Festive Cheer - The Derby Is Here!
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars begin a packed National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 festive schedule with a tricky trip to Blackburn Hawks tomorrow afternoon, followed by the first North East derby of the season when Whitley Warriors visit the Forum on Sunday evening.
It has been a difficult campaign thus far for tomorrow’s hosts Blackburn. A club used to success in recent times, they appear to be following up last year’s disappointing bottom half finish with a repeat performance, currently sitting in seventh place. Their North Cup campaign has also come to an end, leaving the Hawks in a similar position to their opponents tomorrow – to push for as high a League placing as possible to give themselves the best possible chance come playoff time. Their ambitions suffered a blow during the week with the news that exciting young forward Kieran Brown has ended his two-way agreement with the club and signed a similar deal with Division 1 rivals Sutton Sting, parent club Sheffield Steelers using the move to secure the services of Sting import Jonas Fredriksson. Brown’s partnership with fellow two-way signing Adam Barnes had been at the heart of Blackburn’s offence, so his departure will leave a sizeable hole.
Sunday sees the first derby game of the season at the Forum, the much-anticipated visit of Whitley Warriors the first of a festive ‘double header’ with the return fixture at Hillheads next Sunday. Without the distraction of a Cup competition the Warriors have already played 22 games in the League, their sixth place putting them three places above their Teesside rivals with nine points between them but having played seven more games. Much of their offensive threat has come through summer signing Ben Campbell, the former Guildford Flame having returned to the North East to become the first player to hit 30 League goals this season. An incident after the buzzer against Solway Sharks at the end of November will deprive Whitley of captain Dean Holland on Sunday as he serves the penultimate match of a six-game suspension.
Billingham look to start their climb away from the lower reaches of the table this weekend with two games against teams that the Stars must take points from if they are to make inroads into the playoff places. A win over the Hawks in the Cup last month shows that they are capable of coping with the infamous Blackburn ice pad, however the Warriors are an unknown quantity. A morale-boosting blanking of Murrayfield Racers last Sunday provided the perfect fillip going into the weekend, however it came at a price as netminder James Flavell looks set to miss both games with an injury sustained before the bus set off for Scotland. Tom Keeley faces a late fitness test as he continues his road to recovery, but Callum Davies, Jack Davies, Darren Stattersfield and Jack Emerson will be unavailable.
Billingham’s General Manager Allen Flavell senses the excitement as the first derby game of the season heaves into view:
“This weekend could really kick-start our season. We know we can get a result at Blackburn – we’ve done it once already – and then we have the Warriors in our barn. I know fans of both clubs look for this fixture first when the schedules are released, it’s been a long time coming, but now it’s here. We expect a full house and the players cannot wait – there really is nothing like a derby game to get the adrenaline pumping. Whatever happens a hard-fought, hard-hitting game is guaranteed.”
With two National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 games this weekend, the Stars travel to Blackburn tomorrow afternoon to take on the Hawks (face off 6pm). They return to the Forum on Sunday evening for the big Tees-Tyne derby against Whitley Warriors (face off 6.30pm). Tickets for Sunday's game can be bought from the box office from 5.30pm priced at £10.50 adults, £6.50 concessions, £32 family [2+2].
Solway Sharks v Telford Tigers, Saturday 5pm
Blackburn Hawks v Billingham Stars, Saturday 6pm
Sheffield Steeldogs v Nottingham Lions, Saturday 7.30pm
Hull Pirates v Blackburn Hawks, Sunday 5.30pm
Sutton Sting v Nottingham Lions, Sunday 5.30pm
Telford Tigers v Sheffield Steeldogs, Sunday 6pm
Billingham Stars v Whitley Warriors, Sunday 6.30pm
All images courtesy of Ian Coyle photography.