Spartans a â€˜Tough Testâ€™ for Stars
ULTIMATE WINDOWS sponsored Billingham Stars continue their preparations for the new National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 season with a challenge match against League rivals Sheffield Spartans tomorrow night at the Billingham Forum.
The first home game of the new campaign for the Teessiders sees the visit of the Spartans for a fixture that will give both sides a last opportunity to tweak their systems and get match fit before the serious business of the new League season begins next weekend. Sheffield go into the competition on a high after reaching the play-offs at the end of last season, pushing the League champions and eventual play-off winners Blackburn Hawks all the way before finally succumbing 4-2 in their semi-final. Like Billingham the Spartans have retained the core of their squad, suffering a blow when talented defenseman Jonathan Kirk departed for English Premier League outfit Hull Pirates over the summer. They have been boosted this week however by the signing of Czech defenseman Martin Finkes. The 24-year-old joins from Czech 3 side HC Valasske Mezirici and should prove a solid addition to the Spartans blue line. Finkesâ€™ availability to play tomorrow is dependent upon his registration coming through in time.
The Stars hope once again to ice three lines tomorrow evening, unavailability preventing the coaching team from icing the whole squad. Although the side will once again be missing a few key players, the game will give new signing Dennis BostrÃ¶m another chance to gel with his new team mates ahead of a tricky home League opener against Blackburn next Sunday evening. BostrÃ¶m scored two very early goals in his debut against Aberdeen Lynx last Saturday, the first of what the fans hope will be many as Billingham look to mount a serious challenge for their first silverware since 2012.
In an in-depth interview, Director of Coaching Terry Ward gave his thoughts on the new season and what he hopes his Stars can achieve:
â€œWe learned some lessons last season. We just didnâ€™t gel that well at all to start with, we had to stop and start again. The players had to move up a gear if they wanted to make the playoffs and we were just coasting along – when youâ€™re down youâ€™re down. We had to pull them up by their britches so to speak and get them going! We played superbly after Christmas though and pulled it back
Losing the playoff final like that is a big motivation for us. We donâ€™t want to be the bridesmaids. Itâ€™s motivation for everyone else in the League though, Blackburn are there to be shot at this year, and everyone will want to beat them. I donâ€™t think anyone will go unbeaten this season, a lot of teams have strengthened. Blackburn have lost some quality players – Luke Brittle for me was their best player last season, he knows the British game inside out. Theyâ€™ve got some new faces so it remains to be seen how they fare.
I think having our core group of players together again gives us an advantage. Weâ€™ve only lost Danty and Garry from our regular line-up, and I believe weâ€™ve brought in a high calibre of player in Dennis. He skates really well, he knows where the net is and heâ€™s a good team player. We need to make sure we get him on the puck as much as possible to get the best out of him. Heâ€™s going to be on a line with Bomber so he should see plenty of the puck with such a quality centre.
Weâ€™re continuing to bring the kids through and the new Under 20s set up will really help us in the longer term. Weâ€™ve got players here now who are at an age where theyâ€™re thinking of hanging up their skates so we need that conveyor belt of juniors coming through. I think Billingham has always had that though, prior to the Forum closing, and weâ€™re starting to get back to that now. We need to make sure weâ€™re giving them the ice time to progress.
Next season I think Solway will definitely be up there â€“ theyâ€™ve got Senko back and their new import played up at Dundee last season so theyâ€™ve got real quality there. They tend to roll with two lines which means theyâ€™ll have an import on the ice most shifts. Whitley have strengthened too with Longstaff and Payette. Weâ€™ve also got Solihull coming up who breezed through their League last season. Itâ€™s really hard to predict the competition because everyone has stepped up another level – hopefully weâ€™ll be in the mix.
Last weekend we had a bonding session in Aberdeen which worked out well for us. This weekend weâ€™ve got the Spartans who are a very good hockey playing side and will be a much tougher test – we canâ€™t give them anything because we know theyâ€™ll take it.
My wish list for the season is that we play some good hockey for our fans. Hopefully we will get to the playoffs again – we came second last season and hopefully we can go one better this season.â€
Billingham take on Sheffield Spartans in a challenge match at the Forum tomorrow evening, face off 6.30pm. Tickets can be bought from the box office from 5.30pm on game night priced at Â£5 adults, Â£3 concessions, Â£15 family [2+2].