Justin Bieber and the Manchester Storm: An unlikely love affair

I have spent more time in Manchester recently due to my day job, and commuter daydreams have led to regular contemplation of the local professional ice hockey team. Weird, I know, but that is how my brain works. And besides, the Manchester Storm have a proud heritage worthy of poetic exploration.

Formed in 1995, the Storm set a British ice hockey attendance record in 1997, when 17,245 fans watched their 6-2 victory over the rival Sheffield Steelers. Two years later, the Storm were crowned national champions, but mounting costs and waning commercial support forced extinction by 2002.

Devoted fans kept the Storm DNA alive by forming Manchester Phoenix, a team eventually based in nearby Altrincham, before a new Manchester Storm emerged in 2015. That incarnation usurped the Phoenix in Altrincham and replaced the defunct Hull Stingrays in the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), restoring a fine old name to Britain’s top tier.

I’m far from a hockey connoisseur, and the Storm’s halcyon peak occurred while I was a toddler, but the club’s reformation fascinated me. I enjoyed a bygone podcast – The Forecast – which chronicled Manchester’s hockey revival in real-time, and the project carried marketing, rebranding and logistical lessons that can be applied to similar contexts.

I have never attended a Storm game, but I will change that during the upcoming season. In the meantime, though, it seems pertinent to investigate one of my favourite Manchester Storm quirks: the team’s absurd links to Justin Bieber. Yes, you read that correctly – Justin Bieber, the Canadian popstar, is a Manchester Storm fan. And, what’s more, Bieber has played with the Storm on several occasions. Even I could not make that up.

Of course, like most Canadians, Bieber is an ice hockey afficionado. Ostensibly a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, he has occasionally been derided for wearing the sweaters of different teams while showing up at seemingly random games. Bieber also packs ice skates and hockey sticks while touring, and often hooks up with local clubs as respite from the grind.

That propensity to engage with upstart hockey teams convinced Manchester Storm general manager Neil Russell to contact Bieber’s management in October 2016. Bieber was due to perform in Manchester during his Purpose world tour, and Russell sent a speculative email inviting the megastar to Altrincham for a scrimmage. Russell was particularly inspired by Bieber visiting the EHC Red Bull Munich team a few weeks earlier, but the Storm received no reply before his UK arrival.

That changed – frantically, magically, and somewhat unbelievably – on an otherwise moribund Monday morning – October 24, 2016 – when Bieber’s team called Russell unexpectedly. Bieber was keen to meet up with the Storm during his stay in the region, and further calls, texts and emails were exchanged. Bieber cancelled on the Storm three separate times, before an unlikely rendezvous was hastily arranged on Tuesday. “He will be with you in 40 minutes,” a Bieber aide told Russell over the phone, and the GM scrambled to assemble his team.

Bieber duly arrived at Planet Ice Altrincham, the rudimentary arena seating 2,167 that houses the Storm. Located 10 miles from Manchester city centre, in the sleepy market town of Altrincham – home to 78,000 people – the arena doubles as an outlet for municipal recreation. Unperturbed by the modest surroundings, Bieber took a spot in the Storm locker room and was given a bespoke team uniform. He held his own during an intense practice, and even scored a neat goal – a video of which was appeared on social media.

Indeed, as word of Bieber’s presence spread, an impromptu crowd formed at the rink. After the session, Bieber treated the Storm to drinks at The Tavern on the Green, a traditional Altrincham pub, where he played darts before returning to Manchester to party at the Tiger Tiger nightclub. Bieber signed a pink Storm jersey – emblazoned with the number 94, a nod to his birth year – before leaving, and the rare memorabilia raised £2,800 at auction in aid of The Christie cancer charity.

