Summer has well and truly sizzled this year and the off-season has been dominated here by lazy afternoons in the garden, drinking beer and enjoying the company of good friends.
With more sunny days forecast over the coming weeks and less than a month before the hockey season begins I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on last season and have a look forward to the coming one.
In 17/18 we decided to become first time season ticket holders at Guildford Flames having previously been avid supporters of the NIHL in the South and what a brilliant decision it was.
From the very start of the 17/18 season and Flames shock victory early on against Cardiff Devils it was easy to see why the Spectrum would be close to capacity week in and week out across the rest of the season.
The difference between the hockey we previously watched in NIHLS1 and the product on offer at Guildford is vast. The skill level and pace of the game is significantly higher in the Elite league. With 14 imports permitted on the bench and a team consisting of paid professional sportsmen the quality is expected to be meaningfully higher and the game at this level unfailingly delivers.
As small fish in the bigger pond and with arena teams dominating, crowds at the affectionately termed Speccy (capacity approx. 2000) were initially accepting of the Flames ‘underdog’ status and were therefore thrilled at the many close games and terrific wins the guys gave us.
A team of oft-referred to ‘third liners’ gathered on ice week in, week out, played with passion and delivered. Third liners they were quite clearly not. Heads never dropped during or after games that were lost and the team picked themselves up and gave 100% every game.
New talent in Captain Jesse Craige and fellow blue liner Calle Akered became favourites almost over night. With Jesse’s outstanding leadership and Calle’s exciting blue line torpedo-esque slapshot Flames always looked dangerous, particularly on the powerplay. With a line up including the likes of Brett Ferguson, Ian Watters and Chris Carozzi and a handful of ex-premier stalwarts, the new look Flames pretty much mesmerized us.
At each home game, Spectrum was buzzing as new stars Kruise Reddick and John Dunbar shone. And as the weeks passed and the team settled, our Brit players grew in confidence with Ben Davies and Jez Lundin called up to the GB squad late in the season.
So didn’t Flames just surprise us all really? Expected to languish at the foot of both conference and league the team threw themselves in and under Digger’s guidance fought their way up to a very creditable 6th place in the league, beaten narrowly in to 2nd in the conference.
An emotional win against Sheffield in a second leg playoff match at Speccy saw Flames finish the 17/18 campaign on a high. The atmosphere was emotional as the team saluted the crowd from centre ice one last time and the fans banged the plexi, cheered and applauded in response.
So what we loved so much about last season’s team was the spirit and the absolute unfailing commitment. The guys played every game like they totally belonged in the top tier of British ice hockey. And they did. Not once did the level of performance disappoint, so when we did lose it mattered less.
It was a fantastic inaugural Elite season for Guildford. The end of season awards went to John Dunbar as top scorer and player’s player of the year and Kruise Reddick as most sportsmanlike player. Calle Ackered was awarded supporters player of the year with Ben Davies as supporters Brit player of the year. At the same event, Jesse Craige’s home jersey was auctioned for over £2000, a huge testament to his popularity.
Flames might not be an arena team but the club and the fans have heart and spirit in abundance. With the core of Ackered, Craige, Reddick, Dunbar, Ferguson, Watters, Lundin, Davies and Phillips signed up for another year of top class hockey September can’t come soon enough.
Next season there are at least 34 home games to enjoy. An ever-increasing number of season tickets are being snapped up and at £320 – £335 that’s magnificent value for money.
And now as the off season draws to a close and a raft of great looking new talent has been signed up to strengthen the team, 2018/19 will also bring a fresh arrangement with Freesports whereby a live Elite game will be shown every two weeks. Highlights of games will be shown bi-weekly together with a pre-season preview which will air before the campaign begins.
At the time of writing Flames have a couple of slots on the roster to announce which are likely to be a couple of goalies, with the possibility of an additional import signing and one or two Brit under 23’s. In the mean time, we will have a few final weekends of kicking back and enjoying summer before the puck drops for the first time back at Spectrum on 2nd September for a friendly against MK Lightning.
So for now all that remains is to say a massive good luck to Digger, the back room staff and every single player new and old.
To everyone else, never underestimate the underdog.
Flames are coming to get you!
‘The Puck Stops Here’ photos courtesy of Olly Birth Photography