>> Fife Flyers and Manchester Storm meet for the very first time in Kirkcaldy this weekend, but the ties between the clubs span the generations …
Ice hockey has long had a heartbeat in the north-west of England - one perhaps not always on our radar, but which has kept beating across several generations.
The Fife links to Manchester and surrounding towns such as Altrincham run deeper than many new fans may realise.
In fact they extend back to the 1960s when goalies didn’t wear helmets, jerseys were basically woolly jumpers, sticks were made of wood, and players stuffed rolled up copies of the Fife Free Press down their socks to act as leg guards.
The history of hockey in the town, and indeed the region, mirrors the roller-coaster life and times of the UK game; peaks, troughs, great imports, legendary characters, and more than one change of direction.
And threaded throughout is a strand that connects all the way back to Kirkcaldy.
Across the decades more than a few players with Flyers connections have travelled south and kitted up in Manchester and Altrincham
The 60s trailblazers included Eeny Forbes and Sam McDonald, who formed part of our highly rated ‘Perth Line’ which also featured the record breaking goalscorer, Jimmy Spence.
The Aces alumni also numbered Bert Smith who was the mascot the night the rink opened in the Gallatown in ‘38 and went on to enjoy a distinguished club and international career which culminated in playing with GB at the Olympics Games. He remains one of only around half a dozen Fifers to stand on the Olympic stage.
In the 1980s the old Altrincham rink was home to Fred Perlini and Rick Fera - two imports poles apart in terms of personality but both prolific points-stackers in their day. The picture in this article shows Fera scoring and celebrating his 1000th career point in UK hockey - that’s how good he was.
To that list of Fife links, you can add the names of Frank Morris, David Smith (in the ISL days of 19,000 crowds at the Nynex) the evergreen ‘JP’ Jimmy Pennycook, the legendary character that was Kel Land, and netminder Colin Downie who were all Aces at one time - although by then the Aces had become Trafford Metros, and were part of the old national Division One; the Aces having turned down a chance to join the Heineken sponsored Premier League.
As Metros they also signed one Ali Butorac, who, Fife fans with good memories and strong constitutions may recall icing here under the name of Justin Butorac in the chaotic team that crashed to relegation circa 1989.
Butorac was the last throw of the ice in a truly shambolic season which saw us go through no fewer than three bench coaches - the late Milan Figala, taskmaster Mike Fedorko and club stalwart Chic Cottrell - and 11 imports which was pretty ghastly when you consider teams only iced three back then.
He was billed as a no-nonsense defenceman, and boy he could fight - just ask John Kidd - but beyond that, on and off the ice, he was dreadful.
He later resurfaced in Paisley as ‘Ali Butorac’ where we got the bizarre story of the day he boarded the bus to Streatham for his debut and got beaten up pre-game in a dressing-room fracas involving outsiders before the match started. Presumably, an old score was settled in true east end tradition.
It was in Division One - the league Butorac and company unhelpfully relocated Flyers to for one season - that Fife and Trafford finally met head to head.
Relegated for the first time in their history, familiar road trips to Durham, Nottingham and Murrayfield were replaced with hockey nights in Romford, Lee Valley … and Trafford. Flyers were given one year to get out of the mess they’d got themselves into. One year or the doors may well have closed for good.
My memories of the old Altrincham rink - now demolished and replaced with a shiny new Planet Ice facility in the town centre - was that it was wet. Hoses lying uncoiled, Puddles of water rinkside. Period intervals were spent running round the rink to find the office to phone in the report to the old Flyers Fax hotline. The internet hadn’t been invented back then kids. Yup, dark days. I know.
Fife won the game something like 8-4, but the game, and the road trip, has, in all honesty, largely disappeared into oblivion in terms of hockey memories.
Still, I’m pretty sure it formed part of a Trafford/Telford double header where we got our first sighting of the legend that was Jason Hannigan who skated on to the ice wearing a cape to the tune of ‘Wild Thing’
So, it’s nice to welcome Altrincham back tonight, albeit in a brand new guise.
The name may have changed, and the leagues transformed beyond recognition, but, deep down, Altrincham, like Kirkcaldy, is a hockey town.
And we should savour and nurture every single one of those. They’re precious.
>> Fife Flyers v Manchester Storm, Fife Ice Arena, Saturday, 7.15 p.m. Ticket info from the box office or online at www.fifeflyers.co.uk
>> A version of this article appears in Fife Flyers’ match programme this weekend.