Alex Dampier was one of the most successful coaches in the modern era of British ice hockey, notably masterminding the World Championship promotion run of the men’s senior team in the early 1990s, which re established Britain as a serious hockey nation.
Like most Canadian youngsters Dampier grew up playing hockey, combining this with his academic studies at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario where he obtained a degree in physical education. Equally adept as a defensive defenceman and a left-winger, by the time he was 23 he was mentoring youngsters and discovering his true calling as a coach.
It wasn’t until ‘Damps’ came to Scotland in 1978 to meet Sally, his Scottish girl-friend (later his wife), that he discovered the game was played here, and he joined Murrayfield Racers. They made the most of his talents as a defenceman then, realising his coaching ability, within 12 months appointed him player-coach
From the opening of the 1983-84 season, he made only occasional on ice appearances preferring to concentrate on his bench duties. With Dampier in their line-up, in three straight seasons 1979-81 the Racers won the Northern League, the Autumn Cup and the national knock-out tournament for the Icy Smith Cup. Under Dampier the coach, they appeared in back-to-back Heineken British Championship finals at Wembley Arena in 1984 and 1985. Alex himself was voted on to numerous All-Star squads.
This level of success followed him when he was snapped up by the league’s eighth-placed team Nottingham Panthers in the summer of 1985. They duly won the Autumn Cup in 1986 and 1991, and he and the Panthers finally collected the British Championship title in 1989 in front of 8,996 fans at the ‘spiritual home’.
Alex shook the Nottingham faithful when he quit the club in January 1993 and joined their hated rivals, Sheffield Steelers. Despite playing in the second tier, the recently formed Steelers were packing in the crowds in their new 8,500-seat, state-of-the-art arena and were ambitious for success. The haul of silverware being won by their local adversaries had not gone unnoticed and their coach was highly coveted.
Damps didn’t let them down, winning promotion to the Premier Division of the Heineken League within a few months. Appointed general manager at the start of the 1994-95 campaign, he brought in fellow Canadian Clyde Tuyl as his head coach. The pairing was a triumph. They guided the team to the league and championship double twice in two years and captured the first Superleague Play-Offs crown in 1997.
After one campaign as coach of the ill-fated Newcastle Riverkings, he returned to help his old club Nottingham Panthers at a time – midway through 1999-2000 – when the team were experiencing financial troubles in the expensive Superleague. He instilled some needed confidence in his men and they reached the final of the Challenge Cup.
Alex remained with the Panthers until the end of the 2001-02 season when he rejoined Tuyl at Newcastle for his final campaign in this country. With the over-mighty Superleague on the verge of collapse, the Vipers had opted to compete in the second tier Findus British National League and the old pals went out in style with the Findus Cup.
It was with the GB men’s teams in the World Championships, however, that Damps left an indelible mark. In 1984 he began a six-term spell in charge of the Under-21s and twice they achieved bronze medal success at Pool C level.
This led to his appointment as head coach of the senior team in 1990 (an earlier attempt in 1981 in China had not gone well), which resulted in them topping Pool D in Cardiff and gaining promotion. From this point on the squad surged upward, winning Pool C in 1992 in Humberside – after finishing fifth in 1991 in Copenhagen – and thence to Pool B in Eindhoven, Netherlands in 1993. There they surprised themselves by winning all their games in the eight-nation tournament, earning a place in the world’s top 12 for the first time since 1962.
On all these tournaments Dampier, a thinking man’s coach with a self-deprecating manner, worked closely with his assistant, fellow Hall of Famer Pete (Jonker) Johnson, a great motivator whose ebullient personality was his boss’s polar opposite. Together, they created a close camaraderie among the players, which was one of the major reasons for their swift rise in the world rankings.
Understandably however, GB’s 1994 encounters with the elite countries, which included Canada and Russia, were difficult ones and they were relegated. The BIHA admitted that GB’s sudden success had caught them by surprise. The national team received little support in those days, the club sides being the first priority. This was especially pronounced by the Heineken sponsorship when their ‘Wembley Weekend’ was controversially held only days before the World Championships opened.
When the governing body were unable to reassure him that matters would improve, Dampier resigned from his role, explaining that “there is no way I can carry on if, again, we’re given no time to prepare”. He could exit with his head high as he had achieved all he or anyone could have expected of him.
Alex Dampier was born on 3 May 1951 at Nipigon, Thunder Bay, Ontario. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in April 1995. In 2016, he had chemotherapy for leukaemia and hospitalised in Cleveland, Ohio for bone marrow transplant and has since fully recovered.