Benny Lee resolutely supported ice hockey at a time in the 1960s when it was going through a bad spell, and continued to fight for a new home for his famous Brighton Tigers after their beloved Sports Stadium (S.S.) had been unceremoniously demolished.
Lauded as ‘the greatest showman Brighton ever had’, the cigar-smoking impresario’s finest hour came, somewhat improbably, after the National League collapsed in 1960 and most of the Canadian imports had returned home. Benny’s faith in his new-look, home-grown team was amply rewarded when up to 3,000 fans regularly packed the atmospheric S.S. on West Street for a further five seasons to watch non-league games for a variety of trophies. He also found ice time for local youngsters in the Tiger Cubs.
The situation had come about as the vast London venues at Earls Court and Harringay Arena had fallen prey to developers, and the rink managements at Streatham, Nottingham and, for a while, Wembley insisted the game had no future. To prove them wrong, there were queues along West Street and ‘standing room only’ signs at the S.S. on Sunday evenings in Brighton.
For Mr Lee running the Stadium was almost a vocation. It was certainly in his blood. The son of boxing promoter Harry Lee, one of his brothers, Harry junior, was a speed skater and the other, Sydney, made his name as a billiards and snooker champion. As a young man Benny was a member of Britain’s 15-mile roller-skate racing teams in 1924 and 1925, and in 1933 he won the London professional outdoor ice-skating race over one-and-a-half miles on Rickmansworth Lido.
After serving in the RAF, he was able to hone his managerial talents at Streatham, which he got back into shape after the war. When ice show promoter Tom Arnold took control of the S.S. in 1951, he persuaded him to come to the coast. During his reign in the 1950s, the Tigers won the league, two Autumn Cups and the British Championship title.
As well as overseeing ice hockey, Benny added numerous other events, including basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters, boxing, wrestling, snooker, five a-side football and international table tennis. This turned the Stadium’s reported loss of £900 a week (about £20,000 today) into a handsome profit, amply fulfilling his promise to the town to turn the S.S. into ‘the sports and entertainment centre of the south’.
When it was threatened with closure so the area could be converted into retail and car parking, he led the fight to find another home for ice hockey and the other attractions. Right up until his death he held on to the hope that his Tigers would take to the ice once again.
Benny’s success – never equalled in the city since – were not just down to his entrepreneurial skills. The charismatic manager always looked the part, dressed in an immaculately tailored mohair suit and rarely without his trademark Havana cigar. Standing in the foyer of the Sports Stadium, meeting and greeting the fans on match nights, he was the best dressed man in town.
Benny Lee was born in Notting Hill, London in 1904 and died in Brighton in May 1990. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.