The ties that bind are strong

Todd Dutiaume
Todd Dutiaume
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Bookends spanning 75 years - the opening game of ‘38 and the closing match of 2014, producing the same result against the same opposition.

Amid the amazing scenes of celebrations as Fife Flyers qualified for the play-off finals, an important piece of history was picked up by Jack Dryburgh as he popped into the dressing rooom.

October 1, 1938 and Flyers lost their very first game 4-1 to Dundee Rockets.

March 30, 2014, their final league game of their 75th anniversary season, Flyers beat Dundee Stars 4-1.

Todd Dutiaume takes up the story: ‘‘Jack came into the room and spoke about that first game, and here we were, 4-1 up against the same team 75 years on. He said it would have been the perfect bookend had we held it to 4-1, but we won 4-3.

‘‘I thought about it all night and then we went to Dundee the next night and won 4-1, so our last game in Scotland in our anniversary season produced the perfect bookend.

‘‘When you appreciate the history of this place, you realise how nice it was to bookend it that way. I phoned Ronnie Herd at the rink the next morning and asked him to tell Jack that was for him.’’

The history and tradition of the club seep into the dressing room every practice and every game.

Dutiaume, the club’s longest serving import, understands it and respects it, and, on the eve of Nottingham, he has the opportunity to write his team’s name into the book of legends.

‘‘The ‘85 team is always remembered, and then there was Mo’s Grand Slam team. Now we have a great chance to to do this in our anniversary season. That would be fantastic.’’

The journey to the finals has been long and often dark, but Flyers have endured through hard work, skill and a commitment that has enveloped everyone in the room.

The ties that bind this club together are strong.

For Dutiaume, this will be first finals solely as a coach - a role he has had to come to terms with as injury kept him off the ice.

‘‘I feel like I am a player at heart and probably always will be,’’ he said. ‘‘Coaching wasn’t something I had as an ambition because I was going to play forever!

‘‘I fell into it and I have to say it hasn’t always been a position I have felt entirely comfortable in.

‘‘Player-coach was very hard - it’s the most difficult job in hockey. You worry about your own game and then you have a bad shift, come off the ice and have to make snap calls about 18 other guys when you are mentally tired. That’s when mistakes happen.

‘‘This season, coaching became more comfortable. We started winning and it became more enjoyable - that gave me the feeling closest to when I was playing.’’

Having put together a team that excited both him and assistant coach Danny Stewart, the season mis-fired for long spells - games were lost, goals were hard to come by, and there was a danger that the anniversary season may just drift away.

‘‘We knew this team and we believed in it. We just had to find a way to get them to believe in themselves,’’ he said.

‘‘In January, when things hadn’t been going well, we sat down and said ‘stuff it - what are we here for?’

‘‘We asked the guys why they were here.

‘‘To make a living - for sure and to play hockey. It was never about making money - you can sniff these guys a mile off - it was all about playing and enjoying it.

‘‘We had two months or more of the season left and told them that was a long, long time with nothing to shoot for, so let’s go out game by game and enjoy it; have some fun.

‘‘We agreed no-one was perfect, we all make mistakes and there’d be no moaning or pointing fingers - let’s just do this.’’

And they did.

Behind the scenes, the guys came to training loose and ready to have fun, and the transformation between a team that couldn’t win to one that discovered new ways of winning was nothing short of stunning.

Lines clicked and individuals started to get into a groove.

Matt Reber added goalscoring to his ceaseless skating - the guy is a human bullet on skates as he flies round the rink. Tim Hartung switched from defence to utility forward and became the go-to man for penalty shots, Kevin Regan was dominant behind a solid defence, Matt Nickerson figured out British hockey and dominated the defence, almost defying opposing teams to cross the blue line.

And Bobby Chaumont went ‘way beyond his delivering points as curtain rose come showtime.

‘‘Our team isn’t filled with guys with lots of rings and trophies, but that is not a bad thing,’’ said Dutiaume. ‘‘They are a great bunch of guys and I am hugely proud of them.

‘‘Look at Bobby over these past few weekends. He has averaged over a point a game all season, but against Fife’s standards, that isn’t considered great and he felt the presure, so he took his game to a whole new level as we went for the play-offs - he was a big, big player.

‘‘Hartung? To be in the right place at the right time on the ice is a special talent. He does it every night.

‘‘He was signed as a defenceman but got injured early in the season. We moved him forward which is his natural position - he was on the third line where Jamie Wilson and Stephen Gunn loved skating with him, and then we took the decision to put him up to the first. Ever since then, he has come into his own.’’

Dutiaume could go through the team player by player and list numerous individual contributions, but it all came down to one thing - finding momentum at the right time.

‘‘I talk with Mark Morrison a lot - he is a fantastic coach and great man manager - and when he was here, I watched what he did behind the scenes and learned alot. We used to talk about how a team peaks.

‘‘Sometimes you peak too soon and you blow it. Sometimes you are too late and the chance is gone. Peak at the right time and the coach looks like a genius!

‘‘It’s actually nothing to do with that - you contribute, which is fantastic, but you are doing your job.

‘‘The progress over the last two months has been incredible and so enjoyable to be part of. I am very, very proud of the guys.

‘‘We laugh and say ’if only we’d started like that we’d be up with Belfast’ but every team does that.

‘‘What they have achieved is outstanding. I was nervous before the big games, not for myself, but for them - I wanted them to have this so badly. Getting to the play-offs and going to Nottingham is something they won’t ever forget.

‘‘Had we missed out, we would have been so disappointed.

‘‘Now we are there. We’re rolling, we’re hot and it’s a one-off semi-final - fantastic.

‘‘Nicker summed it up in the dressing room on Sunday when he said if we play like that, stay together and keep it simple, we can do it.”

Standing between Flyers and a place in the finals are Belfast Giants, arguably the best in the business.

Dutiaume put them on par with any Grand Slam team - they would have been, had they not let the Challenge Cup slip through their hands.

‘‘They will want three trophies this year, and the play-off title is the most coveted.

‘‘But we have beaten them on home ice and taken them to OT on the road.

‘‘I like the match-up ... especially if we keep on playing the way we are.’’