“It took a lot of planning and communication backwards and forwards over the past 10 days, but we got there in the end,” Russell told the Manchester Evening News. “Bieber had a ball with the guys out on the ice, which was great to see. And for the players themselves – what an experience for them to skate with a global superstar. He got some bad press while in Manchester, but I have to say, he was very polite, mannerly and respectful to us all during his visit. The amount of media interest has been incredible, both here in the UK and back in North America. It was a pleasure to have Justin Bieber skate with us.”

The ‘bad press’ referenced by Russell emanated from onstage remonstrations where Bieber asked fans to stop screaming, then walked offstage when they did not. Some local commentators criticised his attitude, but behind the scenes, Bieber made friends throughout Manchester with humble gestures of goodwill. And those relationships stood the test of time, as evidenced by another Storm encounter just four weeks later.

On that occasion – November 28, 2016 – Bieber asked the Storm to skate with him in Milton Keynes, almost 150 miles away, before his sold-out show at the 02 Arena. As such, members of the Storm – including captain Trevor Johnson – decamped south to meet their famous fan, singing Baby, a popular Bieber tune, en route. A video of that performance went viral, as media attention swirled around the team. For his part, Bieber wore a black Storm uniform during the improvised practice, then invited the team to watch his gig from backstage. They even joined Bieber at a private tour-ending party following the show.

“After the amazing experience the first time skating with JB, you never really think it would happen again,” Johnson told the team website. “I knew we left a good impression on him and his whole staff after the first meeting. I believe they trusted us and felt comfortable being around the whole team, and that’s the reason we have kept the relationship with him. From the moment I greeted him outside the rink, he was excited and wanted to be with the team again. You know when he remembers the guys names it’s more than just another event for him. It’s hard to explain the relationship we have with him, but he trusts us and we respect the world he lives in.”

Bieber returned to Manchester in June 2017 to perform at One Love Manchester, a concert arranged by Ariana Grande in memory of those killed in a bomb attack at her show in the city two weeks earlier. The benefit gig was held at Lancashire Cricket Club, before a crowd of 55,000, and Bieber found time to join the Storm once again while in the area.

Unfortunately, that visit fell during the EIHL offseason, so many Storm players were back in North America, enjoying time with their families while contemplating future opportunities. Nevertheless, Storm head coach Ryan Finnerty managed to cobble together a representative team to train with Bieber, who enjoyed his time on the Altrincham ice once again.

“I got a text about three in the morning from Trevor Johnson, who knows Justin’s PA pretty well, saying he was looking to come and skate and [asking] if I could make it happen,” Finnerty told the Storm website. “It was kind of a combined effort, trying to get everyone in place and Silverblades [operators of the Altrincham ice rink] were the star of the situation. They were able to shut it down and leant on a lot of guys to come.

“It all happened in the space of six hours and, in the end, it all went off really well. The guys had a lot of fun coming along for what was a pretty good scrimmage. For his security team, it’s maybe good for him to go somewhere he knows and plays, so we’re the beneficiaries of that, for sure. It was a pretty unique experience, so to see it come together so quickly was a real effort.”

Reflecting the rushed nature of their latest arrangement, Bieber wore a black Los Angeles Kings jersey during that scrimmage, rather than his usual custom Storm attire. Nevertheless, true to form, Bieber later signed the stick he used, which was auctioned in aid of local charities, including the arena bombing victims. Such classy acts of kindness epitomise Bieber, whose human heart is often overlooked in the maelstrom of dehumanising celebrity.

Alas, Bieber has not performed in the UK since that 2017 concert, and consequently, his interactions with the Manchester Storm have been minimal in the intervening eight years. Neil Russell left the Storm in August 2017, and Trevor Johnson retired at a similar time, further eroding tangible links between Bieber and the Storm.

Nevertheless, when I finally make it to The Storm Shelter later this year, I will keep an eye out for Justin Bieber – not that his entourage will be inconspicuous. I might even pop into The Tavern on the Green, a short walk from the arena, to pay tribute. There are drearier commutes, after all. Not every British town has an ice hockey team with a world famous mascot.

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