The hard work never stops for Mr Fife Flyers

Todd Dutiaume, Fife Flyers head coach at the play-off finals at the NIC in Nottingham (Pic Steve Gunn)
Todd Dutiaume, Fife Flyers head coach at the play-off finals at the NIC in Nottingham (Pic Steve Gunn)

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in mid-April, the Elite League ice hockey season is not long finished, and Fife Ice Arena is completely still.

The sounds of player’s skates hitting the pad, pucks hitting boards, and North American chatter in the air have been replaced by an eerie, stony silence.

Fife Flyers dressing room lies dark and empty, save for a glow of light eminating from inside the head coach’s office.

Sitting at his desk is Todd Dutiaume, busy writing emails, making phonecalls and planning ahead of his 19th consecutive season at the Kirkcaldy club, and his sixth as head coach in the EIHL.

One of the longest-serving imports in British ice hockey back at the helm of its oldest surviving club. Having served as a player and coach since 1999, it’s little wonder Dutiaume is widely known as Mr Fife Flyers.

It may be just a few weeks since saying his goodbyes to the team of 2015-16, and almost five months until the start of 2016-17 campaign, but the hard work does not stop for the Winnipeg native.

“Even in the last two or three years the job has changed so much,” Dutiaume says. “It’s not just walking out there on a Saturday night. It’s a full-time job and you don’t get time off.”

Under Dutiaume’s leadership, Flyers have undergone a five-year transformation from a club playing bottom-tier SNL hockey in front of a few hundred hardcore fans to an established and competitive side in the UK’s top league, playing in front of packed houses.

The progression has been more steady than spectacular with almost every season improving on the previous, up to the point that last term the club only just missed out on a first conference title on a tie-breaker, while also reaching the play-off finals weekend in Nottingham for the second time in three years.

“It’s been quite a road that we’ve travelled as a team, and I’ve been happy to be part of it,” Dutiaume said.

“Every year we’ve improved and building that up over the course of five years, where it’s been a steady development, is something that, as a group, we should all be proud of.

“You have to take into account the amount of hard work that has gone in from myself, and all of the staff here, in turning this into a place where players look at Fife on the map and want to come.

“Once players leave here and realise how well they’ve been treated and what a great place it is to play, some of them look back on it fondly, and some look back with regret.

“I’m happy to have been a part of it since 1999 and I’m delighted to be back.

“We want to build on what we’ve made up til this point, and it will continue to be a process.

“The game plan we came up with five years ago of steady and sustained progress, as well as developing our local guys and making sure that this is a platform for British guys to play, I think we’ve been largely successful in that.

“We’ve fought the powers-that-be a little bit, going with less imports at times, and really bucking the trends that British ice hockey sometimes tend to set. As a coach, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at times.

“But if you look at the support the directors gave me last year, allowing us to carry an extra import and making a run at things, and putting together a cast of great individuals on and off the ice, it culminated in our best season to date – and I was happy to be a part of that.”

Dutiaume has fought back from huge setbacks in his personal life, but as a hockey coach, he faced arguably his biggest hurdle to date in the early stages of last season when a run of poor form saw a section of fans turn against him.

It led to questions over whether his time might have been up, but the 42-year-old showed that he is made of stern stuff by steering himself and the team back from a dark place, into the club’s best EIHL season to date.

“The season definitely took its toll because at times some of the criticism bordered on personal, which was a bit hard to take, especially when you’ve put everything you’ve got into the club,” he said.

“Maybe I’m guilty of taking things a little personally at times. I don’t think there’s anybody out there that wants success and silverware to come to Fife as much as I do.

“I have no problem with criticism. You need it, and people pay their money, but as a player or coach you’re not supposed to go out there and not enjoy yourself.

“But I made myself accessible again, I put my head up and took it on, and we turned things around . The silent majority out there opened their mouths, and started coming up to me to show their support.

“When you’re feeling the pressure and just hearing selective things, you don’t realise that the big majority are sitting out there supporting you.

“When you’re losing and feeling doubt a minority of people can make it seem like the whole place is against you.

“It was a good period of reflection for myself, and there was a boot up the backside from the directors as well who just said, cmon, pick up your socks, you’re doing this because you enjoy it. Otherwise, what are you doing it for?

“I’m not going to get rich off this. You do it because you have it in your blood, you enjoy yourself out there, and you get a buzz from it.

“It was tough at times and I haven’t been myself at times for a couple of years there, and I needed to sort a few things in my life. But I think it’s time to start living again.

“You get that fight in you to go again and regardless of what happens out on the ice, nobody can take away any accomplishments that we’ve got to this date.

“It’s vital we push this team to the next level and bring even more success in the form of some silverware to Fife. This club is craving it, and it deserves it.

“It’s certainly the direction we’ve been moving, but we just need pushed over that point where, as a whole group, we go into the season believing we’re going to win things, and we carry that through.

“You also have to be realistic in today’s market .This is an incredibly tough league to win something in. We’ve been very unfortunate with the teams we’ve had that we haven’t got something, but we’ve come close. You want to avoid it becoming a mentality but we’re there or thereabouts.

“We just need that little extra - whether it’s that chemistry right off the bat or a little spark from somewhere. Had we brought Nico Sacchetti in sooner - and we chashed him for two years - we might have won the conference.”

With the EIHL moving up to 14 imports next season, and some teams intending to run with four lines, next season promises to be Dutiaume’s toughest yet.

“Talking to a number of imports on my team this year, they were very surprised at the standard,” he said.

“And while adding more imports doesn’t necessarily make the standard go up, you can just about guarantee that next year it will go up that extra notch.

“A team like Cardiff Devils with Ben Bowns in net will have 14 imports out, so maybe they’ll decide to go four lines along with Nottingham and Sheffield. All of a sudden you look at that, and it becomes the most difficult season yet.

“But we’ve been up to the challenge and faced some incredible teams over the years and competed with them.

“We’ve found a way to rise to the occasion year in, year out. You have to be an optimist about these things and a lot of it will come down to recruiting and who we get back, but there’s no reason to think why we can’t compete on a regular basis with these teams, especially since they are keeping the divisions the same.

“You have to view next year as another new and exciting challenge.”