the way back to the Leeds Lasers franchise being awarded in 1996. The planned arena by Elland Road predictably never materialised and the Lasers were snuffed out altogether when it turned out Leeds United were significantly overpaying David Batty to the point of financial oblivion. Some 23 years later, a rink near Elland Road is finally due to open, albeit slightly smaller than the one planned two decades ago.

Props from the ice dancing shows at Bracknell Ice Rink
The benches I sat on for my first game are now packed away to store the building's rubbish.

And what of Bracknell? There was no 10,000 seat arena, so we're left with an old rundown rink, albeit in significantly better shape than Basingstoke's. The name on the building may have changed, sort of, with the passing of John Nike in 2016, but it's remained practically the same ever since it was built.

The Bees I grew up and fell in love with died, at least in my opinion, in 2005 when John Nike withdrew his investment and the British National League collapsed. The team that ices at Bracknell still just don't feel like the Bees to me and a long, barren run in the ever changing second tier has seen crowd numbers dwindle considerably. However, the club is doing a great job at pulling them back and the team is probably more competitive than it's been in years, so maybe there are some bright moments still to come.

This colourful little spot just off the A329(M) will always be the home of ice hockey to me and it'll be a sad day when it's gone for good. But for those of us who grew up here and got to experience all the good times, the memory remains.

Useless information about Bracknell Ice Rink

Address: John Nike Way, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 8TN
Capacity: 2,400
Pitch Type: Really cold water
Ticket Price: £13.50 (or free if you pester the right people)
Programme: £1, 8 pages

Bracknell Bees 2019/20 season programme