Matt Nickerson: Return of a Flyers’ favourite

Matt Nickerson
Matt Nickerson

If you drew up a list of the all-time fans’ favourites to play at Fife Ice Arena, Matt Nickerson’s name would be pretty high up; possibly even at the very top.

Not bad for a guy who was thrown out barely 15 minutes into his debut game and then served a straight four-match ban.

What could have been the shortest tenure in gold, white and blue turned, by his own admission, into one of the most memorable careers of his season.

In short, the Big Man loved Kirkcaldy. Kirkcaldy loved the Big Man.
With his sheer size, mohawk haircut and ZZ Top beard, he became instantly recognisable on and off the ice.

It’s hard to think of another import who could draw a crowd of several hundred just to watch him shave off his beard for charity, raising thousands of £s at the same time. Even his facial hair had its own fan club and imitators!

That was his last act of the 2013-14 season after the high of reaching the championship finals weekend at Nottingham.

As he left the stage, freshly shorn and looking almost unrecognisable - it’s incredible how integral a part of his armoury the beard is - he was mobbed once more by fans of all ages.

His return will bring to an end the question Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart have been asked more often than any other - namely, ‘‘is Matt back?’’

Nickerson is a key player for Fife.

On the ice he dominates and intimidates - he’s the man who steps up if you mess with anyone on the bench. He’ll ask you to dance, and when he does, you better be prepared to go.

Watch how teams play against Fife when he’s not kitted up - they’re a bit cockier, slightly chippier and more willing to cheap shot.

Put him on the ice and they simply back off. Many may chirp at him from safe distance - the panto villains of the sport revel in this role -but only a few actually go toe to toe. Some are simply scared of him.

Nickerson is a heavyweight fighter, but he is also a top drawer hockey player, and that combination is why Fife wanted him back.

A player who simply drops the gloves for the sake of it only hurts his own team.

A player who can control the D, protect his goalie and also sits at the heart of the dressing room AND bring physical toughness is something special.

Nickerson took his 12-game mid-season suspension to heart - it still stands as a harsh punishment - but he learned from it, and played his very best, most disciplined, most focussed hockey as Flyers roared to the finals.

He was controlled but dominant, and hugely effective. His merciless destruction of poor Kevin Bergan of Braehead Clan will go down in Fife’s hockey folklore. A fight that truly electrified the entire rink.

You can see him enforce and fight in dozens of online videos, but search beyond the YouTube footage and you get a fuller picture.

Nickerson’s report card on www.hockeyfutures.com is as good a summary as any penned since.

It talks of his second year improvements which brought the NHL scouts rinkside to assess the ‘‘two things they crave in spades’’ - size and strength.

By then he was playing in the NAHL where he was improving his offensive game as well as racking up tons of PIMs.

His size is described as ‘‘NHL-calibre’’ and is strong in the defensive zone where he is the master of the boards and front of the net.

His strengths are his weakeness - namely ‘‘he loves to hit and fight and does both very well.’’

When you sign a guy like Nickerson, you accept that suspensions and majors come as part of the package - hockey is a hard-hitting, aggressive, fast-tempo game, and the wind-up merchants will chirp away in the hope of sparking the red mist.

Nickerson knows that and while he’ll give as good as he gets - ‘‘the boy can play, but he can chirp too!’’ said ex-Flyer Ted Russell on his return for the anniversary game - he knows his true value to the team is staying on the ice and picking his moments to go toe to toe.

A year wiser to the nuances of British hockey he’ll be looking to start the season the way he finished in April - bringing his ‘A’ game top the rink every night.

Fiercely loyal to his team-mates and coaching staff, he appreciated their support during the darker days. That’s why he’ll skate through brick walls every night to get Flyers back to that finals weekend and a shot at lifting some silverware.

Hockey means a lot to Nickerson - listen to him talk of the days as a kid when he hung round the parking lot to get the autographs of the NHLers and you recognise a fellow fan - and he, and his beard, will be assured of one of the biggest welcomes come September.

And this time there will be no false starts ...