Season Openers: Stars v Dragons & Hawks
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars get their National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 campaign underway in earnest this weekend with a home tie against Welsh outfit The Dragons tomorrow afternoon followed by a trip over the Pennines to face old rivals Blackburn Hawks on Sunday evening.
The restructuring of the National Ice Hockey League has brought big changes off the ice for Flintshire side The Dragons who will now ice two teams – one in each Conference. The Moralee Conference outfit will be coached once again by last season’s leading points-scorer Scott McKenzie, his contribution going a long way to ensuring his side’s survival at the end of the last campaign as they squeaked past local rivals Widnes Wild in a promotion/relegation play-off. New faces in the Dragons camp includes French import Mickaël Brodin, Steven Hetherington and Craig Lutkevitch, whilst Chris Jones and Brian Worrall make welcome returns. Also back in a Dragons jersey is Owen Bennett, a chippy forward well known to Stars new boy Callum Pattison as previous tussles testify to.
Blackburn Hawks will similarly be icing two sides this season, a move facilitated by the demise of reigning Laidler Conference champions Blackburn Eagles. The Hawks began the summer at a canter, signing top quality defencemen in Luke Boothroyd and James Neil, plus netminder Stephen Fone. That momentum tapered off somewhat and Blackburn start their season looking a little light on numbers, especially up front. Slovakian import Jozef Ištocy has recently returned to the club, but as yet no second import has been added and their small squad appeared to be exposed by heavy defeats to Moralee rivals Solihull Barons in two challenge games last weekend.
Billingham suffered themselves in their two warm-up challenge matches as Telford Tigers slotted 14 goals past them, however with the coaching team deciding to roll with four lines and give every player plenty of ice time in order to evaluate new faces and systems, the weekend results were perhaps to be expected when faced with one of the strongest of the ‘new’ teams in the revamped League. It is unlikely that the Stars will tackle their opening League games in the same way as they look to post some good early season results, the challenge games giving Player/Coach Michael Bowman a much better idea of which lines will be most effective against the forward threat of The Dragons, whilst the Hawks may prove an altogether different challenge with their solid-looking defensive core. Billingham will be missing Richie Thornton and netminder James Flavell for the weekend, both are unavailable.
Stars’ General Manager Allen Flavell emphasised the importance of making a good start to the season:
“It’s all for real this weekend, we will do whatever we have to do to take the points. The coaches will not be pulling any punches – we will be playing the players and systems that work. This League will be so tough this year, there’s no room for complacency or sentiment, we must be ready to make the best decisions for the good of the team. The Dragons will always pose us problems whilst they have a player of the calibre of Scott McKenzie, it should be a real treat of an opening game for the Forum fans. Then we must tackle the larger ice pad in Blackburn – it hasn’t always been a happy hunting ground for us but if we can break their defence down then we believe we have enough to come home with the spoils.”
Billingham’s National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 campaign starts at the Forum tomorrow afternoon when The Dragons are in town (face off 5.30pm). Tickets can be bought from the box office from 4.30pm priced at £10 adults, £6 concessions, £30 family [2+2]. They then travel to Blackburn to face the Hawks on Sunday evening (face off 5.45pm).
Billingham Stars v The Dragons, 5.30pm
Telford Tigers N1 v Sheffield Steeldogs, 5.30pm
Solway Sharks v Blackburn Hawks, 7pm (Cup)
The Dragons v Solway Sharks, 5.45pm
Blackburn Hawks v Billingham Stars, 5.45pm
Solihull Barons v Sheffield Steeldogs, 6pm
Nottingham Lions v Telford Tigers N1, 7.30pm
All images courtesy of Ross Beall.