Time To Ruffle Some Feathers!
ULTIMATE WINDOWS sponsored Billingham Stars kick off the new season in earnest on Sunday evening as they host reigning League and playoff champions Blackburn Hawks in their opening National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 fixture.
The Hawks visit the Forum looking to defend not only their double crown, but an unbeaten League record that stretches back to March 2014. The Lancashire outfit are much changed from last season however, seven players departing Blackburn Ice Arena including player-coach Jared Owen and top scorer Luke Brittle. Incoming player-coach Daniel MacKriel has brought seven new faces to the roster, Canadian forward RJay Berra and Finnish defenseman Kim Miettinen the standout signings. Local lad Richard Bentham returns to his roots from Solway Sharks, whilst three ex-Manchester Minotaurs in the form of Max Drakeley, Andy Dunn and Lee Pollitt have made the short journey up the M6. Finally, former Deeside and Widnes forward Ben Simister has been recently added to the squad to ensure the Hawks look just as strong as they did last season. Blackburn won both of their preseason games comfortably but have yet to play a competitive match icing a full squad, preparing for such an unknown quantity poses a unique challenge for the Stars coaching team.
By contrast Billingham have changed very little over the summer, making just two new signings. Marquee signing Dennis BostrÃ¶m has made an immediate impact, scoring five goals in the Stars two preseason challenge matches. The hat trick of top-corner goals the Swede netted last Saturday against Sheffield Spartans certainly caught the eye and bodes well for the season ahead. Unavailability will rob the Teessiders of both Andy Munroe and Tom Keeley on Sunday, prompting a defensive reshuffle that will see Ben Davison revert to the blue line as cover. Having not beaten the Hawks in almost two years, and with the pain of losing a close playoff final to their deadly rivals in April still raw, the motivation to put one over the title holders is dominating the Billingham dressing room.
The Starsâ€™ Director of Coaching Terry Ward cannot think of any better way to start the season:
â€œI donâ€™t need to get the guys up for this one â€“ we owe Blackburn big time. We thought for a short time during the playoff final that we finally had them, but it was not to be on that occasion. This is a new season however â€“ we wonâ€™t be underestimating them, but they are in effect a new team with players who are not yet familiar with each other, hopefully we can exploit that. On paper they look just as strong as they ever did, to get a result we will need to be at our very best. It is unfortunate that we will be missing a few players at the back but we will go with what we have and fight with everything weâ€™ve got.
We want to get off to a winning start and for our fans this is traditionally a must-win fixture. Our new man Dennis was on fire in preseason, letâ€™s hope he can continue to hit the back of the net now the real business of the League is getting underway. If he can show the form and accuracy in front of goal that he showed last week in particular, he will make himself very popular in Billingham very quickly.â€
Billingham face Blackburn Hawks in their opening National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 match at the Forum on Sunday evening, face off 6.30pm. Tickets can be bought from the box office from 5.30pm on game night priced at Â£10 adults, Â£6 concessions, Â£30 family [2+2].
Whitley Warriors v Solway Sharks, 5pm Sunday
Billingham Stars v Blackburn Hawks, 6.30pm Sunday
Images: Dean Reeve Photography, Hawk Photography, Mark Paterson Photography/Skidpix