Welcome to the Guildford Flames Legends series. A series which will put the spotlight back onto the great players which formed such a vital part of the history of the club. Players who created many special moments on ice and players who helped build the infrastructure of the club; Cult heroes, championship winners – The very players who we think about when the “good ol’ days” are discussed.
This story goes back to the very origin of the Flames. Back when there was a team with no home. Back when the team would have to train for most of the season in Slough and travel to Alexandra Palace for home games. But when the team did eventually move home, on opening night a man stepped up and became a legend forever in Guildford. He was there for both the honeymoon period of this new team and was also there for the lowest point in their history. This is the legend of Andy Sparks.
This story begins back in Canada in 1973, the year when young British couple, Susan and John, welcomed their first born child into the world – Andrew, on Christmas eve. The Sparks family spent the first 10 years of Andy’s life in London, Ontario, where he grew up alongside little sister, Michelle. With London being a hockey-mad city with a large Maple Leaf fan base, it came as little surprise that Andy was on the ice at a young age playing the game.
“As anybody is, I was drawn to the speed, the skill and of course the physicality of the game. It was in Canada that I began skating and then eventually going on to play House League & Atom level hockey for Byron, a suburb within London.”
As Andy grew and developed as a hockey player, he looked up to many of the NHL superstars of the time, but refused to pigeonhole himself into 1 position, instead preferring to develop into a gritty forward who could play anywhere across the line.
“I don’t think I ever really tried to style my game on any one player. I just wanted to be that ‘all round’ guy who could help out at all ends of the ice and revelled in being in front of the opposition net, trying to get in the way and chip away for goals. I never really saw myself as the most skilled on the team, but I did all I could to help the team win a game. But I know I definitely never wanted to be a defenceman!
“I was lucky enough to be able to watch so many great players in the 80’s NHL and grew up admiring Gretzky (of course) Bossy and Lafleur, but as a Leafs fan I loved watching Rick Viave, Borje Salming and Mike Palmateer and was glued to the TV every Saturday night.”
In 1983, the Sparks family made the decision to move back to the UK, where they set up life once again in Epsom with the rest of the family. It was Andy’s grandad who searched for local hockey teams, and following a trial for Richmond, Andy decided to join the Streatham junior set up. Unsurprisingly, he stood out; and 4 years after his move to the UK, Andy found himself pulling on a Team GB jersey for the first time.
“I started playing for the England U16’s when I was just 14 and that particular year was probably the most nerve racking (in terms of the step up of quality). A lot of the players on that particular team were a year or two older than me and there was just a small handful of us younger players that made the squad, but, I had been playing against them all since we were pee-wees, so we kind of grew up together. After that it was the GB U16’s, 19’s & 21’s (European & World Championships) where we travelled to various parts of Europe playing against some great players/teams.”
Domestically, Andy was developing well as a player for Streatham, and earned his first call up to the senior team during the 1988/89 season, which stoked the fire in Andy to keep pushing to make a career out of the sport he loved so much.
“I was 15 when I was called up to play my first game for the Redskins and having just made the England U16’s just a year before, it was a great time for me.
“I think as a kid growing up playing this great game, you always strive to achieve as much as you can playing the game you love, as it can all come to an end before you know it. Back when I was a junior, the British player was given more opportunities to ‘crack the senior team’ as there were only 3 imports per team and they would always try to promote players from within. So I always wanted it to be my career for as long as I can remember and the more opportunities I was given by the Streatham Redskins, the more confident I became in my ability to achieve that dream.
“Once I made the team on a full time basis, it was a fun time as a lot of the guys had come from within the Streatham development system and we had therefore all made it there together.”
Unfortunately, the following season would be Andy’s last at Streatham. There was uncertainty over their future and things were not looking at all good in the summer of 1990. But the Basingstoke Beavers had just been promoted into the league and were on the lookout for players.
“I had just been away with the GB U19’s and was told all about the team and the area by Andy Pickles and Neil Peters. It was them that put me onto the Coach Don Yewchin who asked me to come play for the Beavers.”
And so he did. Basingstoke gave Andy his first significant ice time at senior level, as he iced 39 games in his first season for them, picking up 23 points in the process. The following season, Andy and the Beavers made it to the qualification playoffs, but fell short of promotion.
