Ian Wight was the man behind Heineken’s multi-million-pound sponsorship of British ice hockey in the 1980s and early 1990s. He was the chairman of the Wight Company, the brand manager for the Whitbread Company, the brewers and distributors of the Dutch lager beer in the UK.
In the early 1980s, Mr Wight received a presentation from ice hockey’s governing body, the British Ice Hockey Association, just as he had been commissioned by Whitbread to find a sport with growth potential that would be attractive to 18-to-24-year-olds.
Ice hockey’s growth potential was tremendous as a Sports Council-backed ice rink building programme began at the start of the 1980s. After learning this and watching a game at Streatham with BIHA president Frederick Meredith, he was sold on the sport. Over the following ten years, he became a hands-on sponsor, putting in a huge amount of work behind the scenes of the booming game.
Wight estimated that the value of the promotion, which ran from April 1983 with the British Championships at Streatham, to April 1993, amounted to £5 million. The sport, which was strictly amateur with the level of hockey so low that Great Britain no longer felt able to enter a team in the World Championships, now had the funds to improve standards all round.
Ian’s greatest coup was acquiring Wembley Arena each spring and inaugurating a long weekend of league play-offs, named the Heineken Championships. This established the tradition of ‘the Play-off Weekend’, a fan jamboree at the end of every season which has continued to this day, though sadly no longer at Wembley.
The north London arena had successfully staged pro hockey for over 25 years in 1934-60 and it was his inspiration to dub the venerable venue ‘the spiritual home of ice hockey’.
From season 1983-84 the British League was re-christened the Heineken League, and ice hockey was widely featured in the company’s nationwide publicity campaign, which introduced their famous slogan ‘Heineken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach’.
The campaign, which was organised by Wight and his staff from their office in Knightsbridge, included a variety of innovations, including a Game of the Month on BBC Grandstand from rinks dressed with Heineken advertising banners; a premium telephone [Heineken] hotline which fans could ring for up-to-date scores and news; and branded merchandise like jerseys and caps.
For the first time in decades, the sport was covered in the national press, thanks to the Wight Company’s staff, including part-time statistician Gordon Wade, who sent news and match reports to the sports editors of all the national papers every Monday morning.
With the name of a major international brand to protect, the Wight Company ensured that the presentation of games at every rink was impeccable, and that there was ready access to players for press interviews.
Mr Wight showed his personal enthusiasm for the sport when, outside the sponsorship contract, he took charge of an international event on behalf of the governing body. When Great Britain
unexpectedly won promotion to Pool A of the World Championships in 1993, it rendered them eligible to enter a qualifying competition for the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Urgently needing someone with organisational skill the BIHA turned to Ian, who agreed to handle the five-nation tournament in Sheffield Arena, and also persuaded BBC Grandstand to show highlights of the games.
When Heineken’s contract expired, BIHA secretary Pat Marsh paid tribute to his work. “Without Ian, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she said. “He was hooked on hockey from the start. What stands out in my mind is that he grasped the game so quickly. His enthusiasm, ideas and forthright personality sold the game to television, to Wembley and, of course, to Heineken.”
Ian Wight was born on 28 October 1941 in Belfast. Quiet and unassuming, though combative when necessary, he has a keen sense of humour. He started the Wight Company, later renamed Orbit International, in 1979 as a sponsorship agency for several organisations in addition to Whitbread.
The driving force for three decades behind the Stella Artois tennis tournament at London’s Queen’s Club, he was honoured in 2006 by the Tennis Writers Association for services to the sport. The ice hockey writers inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 1993.