Bunny Ahearne was the dominant force in British and international ice hockey for over 40 years. He was the leading light of the governing British Ice Hockey Association (BIHA) from 1933 to 1982 and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the world ruling body, for 21 years from 1954 to 1975.
When British ice hockey effectively turned professional in the mid-1930s, the BIHA realised they needed a strong, charismatic character who could cope with the many problems this threw up. The pro teams were controlled by a handful of independent-minded and wealthy British and Canadian businessmen, with some sides based in huge arenas and others in smaller rinks. All of them relied on Canadian imports, which meant that the BIHA’s candidate would also have to negotiate with hockey’s authorities on the other side of the Atlantic.
John Ahearne, who ran Blue Riband Travel from offices in Mayfair, was known to be a shrewd businessman and a skilful negotiator. He was no stranger to ice hockey, either, having first recognised its potential as a spectator sport on his visits in 1931 to the Golders Green rink in north London. Duly appointed BIHA secretary, he proved more than able to deal with the owners of the English National League clubs and the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA), and consequently the standard of ice hockey pre-war came to be regarded as the best outside North America.
His abilities were appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic. Within the space of 18 months, the BIHA made him their delegate to the world governing body and he was appointed manager of the Great Britain national team. Across the Atlantic, he was made an honorary member of the Eastern Arenas Union, a hockey promotors’ organisation, and the CAHA’s European representative. He was a very enterprising 33-year-old.
His methods often gave rise to controversy, however, though he characteristically shrugged this off. Gleefully recalling some of the backroom fighting he had to do in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany before GB’s Triple Crown victories in the 1936 Winter Olympics, he said: “After we beat the Canadians 2-1 several officials wanted to break the rules and make us play Canada again. But I insisted that we stick to the rules.” They stuck to the rules.
At the same time the game here was a roaring success, drawing vast crowds to games in London and Brighton, and Bunny was deeply involved. “The National League was my baby,” he declared. “I did everything from drawing up the fixtures to sorting out the refereeing problems.” Modesty was not one of his strengths.
He regularly clashed with the Scots, whose rink/club owners formed their own association, but he raised funds for the governing body by ensuring that all players, including Canadians, paid a levy and became officially registered. His disputes with the Canadian authorities down the years are the stuff of legend, but he was nevertheless one of the few Europeans to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
After the war he was appointed to the ruling Council of the IIHF and swiftly rose to the office of Vice-President in 1951. A battle then raged for control of the international body, which was won by Ahearne and his allies, and in 1954 he started
the first of seven consecutive three-year terms as either the International or European President.
His business acumen and talent for innovation gave the sport an enormous boost, swelling the IIHF’s coffers from 30,000 to two million Swiss Francs and he was one of the first people to turn sports advertising into big business. One of his main duties was organising the annual World Championships, and his modernisations included the creation of the various Pools, the sharing out of venues to more countries, and most lucratively, selling the TV rights.
But his style attracted many critics. His predecessor Dr Fritz Kraatz said: “He was a dictator but I believe the Federation often needed one.” He described Bunny as “an Irishman, fiery-haired, arrogant, quick on the uptake, a fine businessman, obstinate, but capable of marvellously warm feelings.” It was his ‘marvellously warm’ side that earned him the cosy nickname of ‘Bunny’, which he had acquired early in his life after the logo on his favourite tennis shirts.
When the British National League collapsed in 1960 Ahearne was deeply involved in international affairs, but he remained firmly in charge at the BIHA, becoming President in 1971. After his early run-ins with the powerful arena operators, he was naturally a keen supporter of publicly-owned rinks. “The National League folded because the owners became too greedy,” he declared. He lived long enough to see his dream come true when the huge Sports Council-inspired rink building programme began in the early 1980s.
His other dispute with the owners was over their short-sightedness. “They imported Canadians at great cost but wouldn’t encourage the British player,” he complained. He finally stood down as President on his 82nd birthday in November 1982 but he was undoubtedly a strong influence on his successor, Frederick Meredith, who brought in a three-import limit the following season when the Heineken British League was formed. He saw his last game, the Heineken British Championship final at Wembley Arena, in 1984.
John Francis (Bunny) Ahearne was born on 19 November 1900 in Kinnagh, County Wexford and died on 11 April 1988 at Toddington, Gloucestershire. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977, into Britain’s Hall of Fame in 1986, and the IIHF Hall of Fame in 1997. He received honours from several countries for his services to international ice hockey, including the Cross of Finland, the Order of Yugoslavia and the Gold Cross of Austria.