Matt Nickerson - the man who lit up match night

Fife Flyers logo large hi-res
Fife Flyers logo large hi-res

Hockey heroes come in all sizes. Few match up to Matt Nickerson.

He was, quite simply, the single biggest, most intimidating signing Fife Flyers have ever made.

In just two seasons, Nickerson arguably deserved the title of legend for his impact on and off the ice.

His departure to Belfast Giants leaves Flyers with a massive hole in the team - the man who enforced and protected, who brought the rink to its feet, and who genuinely loved life in Kirkcaldy.

Rewind to that opening night when he arrived, jet lagged.

Cardiff Devil’s Andrew Lord had a dig at the goalie, and Nickerson stepped in.

He circled him once as a warning, and a second time - like a shark closing in on its prey.

At packed Fife rink twigged and thrilled at the sight of a Fife defenceman laying down the law in a way they’d never seen before.

At the face-off to the right, Nickerson stood side on, a laser stare at Lord who looked straight ahead.

At that point he owned him.

The puck dropped, Nickerson dropped the gloves and pummelled Lord who turtled.

Within 15 minutes of his debut he was tossed on a match penalty and straight into a three-game ban.

As debuts go, it was electrifying and memorable - for both the right and wrong reasons.

Over the next two years, Nickerson certainly fell foul of the refs and had some red mist moments, but he learned to live with - if not love - the stripeys.

And he also demonstrated he was one heck of a hockey player.

His on-ice presence was intimidating - some players in the conference were genuinely scared of him - but he could shift the puck and was an integral part of the team that took off on a run to Nottingham.

And he was a genuine character - one fans of all ages warmed to.

The first signs were the fake beards spotted in the crowd, then came the t-shirts and then the theme tune. He loved it too.

When Flyers staged a post-game skate with the team, I happened to head out the dressing-room with him.

He paused to put his beer down, and when I looked, he explained it was the wrong image to send out to young fans.

That was the night he battered poor Kevin Bergen of Braehead Clan - that moment he floored him with a punch, held on top the scruff of his jersey and stood with his fist raised aloft like a gladiator, centre ice. The single, most electrifying fight I have ever seen in 28 years of covering this sport. A game changing, defining moment.

It took Nickerson some 20 minutes to get from the dressing-room to the ice as he posed for pictures and signed autographs - in fact by the time he got on to the pad the announcer was thanking everyone for attending and wishing them a safe journey home.

In terms of PR, the big man was simply box office gold - he put bums on seats; hundreds of them every single match night.

There’s a true story of the day Flyers went to a local primary school. The kids were gathered in the assembly hall when a voice asked ‘’Miss, is Matt Nickerson coming?’’

Told he wasn’t, an audible ‘’aww’’ went round the hall …

Few players have that impact.

Nickerson, like many enforcers, was as soft and approachable off the ice, as he was dominant and mean on it.

He was always great to interview - engaging, witty and open to discussing referees, suspensions, his nemesis Chris Frank, and anything else we cared to fire at him even as the adrenalin of the match still flowed through him.

And part of his appeal lay in the fact that, deep down, he was a hockey fan at heart; he was the kid who once hung around parking lots for autographs when the NHLers hit town; the kid from a small town who was drafted and played at the very highest level.

And he was a character - and Fife fans will always warm to someone with a bit of spirit, guts and personality; someone who stands up for the team and understands what hockey means here.

One final memory. In the run up to Nottingham in 2014, Nickerson said he’s shave off his famous beard for charity, and let a fan do the honours.

Several hundred fans turned up to see the beard go - he was genuinely knocked out at the turnout.

And minus beard, with the blue, white and yellow stripes shaved from his head, he emerged a completely different, softer person. Who knew facial hair could be so intimidating?!

The beard was part of his armour as much as his shoulder pads and gloves.

It WAS feared.

The player who sported it was also loved. He’ll be missed in Fife next season.

And he’ll be loved in Belfast ...