The summer of 1992 saw Andy move to the Milton Keynes Kings, where after just a couple of games, he picked up an injury which saw him forced to sit out. Despite his strong start to the season, on his return he found that he was surplus to requirements. Fortunately, the Kings had been approached about his availability which meant that Andy wouldn’t be on the sidelines for very long, and this next move is where the man became a legend, but there were many career highlights which Andy could reflect on.
“Playing Juniors in the UK was a great time and led to all I managed to achieve, but more importantly the friendships I made are my most important highlights. I have so many great friends from that era and a lot of them are from the same teams in Fife, Nottingham and Durham. It was them and us in Streatham that challenged for domestic honours year in and year out. Unfortunately Paul Dixon and the mighty blue machine from Durham always seem to pip us at the end.
“Internationally I would have to say the Bronze medals I have from the European & World Championships that we won in Bulgaria & Rome respectively are definite highlights.
“Scoring 6 goals in one game whilst playing on a line with Don Yewchin & Tim Salmon in Basingstoke was a pretty special night too.”
The Milton Keynes Kings had been approached by a brand new hockey team who called themselves the Guildford Flames, who had just been accepted into BD2. It was an opportunity which ticked all the right boxes for Andy – The organisation made him feel wanted from the outset and following the disappointment of his very short time in MK, gave him a chance to prove his worth once more.
There was only 1 slight issue for Guildford – Despite their efforts in assembling a small team which consisted of just 2 lines and being accepted into the British league structure; they didn’t actually have a home. The Spectrum was still some way off completion as the hockey season started, which meant the team had to rely on favours from ice rinks elsewhere, and it was Slough who came to Guildford’s rescue.
“Obviously it is not a common thing for a team to be using the facilities of one of their closest rivals, but the Jets were very accommodating, and had they not been, it would have made it very difficult for us to gain any momentum early in the season.
“There was one practice in particular where I didn’t have my face cage on and I took a Darrin Zinger clapper straight to my nose and upper lip. My face was swollen for weeks!
“We had a small squad with so much talent. We ran with just the 2 lines back then and even though we hadn’t played a single game at home yet, we were generating a buzz in the town. You knew even then that the team was about to be well supported when we finally arrived home.”
With the move home still being some way off, the Flames kicked off their life on the road where they took on the Sunderland Chiefs on the 17th October 1992.
“As is with any first game of a new season, there were the usual nervous excitement. But with it being the clubs first ever game, this was a little more intense than usual.”
And the team didn’t disappoint – They thrashed Sunderland 12-1.
Due to the Spectrum not being ready, the league were doing all they could to accommodate the Flames fixture schedule. This meant their next game didn’t get played until the 16th January 1993, where they once again took on the Sunderland Chiefs. This was classed as a home game however, and with ‘home’ still not ready, the Flames had to travel 50 miles to Alexandra Palace to play the game. The good thing was, this was a rink Andy was very much used to playing in due to his junior career, so it felt comfortable. And it appeared to feel the same for the rest of the team as they once again thrashed Sunderland, this time setting a club record, winning 24-6 (only bettered by beating Stevenage Sharks 24-3 at the Spectrum later in the season). The next night the team took on the Basingstoke Bulldogs, picking up their 2nd win on the road with big 16-2 win.
The following weekend on Saturday 23rd January 1993, the Guildford Flames finally moved to their home.
“In the lead up to the Spectrum opening, we got to have a few skates on our new home, but it was a little weird using tennis balls instead of pucks so as not to mark the new white boards!
“We had been “on the road” for so long that I think we were all counting down the days where we would be able to finally call the Spectrum home. Just like that very first game of the season, there was a nervous excitement around the dressing room, but I know each and every one of us was looking forward to the day. Like a number of our first few home games, the face off was delayed due to the sheer volume of people that were trying to get into the game. The Management had really worked hard in marketing us in our absence.”
2,139 crammed into the brand new Spectrum Leisure Complex to witness history in the making as the Flames took on the Stevenage Sharks. The Mayor of Guildford, who officially opened the building was in attendance, there were care bear mascots and cheerleaders – As the lights dimmed to welcome the teams on the ice, the atmosphere was electric.
“I’ll never forget that Sean Murphy and I were the last two out of the dressing room. He pulled me to one side and told me he thought I was one of the best British players in that league and that this was my night to prove it.”
