Every club has one – a person who polarises opinion. For Blackburn Hawks that would be Graham Lomax.
A quick trawl of some online forums brings up descriptions such as â€œMarmiteâ€ and, rather more viciously, â€œAnti-Christâ€. Lomax himself suggests â€œPantomime Villainâ€ would be nearer the mark. Heâ€™s certainly opinionated and definitely not everyoneâ€™s cup of tea â€“ but beneath the surface lies a man who cares passionately about his club and the sport. In some respects heâ€™s like Dave Simms without the Sky TV exposure.
Lomax and his family have been connected to the Hawks for around 15 years. During that time heâ€™s sponsored the team, held various positions including a spell as Manager and now serves in a slightly more diluted role as part of a newly formed management committee. Despite this, his desire for the club to be successful still burns as brightly as ever.
Controversies have been a feature of his time with the Hawks. Bust-ups with players, disagreements with Blackburn Arena management and a seemingly never-ending stream of aggravation online, might have affected a lesser individual â€“ but Lomax continually dusts himself off and moves on. When pushed for the reasons behind some of the problems, he admitted his ways werenâ€™t to everyoneâ€™s tastes.
â€œMaybe itâ€™s because Iâ€™m too honestâ€, he said. â€œI tell things as I see them and sometimes people donâ€™t like to hear a different opinion from their own. Then the rumours and gossip start â€“ one person tells someone youâ€™re a nasty piece of work and suddenly thatâ€™s how youâ€™re being perceived.â€
Much like Simms, one of his pet hates is those who criticise and abuse online, but donâ€™t have the guts to speak in person about whatever issue is bothering them. The knock-on effect is the impact it has on family life, with Lomax confessing his wife Tracey has often asked if being involved with the Hawks is worth all the hassle it causes.
In addition to his personal link to the club, Lomax has another which is undoubtedly his most cherished â€“ his son Ollie. A product of the Hawks junior set-up, Ollie is a whole-hearted defenseman described by his dad as being â€œBlackburn Hawks through and throughâ€, and itâ€™s that level of feeling which resulted in a difficult situation for the Lomax family to deal with.
In 2008/09 Hawks made a poor start to the season and drafted in former player Neil Abel as Head Coach. Abel had enjoyed a stellar playing career, featuring for the likes of Fife Flyers and Sheffield Steelers during the boom years of the Heineken League. Heâ€™d gone on to achieve coaching success with Sheffield Scimitars taking them from the ENL into the EPL, culminating in being awarded Ice Hockey Journalists UK Coach of the Year in 2007. Heâ€™s now on the coaching staff with the Steelers in the Elite League.
His appointment at Blackburn was heralded as a coup for the club, with Abel moving quickly to bring in long-time friend and team-mate Les Millie as his assistant. The appointments proved disastrous with Abel alienating players and fans, ending with the club losing a relegation play-off toÂ Manchester Phoenix ENL â€“ although they were later reprieved due to Billingham Bombers dropping out of the league.
Lomax recalls being delighted when hearing of Abelâ€™s appointment, but that delight soon turned to despair. Hawks had played at Newcastle in a game which ended with Ollie being treated at hospital for a facial injury. They travelled to face Nottingham Lions the following week and, with the team short-benched, Ollie insisted on playing wearing his face cage. The performance was poor and emotions between the players began to run high. Lomax watched on as things escalated.
â€œThere was an exchange of words between Ollie and Rick Bentham. It carried over onto the bench, but was never anything more than that. Bear in mind they were the best of mates, they grew up together and theyâ€™re still friends today.â€
Following the match Lomax received a call from Abel saying Ollie had been released due to him throwing punches at a team-mate which left him dumbstruck.
â€œIt was a complete fabrication. I was stood a few feet from where it happened and it was nothing more than words â€“ I couldnâ€™t believe what I was hearing.â€
Disbelief soon turned to anger as comments were made online supporting the decision, despite some people not actually witnessing what had gone on. Team management quickly issued a press release confirming Abelâ€™s decision. Lomax believes Ollie was made a scapegoat because of him.
â€œI firmly believe someone turned Abel against Ollie because he was my son. Iâ€™ve my suspicions as to who it was, but no idea why because I wasnâ€™t directly involved with the team at the time â€“ I was simply a dad watching his son play for the team he loves.â€
The family, particularly Ollie, were heartbroken. Some team-mates made it clear they were unhappy with what had gone on, but Lomax admits they were in a difficult position because of Abel and Millieâ€™s status within the game. Blackburn Arena management attempted to intervene without success.
Lomax recalls a ruined Christmas with Ollie barely venturing out for a few weeks and confessed he felt â€œpowerlessâ€ to do anything.
A few weeks passed and with Hawks continuing to struggle under Abel, Billingham coach Terry Ward helped get Ollie back on the ice again by inviting him to play for the Bombers. Lomax describes the time spent there as a â€œfantastic experienceâ€ with the club and their fans welcoming them with open arms. Towards the end of the regular season Hawks travelled to Billingham needing to win to avoid the relegation play-off but the Bombers, with Ollie leading the way, sent them packing. Lomax remembers the night with pride.
â€œOllie wanted to prove a point and really got under the skin of some of the Hawks players that night. The most humbling moment though was when the crowd let Abel know what they thought of him.â€
The play-off loss saw them both receive criticism for making it clear they wanted Hawks to lose, but Lomax says it was more about wanting Abel to fail than anything else. In front of a large travelling support Hawks came up short, with Millie actually failing to show for the most important game of the season. Lomax describes the whole thing as a â€œshamblesâ€ with the club â€œhaemorrhaging money for no returnâ€.
In an interview featured on www.prohockeynews.com in 2010, Millie made no reference to his time with the Hawks â€“ citing 2008 as the year he retired from the sport. Abel, Millie and Bentham were all approached to give their version of events, but declined to comment.
When it became clear neither would be returning to Blackburn and, despite not knowing whoâ€™d be coaching the team, Arena management called Lomax to invite Ollie back home to the Hawks. The return hasnâ€™t been plain sailing, with Ollie being ruled out this season after a shoulder operation, but Lomax is happy theyâ€™re back.
â€œItâ€™s our home town and I wouldnâ€™t want Ollie anywhere else. We were treated so well at Billingham and it was nice to see positive comments on their site about Ollie before they played the Hawks recently. Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™ll understand though that Ollieâ€™s delighted to be back at Blackburn.â€
Ollieâ€™s view on events was short and to the point, saying he felt â€œhe was over itâ€ and heâ€™d â€œcome out on topâ€. He was reluctant to drag Bentham into things and wanted to â€œlet bygones be bygonesâ€. He added he was focussed on getting himself back to full fitness once again.
In his new role as part of the management team at Blackburn, Lomax is convinced the club is now moving in the right direction. Under new coach Jared Owen, Hawks qualified for the play-offs last term and are looking to improve on that this season. Lomax acknowledges Owenâ€™s role in the turn around.
â€œThe Hawks are very much a work in progress but under Jared things are starting to take shape. Iâ€™m 100% convinced heâ€™s the right man for the job. People with the level of commitment he, and his assistant Danny Brittle, put in are few and far between. Theyâ€™re still young men and still learning but theyâ€™re definitely the right people.â€
Whether a description of Lomax as the Anti-Christ or merely a Pantomime Villain is accurate or otherwise is debatable â€“ itâ€™d be fair to say the man himself doesnâ€™t really care. But seeing Blackburn Hawks succeed is clearly something he cares deeply about and, love him or hate him, it seems heâ€™s never going to stop trying to make it happen.