Comment: How do we re-vitalise Fife Flyers match night?

Rinkside and a full house for Fife Flyers (Pic: Steve Gunn)
Rinkside and a full house for Fife Flyers (Pic: Steve Gunn)

As sports venues go, Fife Ice Arena can be one of the most intimidating to visit.

A rink that rises in fury can spook the best teams and destroy the focus of the toughest guys in the game.

It’s Fife Flyers’ hidden ace which can transform hockey nights.

But that same audience can be Flyers’ own harshest critic; one that sits in silent, almost sullen contempt, when the team is toiling, and one that can, and does, single out any slackers for particular criticism.

Over 30 years I have seen the crowd create a wall of noise to re-energise teams on their knees and propel them to remarkable victories.

I’ve also seen it boo its own imports ON to the ice.

Remember Steve Gatzos and Tim Coughlin? Their welcome to Kirkcaldy was a chorus of catcalls, a response that the then coach, Mike Fedorko, branded the worst home town support he’d ever seen.

The rink’s design creates a gladiatorial atmosphere – on any given night it could be a thumbs-up to spare some hapless skater, or a thumbs-down to crush the spirit of whoever displeases those in the crowd.

In the 1940s they used to hurl rolled-up match programmes on to the ice.

When the rink had a shop which sold oranges, they hurled the fruit on to the ice pad.

And when they had nothing to hand, they’d stamp their feet on the wooden boards to create a rumble of thunder which echoed round the building, or rise as one to create a wall of noise – defiant, partisan, angry, celebratory, protective... often all in the one night.

Section G was once famous throughout the whole league for leading the noise.

But, let’s be honest, that’s all past tense.

The rink used to be a cauldron. Only occasionally is it roused to full throttle, and even on good nights there are spells when it is happy to sit back in passive mode - the disconnect between the team and the crowd evident for all to see.

But here’s the thing. After seven years of EIHL hockey, Flyers have arguably their best team of this era, one that entertains, works hard and is going head to head with the big guns across the league, and winning.

So where’s the noise?

This is a team that thrives on the electricity generated in the stands, but one also acutely tuned into the silences which can be just as powerful.

The comments of the coaches in this week’s Press have sparked a fascinating debate.

Jeff Hutchins knows better than anyone how intimidating a Fife Flyers’ crowd can be.

As player-coach with Dundee Stars he relished the heat of the battle, and knew how tough it made things if you fell behind.

He was one of the players Fife fans keyed in on – the famous ‘Hutchy’s hankie’ sign on a bedsheet being unveiled midway through one of the clubs’ epic head to heads a memorable moment.

So, when he says he doesn’t feel that intimidatory factor, the club has to listen. And act.

The match night has been stale for some time, and it is in dire need of a complete overhaul.

It used to be billed as the ‘great night out’ – and that was always more than just a marketing slogan.

The sport has changed so much since then.

From Braehead to Belfast, the clubs put on a show. Fife don’t.

There is no build-up. The players warm up and return to the locker rooms ready to play, but the fans go into the game cold. That has to change.

The ideas in response to Matt Elder’s story have come tumbling out – a singing section, better use of the drummers around the sections, change the music, change the DJ, use the mascot more throughout the night, more social events to interact with the team, bring back the fans’ forums, fill the empty seats with more school tickets, improve the poor PR, and re-activate the ‘pack the barn’ initiatives to list but a few.

The ideas are floated with a genuine desire to see things improve – and there are fans sitting in the stands who could be drafted on board tomorrow and make a huge difference.

The key to change? Someone has to be in sole control of the match night.

Right now a lot of people are doing good jobs and working hard behind the scenes – the club doesn’t get the credit for what it does well – but it feels like everyone is also working in isolation. In the absence of a GM – a role, in my view, desperately needed to pull together all the off-ice activity – no-one has a handle on the bigger picture.

The show - the whole match night experience - needs a visible figurehead with the authority to make changes and bring in fresh thinking.

From the tired pre-show in pitch darkness to the standard farewell lap round the pad, every aspect of the match night has to be revisited and improved.

Let’s go back to Fedorko – one straight-talking, hard-nosed hockey coach.

He saw his team jeered off the ice one night and asked the fans why. It wasn’t the defeat that irked them, it was the fact the players didn’t acknowledge the crowd.

The following Saturday, Fedorko ordered them to stand in a circle in centre ice. He went into the middle of it, and made them raise their sticks to all four corners in salute. They got a warm ovation despite another bad loss.

Fedorko got what the crowd wanted, and he delivered.

Out with the old and in with the new is a great Scottish Hogmanay tradition, so, let’s sweep away the staleness of the match night and hit 2018 with the best show possible.

The fans demand it. The team needs it.