And so he did. Andy Sparks then scored the first ever goal at the Guildford Spectrum with just 1.33 on the clock.
“It was all a blur to be honest and I’d love to see a video of it just to remind me how it exactly happened! I believe it was a three-way play between Sean Murphy, Dave McGahan and myself and the final pass came to me on the right so I was on my off wing and I one-timed it past the goalie. The place was packed and loud to begin with, but when that goal went in, the noise was deafening!
“My family were stood in the corner by skate hire, a place they stood every game after, and I managed to notice their excitement in amongst so many fans. My school friends from Epsom had tried to get in but were unsuccessful in getting tickets, but told me after that they saw my goal through the blinds at the far end of the ice, so that was pretty cool.”
The Flames went on to win the game 13-3. They went from strength to strength – They were rebranded the Pepsi-Cola Guildford Flames after picking up a huge sponsor deal and they stormed their conference group, advancing to the promotion playoffs. Whilst the playoffs didn’t quite go as planned, the Flames were still promoted.
But following on from those words of motivation from Sean Murphy at the Spectrum, Andy had proved that he was one of the best Brits in the league. He finished as the top British points scorer for the Flames.
“I believed I had proved myself again and was happy I had made the switch to Guildford. I wanted the next season to start straight away.”
The next season the Flames got off to a solid start with 9 wins in their first 12 games, but then dropped 6 on the bounce following a couple of injuries. They won back to back games against Oxford, but only picked up 2 wins in their next 15 as injury list continued to mount. At the start of the run, Pepsi Cola had withdrawn their sponsorship, and behind the scenes things were not looking at all good.
“This will all sound very cliché, but as a player you are always taught that you cannot control what happens off the ice and to therefore concentrate on what you can control on the ice. Don’t get me wrong, we are all human, and we’d be liars if we said it wasn’t on our minds, but we all tried to make the best of it and get on with business.
“As for the injuries, I think the same mentality is applied, as they have always been a part of the game. We have all played the game for so long that you learn to “pick up the slack” of the missing player(s).”
By March 1994, the financial issues came to a head. Despite strong crowd numbers, the team were not getting paid and it looked like the Guildford Flames hockey team were going to go out of existence within 2 seasons as a players strike loomed.
“At the end of the day, this was the livelihood of all the players and although everyone’s financial situations are different, no one likes not being paid. Fortunately for me, I was back living at home at the time, so bills weren’t really an issue. Plus I was still doing what I always dreamt of doing, playing hockey.
“We all discussed the possibility of a strike for sure, but I truly believe that we all believed in the town and the fans and didn’t want to let them down. As for moving elsewhere, I did get a few calls, but I truly wanted to see it through in Guildford.
“We only just missed out on the promotion playoffs and we saw that as a success. Once again, as bad as things were off the ice, at no time did we not give our all on it. It is what you are taught from a young age, you fight for the guys on the ice around you and we did just that every game. You play to put yourself in the position of winning or even possible promotion.
“If I had to choose a memory from that season, it would be that I got to play with two of the greatest defencemen to grace the British game and that unfortunately are no longer with us. Gary Cloonan and Darrin Zinger. They supported and helped me more than they ever knew.”
By the time the 94/95 season came, there had been some big changes behind the scenes. SportFact Ltd, led by John Hepburn had taken over ownership of the club, and had big ambitions for the Flames. Ron Charbonneau was hired as the General Manager, and he was given the task of getting the Flames to the top league within 3 seasons. Terry Kurtenbach was signed as the bench coach and Fred Perlini was the star name in a host of new signings at the Spectrum.
“We were able to attract so many big names after such a short history. Terry Kurtenbach and Freddy P were names that I had grown up watching and now they were on my team! Couple that with guys that I had grown up with at Streatham (Noctor, Iandoli, Challice) and the ones I had played GB with (Chapman) and the future of the club was starting to look the brightest it ever had.”
On the ice, it was a strange season. It looked as though the Flames would be challenging for the playoffs, but were deducted the 4 points won against Teeside when they withdrew from the league. To make matters worse, the Flames were then were docked a further 5 points for breaching the wage cap, which pushed the side into a relegation battle. Guildford did eventually win their case on the wage cap breach, but to this day are still referred to as ‘moneybags Guildford’.
To repay the fans support through the hard times, the Flames put on many meet the player events through the season, and also launched the ‘Drug Freeze’ programme.
