John Smith was an ice seller, whose decision to transform his business into building ice rinks created one of Britain’s earliest ‘ice hockey hotbeds’ in north-east England.
John was the 13th of 14 children born into the Smith family in the Pennine village of Lartington. Smiths by name and smiths by trade, they had been dedicated to the working of iron for four centuries.
Although he dutifully went into the family business, he soon decided that the end product was too lasting to encourage many repeat orders. In that pre-refrigerator age, therefore, he decided instead to sell something that would not survive very long – ice. His customers were soon affectionately calling him ‘Icy’ Smith.
In an old mill at Barnard Castle, he established a factory which produced about a ton of ice every 24 hours. As demand increased the factory was extended and he eventually opened a second one in Darlington. His third at Durham was only a short distance along the River Wear from where in June 1939 his dream of an ice rink became a reality.
The dream had been born out of his love of ice skating as a child on the village pond. When it became clear that the development of modern refrigerators would soon put an end to the business of selling large blocks of ice, he decided an ice rink was the answer to both.
Purchasing the site of an old water mill so that the river would provide hydro-electric power, Smith began construction of seven miles of water pipes. When the outbreak of war stopped building work before the roof could be fitted, he erected a huge marquee, reputedly the largest in Europe, which was supported by seven huge posts set into the ice.
The rather bizarre place nevertheless soon attracted local skaters, with some playing a form of ice hockey. With several airfields in the locality, it wasn’t long before some Canadian fliers turned up and formed a services hockey league. There were a few talented players among them, even a handful of NHL professionals.
Despite post-war shortages, in 1946 Smith managed to have a concrete and steel-framed permanent rink built in nine months, with tiered seating composed, notoriously, of warsurplus coffin lids. Urged on by his referee son, he agreed to support ice hockey on a regular basis, his only proviso being that the core of the team should be local players, unlike most others in the country.
At the start of the 1947-48 season, 2,500 people turned up to watch Durham Wasps play Kirkcaldy Flyers in the first of 32 challenge games. By December the crowds topped 4,000 with hundreds more turned away. The Wasps went on to be an influential force in the game until the rink closed in 1996.
Along with the Scottish clubs, the Wasps formed the Northern Tournament in 1948-49, and in 1957 Icy founded a ‘sister’ rink in Whitley Bay which was (and still is) managed by the Smith family. As a keen amateur beekeeper, he named the team, the Bees. They were renamed the Warriors in 1963.
When a rink was built at Billingham, 20 miles south of Durham, in 1967 the family’s ice rink business, Durham Ice & Sports Stadiums Ltd, leased it from the Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council and ran it and ice hockey’s Bombers for 20 years. The Bombers are still playing.
Aside from his businesses, Icy took a close interest in local affairs and was, first, the Mayor of Darlington. Later he became in turn a county councillor, a Durham city councillor and alderman and eventually, the Mayor of Durham City.
John Frederick James Smith was born in 1889 in Lartington, Teesdale, two miles west of Barnard Castle, and died on 17 January 1964 in a train accident at Jesmond, near Newcastle. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988.