Ugly scenes overshadow big victory for Fife Flyers

The incident involving Manchester Storm player Eric Neilson and a Fife Flyers fan. Pic: Steve Gunn
The incident involving Manchester Storm player Eric Neilson and a Fife Flyers fan. Pic: Steve Gunn
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Fife Flyers 4 Manchester Storm 3 (OT)

Fife Flyers victory over Manchester Storm in the Elite League last night was overshadowed by an altercation between a player and spectator.

In the 31st minute of the match, which attracted an attendance of almost 2000, Storm forward Eric Neilson was seen reaching into the crowd and throwing punches at a Fife fan sat immediately behind the away bench.

The player was ejected from the game on a match penalty - and the spectator removed from the rink by security.

The ugly incident sparked a huge reaction on social media, with accusations and counter-accusations pinning blame on both parties, while Storm coach Omar Pacha criticised the security arrangements at the Kirkcaldy rink, claiming that his player, who recently had eye surgery, was reacting to having "beer thrown in his face".

Speaking to Manchester's own podcast channel, The Forecast, he added that he and his players had been "abused all night" and stated: "We came very close to pulling our players. It was getting atrocious."

While the incident can only result in a sizeable suspension for Neilson - provoked or not, the player's actions were inexcusable and the EIHL must act accordingly - it also highlights issues with the seating arrangements at Fife Ice Arena, previously raised by other coaches in the league.

Flyers and rink management need to work together to address the concerns. Failure to react to, and learn from, an incident of this nature is simply not an option.

The shameful scenes overshadowed what was a tense, end-to-end hockey match, where two big points were at stake as both sides looked to close the gap on Gardiner Conference leaders Braehead Clan.

Ric Jackman returned from injury as Flyers finally got to experience the luxury of running with a full complement of imports, although their most influential player and top scorer, Ryan Dingle, missed out through injury for the third match running.

Storm were backed by an impressive travelling support - both in terms of numbers and noise - and their team started well too, dominating the opening minutes.

Flyers weathered the early pressure and after a missed powerplay opportunity, the hosts took the lead while short-handed thanks to the tenacity and skill of Brendan Brooks.

As Storm tried to set up at the point, Brooks intercepted a loose pass from Trevor Johnson before racing to the other end and picking his spot high past Mike Clemente with 6.30 on the clock.

If Brooks goal was the highlight of the first period then the talking point was a diving penalty called against Fife defenceman Kyle Haines just two seconds into a five-on-three powerplay.

It was one of nine minor penalties called by referee Pavel Halas in the opening period alone, and it sparked a furious reaction from the Fife bench, who clearly felt Haines had been tripped.

Flyers started the second period on the front foot and doubled their lead on the powerplay on 28.08.

Bryan Cameron screened the netminder from a Justin Fox slapshot, then as the rebound dropped onto his stick, he cleverly shifted the puck wide to Chase Schaber who had the better angle to shoot home for 2-0.

Storm hit back just over a minute later as Flyers seemed to switch-off from a face-off in their zone, leaving Trevor Johnson unmarked in the slot, and when Shane Owen couldn't hold onto his shot, Jack Prince snaffled the rebound.

The altercation between Neilson and spectator followed, sparking a hostile atmosphere as the match was stopped for a lengthy period before Neilson was sent back to the away dressing room on a match penalty, as well as a five-minute major.

The incident seemed to affect the concentration of the players and officials alike, as with the teams even-handed at four skaters each, Cody Cartier fired an equaliser past Owen despite the Storm player appearing to go offside in the build-up.

With no margin for error in the conference title race, Flyers had to refocus for the third period, and they made the perfect start as they regained their lead just 15 seconds after the restart. Cameron's shot hit the backboards and fell kindly in front of the net for Sebastian Thinel who rattled it past Clemente for 3-2.

Man of the match Brooks hit the crossbar as Flyers pushed for a fourth, but Storm hit back again with just over seven minutes left of the regulation 60 as Dziurzynski lashed a powerful shot into the Fife net on a delayed penalty.

There was growing tension on the ice as the clock ticked down, with Fife coming closest to grabbing a winner when Matt Sisca was denied at the back post by a stunning save from Clemente.

The crucial extra point would be decided in overtime, but Storm proved to be their own worst enemies, taking back-to-back penalties to give Flyers almost a full two minutes on five-on-three powerplay, which resulted in Jackman's slapshot decided the contest in Fife's favour on 61.38.

Dutiaume paid tribute to his team's work ethic on the night, which was certainly required to see of a Storm side who were willing to compete for every puck.

"I'm starting to see glimpses of the team that I know we're capable of," he said.

"They upped their work-rate - plain and simple - and we have to bring that for the rest of the season."

A great win for Flyers, but a bad night for the sport.