“I thoroughly enjoyed both the events and the Drug Freeze programme! I think that is what differentiates hockey from so many other sports nowadays. We are playing what is still classed as a minority sport here in the UK, but these people spend their own money coming out to support us week in and week out. So to give up a few hours of your time to meet these great people and show them how much their support means, is truly a lot of fun.
“It was always different guys that went on the Drug Freeze visits and interacting with these kids was always good fun. I attended every one that I could. If you can influence one kid enough to make the right decisions, then it was a morning or afternoon well spent.”
The Flames had another in-house move around before the start of the 1995/96 season, with Ivan Brown signed as player-coach. The team got off to a good start and team spirit was good in the Flames camp.
“Troy Kennedy was the one that gave me the best laugh every day. We sat next to each other in the dressing room and he used to have me “start his skates for him” when he was ready to hit the ice for the opening period. Terry Kurtenbach, pranked me one training session by putting tobasco sauce in my water bottle and I almost threw up right there on the ice!”
But on the ice, things were deteriorating for Andy.
“There were a lot of good players coming and going that season which can make it kind of difficult.
“Unfortunately, I saw my ice time reduced considerably by a coach that I did not have a very good relationship with. I won’t sugar-coat it, he was the reason I fell out of love for the game. For the first time since I was 5 years old, I did not want to play anymore.
“Retiring was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I only really wanted to play for Guildford but I felt that that decision was no longer in my hands.”
It was Christmas 1995 when Andy, at just 21 years old, decided to call time on his Flames career. A firm fan favourite, he was the last player from the original roster to leave Guildford. On his final game at the Guildford Spectrum, unbeknown to Andy, the number 15 jersey was worn for the final time. As the players came out to line up at the start of the game, General Manager Ron took the microphone, telling everyone to look up to the rafters.
“It is the biggest honour you can bestow upon a player and I am eternally grateful for it. But I have to give credit and thanks to all the players that I shed blood and sweat with over those few years.”
The number 15 jersey was the first jersey ever retired at Guildford.
“A lot has happened obviously since 1995, and I tried a few different career avenues. It’s hard adjustment when all you’ve ever really done is play hockey. I was actually running pubs for a few years before I moved to Canada in 2007 where I was selling Honda’s for the last eleven years.
“Because of the wonderful world of Facebook, I have managed to keep in touch with a lot of old teammates from all my old teams from both club and International. Dean Russell-Samways just happened to pass through my town of London Ontario on Canada Day in 2017. He then joined me and my friends for some smoked ribs, beers and street hockey with Lindsay and the kids. Also, although not exactly ex-teammates, I saw Mike Ellis and Rob Coutts a lot around the arenas in London. It’s amazing how small the hockey world really is.
“Living in London ON, you are surrounded by a lot of great arenas and there are so many Leagues for varying levels of players, but unfortunately some can be a little too intense. I was fortunate enough to become friends with a group of guys that had a vision for a different kind of League, and through them, HockeyLife (www.hockeylifehl.com) was formed. We play 4 mini seasons over 52 weeks of the year with 60 players and 6 goalies, the big difference being that we did not use refs and therefore policed our own games, so no one ever got hurt from stupid play. I was fortunate enough to be a Captain for a few seasons and managed to with the “Moosehead Cup” twice. It was just a great group of guys that just wanted to play hockey, have a laugh and a beer. Meeting these guys helped me to remember why I love playing this game so much.”
Even from across the pond, Andy has always kept an eye out for all of his old teams.
“It’s good to see Streatham doing well again and Basingstoke will always have a place in my heart, but seeing the Flames competing at the highest level, really makes me happy considering the tough times we went through back at the beginning. Although I haven’t made it to a game yet, I do hope to get to one soon.”
And you may well see Andy at a Flames game soon – Just as he did back in 1983, he has now returned to the UK.
“The one real stand out for me when I look at the attendances at the Spectrum, is that the fans have always continued to support the team in great numbers and not just at home, but on the road also. I hope that they continue to keep up the support with their chanting and cheering, because, as one of the many things that I’ll remember from my time, it truly does help you to give that extra effort on the ice and is more appreciated than you can imagine. Keep it up Flames fans, you always have been the greatest supporters to play for!”
All images provided by Andy Sparks