Arthur Elvin was one of an elite group of entrepreneurial British and Canadian businessmen who formed and promoted the first professional ice hockey league in Britain.
After taking control of Wembley Stadium in 1926, he was instrumental in the construction of the indoor Empire Pool and Sports Arena. In 1934 he put together two ice hockey teams, the Lions and Canadians (later Monarchs), which were founder members of the English National League in season 1935-36.
Most of the league’s other teams were controlled by business partners of Elvin – Canadian Freddie Summerhayes at Empress Hall, who ran Earls Court Rangers and Kensington Corinthians, and Bristolian Claude Langdon at Richmond, who was the boss of the Hawks and Brighton Tigers. The league was a roaring success, the teams filling the buildings – even the 8,000-seaters at Earls Court and Wembley – for many years on either side of World War Two.
The Empire Pool, which was designed on the lines of Canada’s finest arenas, staged ice hockey for longer than any of its rivals. The Lions won the league four times, more than any other club, and many Hall of Famers graced its NHL-sized ice surface. The Lions played numerous games against European national squads, notably the powerful Soviet Union, whose team notoriously staged a sit-down strike in 1955 after complaining about dirty play by English defenceman Roy Shepherd.
Regular ice hockey there ceased in 1968, but when sponsors Heineken began their annual British Championship weekends in the renamed Wembley Arena in 1983, they aptly dubbed it ‘the sport’s spiritual home’.
Elvin, familiarly known as Jack, was the son of a policeman. Leaving school at 14 he moved to London two years later and became a successful soap salesman in west London. In the early days of World War One, he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and obtained a commission. The RFC was the most hazardous of the services at that time and he was shot down over France, but survived to be made a prisoner of war. On his repatriation to Britain, the Ministry of Munitions put him in charge of dismantling ammunition dumps in France.
His association with Wembley started in 1924 when he was an assistant in a tobacco kiosk at the stadium during the British Empire Exhibition. After the exhibition closed, he made his fortune by buying up and clearing out the derelict pavilions and selling off the scrap. When the stadium went into liquidation, Elvin raised sufficient finance to buy the complex, then sold it to the newly formed Wembley Stadium Ltd of which he became managing director at the age of 27.
Having promoted new sports such as greyhound racing and speedway, his next idea was to try indoor sports and he persuaded the board to build a multi-purpose arena next door to the stadium. The result was the Empire Pool and Sports Arena, which opened in 1934 and went on to host numerous events from barrel-jumping to show jumping.
Elvin, along with the other arena owners, recruited Canadian ice hockey players in large numbers and fans flocked to see the games, which at Wembley were superbly presented in comfortable surroundings and accompanied by an informative programme unequalled by any other sport at the time.
A demanding employer, he required an all-out effort from his staff. But he led by example, working almost round the clock from his modest office in the stadium. He fought long and hard to keep Wembley going, especially in the face of the unpopular entertainment tax.
There were more boom years for pro ice hockey immediately after the war but the equal popularity of long-running ‘Christmas’ ice shows which continued into March, disrupted the season and damaged the sport with its fans. The Monarchs folded in 1950 but the Lions remained members of the league until 1960 when changes in the economy meant it was no longer viable to continue importing Canadians, and the league collapsed.
Meanwhile, the hard-working Elvin had been suffering from declining health since having a stroke in 1956 and then contracting emphysema. He died a year later while on a cruise to South Africa. Whether he would have been able to do anything to ensure the continuation of ice hockey at his beloved Wembley, we shall never know. One thing is certain, however. He would have been proud that Wembley Arena came to regarded as the spiritual home of ice hockey in Britain.
Arthur Elvin was born on 5 July 1899 in Norwich. He was made a Member of the British Empire in 1945 and received his knighthood from King George VI in 1947. He died at sea on 4 February 1957.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.