The day Steelers first swaggered into Fife

Ice hockey - Mark Morrison and Steven King (Fife Flyers) in acton against Sheffield Steelers  December 1995. Pic: John Hutton
Ice hockey - Mark Morrison and Steven King (Fife Flyers) in acton against Sheffield Steelers December 1995. Pic: John Hutton

I can still recall the shock of the new - the day Sheffield Steelers first swaggered into the rink.

They were the new kids on the block. Cocky, arrogant and annoyingly successful on and off the ice.

Ice hockey - Doug Smail (Fife Flyers)  and Chris Kelland (Sheffield Steelers) watch as netminder Martin McKay sweeps away the puck. April 1995. Pic: John Hutton.

Ice hockey - Doug Smail (Fife Flyers) and Chris Kelland (Sheffield Steelers) watch as netminder Martin McKay sweeps away the puck. April 1995. Pic: John Hutton.

They were shiny and new, and they darn well took over Fife Ice Arena.

Back then it was still Kirkcaldy Ice Rink where we thrived on pre-game stovies, bought the Sporting Post during period breaks, and only had three records to break up the match announcements of Malcolm Sherris.

Steelers were the side everyone outwith South Yorkshire loved to hate - and boy we loathed them!

If ever the clash of the old and new could be witnessed in the raw, it was in Kirkcaldy on Saturday nights in the cold winters of the early 90s.

Ice hockey - Doug Marsden (Fife Flyers) in action against Sheffield Steelers - netminder Wayne Cowley, and player David Longstaff. March 1996. Pic: Ian Alexander

Ice hockey - Doug Marsden (Fife Flyers) in action against Sheffield Steelers - netminder Wayne Cowley, and player David Longstaff. March 1996. Pic: Ian Alexander

In those days, Steelers’ support was a phenomenon.

It was built through hard graft in the community and a hefty helping of hype.

Old-timers maintained the fans knew nowt about - and probably didn’t care about - hockey beyond the four walls of their own arena. In contrast. supporters in Fife, Ayr, Durham, Whitley and Nottingham knew their imports inside out. Debate raged in the letters’ pages of Ice Hockey News Review all season long.

Truth was, it was the only way to build a fan base pretty much from scratch in a city with two football teams and many, many alternatives for nights out. The blueprint has been followed by all new clubs since then, including Braehead Clan.

Ice hockey - Frank Evans (Fife Flyers) challenging Sheffield Steelers netminder  Wayne Cowley and defenceman Ron Schudra. March 1996.Pic: John Hutton

Ice hockey - Frank Evans (Fife Flyers) challenging Sheffield Steelers netminder Wayne Cowley and defenceman Ron Schudra. March 1996.Pic: John Hutton

Steelers, Britain’s first fully pro hockey club, albeit one which went on to lurch from chaos to crisis at times, sold a product first and foremost - a great night out - and from it grew a fan base that exists to this day.

They signed up the best in the business. or, as we called it, cheque book hockey.

They hit the schools and pitched to the community to come and see this great new family sport.

They gave key players nicknames - gentleman Ron Schudra became ‘Rocket’ and wasn’t Steve Nemeth ‘The Messiah?’ Or at least one of them? They even bunged a ‘Y’ on to the surname of announcer Dave Simms. No-one in Fife would have dared suggesting our man behind the mic call himself MC Malky.

They turned match night into something else too - Steelers’ ‘woosh’ goal celebrations got louder and louder with every passing win, and the old timers could only grit their teeth in sheer irritation at the co-ordinated mass participation. But the orange army was on the march. On their very first trip to our old rink they swarmed into three full sections - filling the entire length of one side of the ice pad.

They even commandeered Section G - the legendary, infamous Section G! - without so much as an excuse me. Not even Racers’ fans did that at the height of the greatest rivalry of them all. They wouldn’t have dared cross beyond the staircase that separated Sections G and H.

And on the ice, Steelers strutted as much as they skated.

My memories of those early visits are of the cockiness of the entire Steelers’ set-up. Looking back, it was probably just a higher level of professionalism, but it fair got under our skin.

Steelers’ bench was packed with the best players money could buy. They wanted Chris Kelland. They got him. They went for NHLers. They got ‘em. They lured Tony Hand south, followed by David Longstaff and just about every A-lister in the game.

In came Damps and Schudra, along with netminder Martin McKay. Les Millie, a teenage protege made in Kirkcaldy, went south too. Naturally, he became ‘Laser’ Les.

But the names which stand out from those early days? Tim Cranston and Tommy Plommer.

If you think Jordan Fulton can get under the skin of the opposition, go back and watch these guys in their prime. They were ‘way more irritating than athletes’ foot.

Plommer was also tough nut. He wasn’t big but boy he scrapped, threw big hits - check out the You Tube video of him sticking the head on Bracknell’s Matt Cote - and if there was trouble then he was never usually too far away. Look up the word ‘feisty’ in the dictionary and you’ll see a picture of Tommy.

And Cranston simply thrived on the noise - a firework primed to explode come face-off.

I seem to recall him being thrown out of one game and, en route to the dressing-room, he took out a second player with as punch, just because he could. Cue mayhem and uproar. Pretty sure Cranston just grinned as he headed down the tunnel. He’d made his point. He’d noised ‘em, up one more time.

Trouble was, Fife couldn’t really complain as they brought him to the UK in the first place as cover for the injured Jindrich Kokrment.

The world class Czech was as quiet as Cranston was extrovert - at a photo shoot to get his official car in Kirkcaldy he jumped on the bonnet and spun round to grab the keys mid-air to give the photog a better shot. Some very nervous car salesmen tried hard not to look too closely to see if they could spot any dents in the bodywork.

He was a hockey whirlwind in his brief stay in Fife - ‘‘don’t think I could cope with that for a whole season’’ coach Rab Petrie once told me - scoring great goals, electrifying the team, fans and rink before chucking his kitbag over his shoulder and heading south to Sheffield where he was one of the true pioneers of a shiny new club which bristled with ambition and impatience in equal measure.

It’s incredible to think it is nudging close to 25 years since those early encounters, and almost time to mark the 20th anniversary of the fabled ‘Braveheart’ game between these two sides - the night Steelers walked into this rink which turned out in force with Saltires and tartan to create one of the most remarkable atmospheres I have ever witnessed. The night the Hampden terraces came to Kirkcaldy.

It was Mark Morrison’s first ever game as player-coach following the departure of returning hero Ron Plumb, and he stormed it to set up an epic second leg in Sheffield at which Simms - with a ‘Y’ - orchestrated a ‘Last Night of The Proms’ theme complete with ‘Rule Britannia’ and George Cross flags. We took it as a compliment - he loved the tartan special effect in Kirkcaldy.

It too was an a epic which went to the wire only for Tony Hand to break our hearts. Again.

The days of the ‘woosh’ and ‘The Messiah’ may have gone and Steelers are now part of the establishment - the same foundations it took delight in shaking to the core.

The roads the clubs have travelled since then have been very, very different, but, they share the same league once more.

A generation of fans has grown up since those pioneering days, but dig below the surface and you can still sense the old rivalry.

There are fans out there who will always call them the ‘Squealers’ and who still bristle at the thought of the day they came and took over Section G.

But if this weekend recreates even a fraction of that intensity - on and off the ice - then we are truly in for a play-off treat.