With the launch of ISL causing hockey nationally to restructure, things were never going to go to plan. Flames' advised with the setting up of the new top league, then controversially decided not to play in it, opting instead to be members of the lower British National League. Injuries again hampered the team's progress and they managed to ice an amazing 41 players through out the season. There was also a change in management, as Charbonneau and Zeller both left the organisation to pursue other ventures. Valerie Vassie, another Canadian, took the reins. Having been promoted over 18 months from repairing the shirts in her spare time to handling the finances then to director of hockey operations.
With the arrival of Wayne Crawford, as player-coach, from troubled Swindon there were fresh hopes of a first ever title for the Flames. Summer signings included forwards, gifted playmaker Derek DeCosty, and Mike Sanderson, who left just weeks into the season after some poor performances and netminder Brad Kirkwood, all from across the Atlantic. Darrin Zinger remained with Flames and took the decision to keep playing despite being diagnosed as suffering from testicular cancer over the summer of '96. He was supported for the first part of the season by brother-in-law Keith Eely, who was new to hockey in this country, unlike Crawford's old friends Todd Bidner and John Wolfe. Wolfe had also had a traumatic summer, his eldest daughter Melissa was diagnosed with a brain tumour, bringing the plight of cancer sufferers very much to the forefront of supporters' minds.
After a few games, Mark Finney was signed and despite being the smallest player on the team, he soon proved he was the toughest. Mixing it up with anyone who came in his path, and showing excellent offensive abilities. Mike Bettens joined on 16 October but could not ice until mid-November due to an arbitration battle with Peterborough and work permit delays. As autumn continued there was a flurry of signing as Flames' injury list grew.
Irish-Canadian Paul McCallion, who didn't finish the season after injuring his wrist, Telford's player-coach Mike Mowbray, Durham-bred Damian Smith and defenders Lee Saunders, a former GB blue liner from Milton Keynes and Mark Hazelhurst brought the roster up to 21 with seven recognised defence men. Bidner was released after a breach of contract in December, Nick Cross from Slough taking his place.
Injuries played a bigger part in Flames' bad luck than such talented personnel could prevent. Top of the walking wounded list was all-time leading scorer Ryan Campbell whose wrist injury kept him off the ice between January 9 and the play-offs in March. Deadline day at the end of January saw the Flames make their most exciting signing of the season, exchanging Canadian Kirkwood for Finnish goalie Petri Engman. With his experience in the Finnish Elite League, Engman easily stamped his authority on the Premier League in just 12 games.
Flames continued their community spirit as the Drug Freeze programme went from strength to strength, with oil company Arco adding £10,000 to the campaign budget. Players also found themselves modelling clothes for the Technical College's Fashion Show and carrying plastic snowmen lanterns through the streets for the Switching on of the Christmas Lights.
But the season proved a bumpy one right to the end when the final home league game failed to go according to plan. The plexi-glass broke after 15 minutes and the game with Solihull had to be cancelled. The Flames' fourth place finish disappointed everyone. Now it was all eyes on the playoffs. However, Crawford's sudden decision to quit coaching and concentrate on playing produced rumours of dissension among the players, Engman's form dropped and Flames' could only claim third place.
Paul Thompson earned himself a place on the GB squad this year, for the Olympic qualifier against Slovenia in November and then the Pool B World Championships in Poland in April. Thompson unfortunately broke his pelvis during the first game and had to sit the rest of the tournament out.