I’m here to protect - like a guardian on the ice

Matt Nickerson
Matt Nickerson

Matt Nickerson has become a huge hit with the fans since his explosive start to life with Fife Flyers

The posters in the rink simply state ‘‘fear the beard’’ while in the crowd are fans who have added ZZTop style fake beards to their hockey gear.

Matt Nickerson

Matt Nickerson

Not since the orange glove craze which marked Ryan Kummu‘s big hits in 1993- ‘‘you’ll know when you’ve been Kummu’d’’ ran the Tango-inspired poster - has a Fife Flyers’ defenceman enjoyed such a personal fan base.

Saturday’s post-game skate simply underlined the popularity of the big man, Matt Nickerson.

At six-four and circa 230lbs he’d be hard to miss even on a packed ice pad - he towered above most of his young fans queuing for a photo - and no-one can match his mohican haircut and striking beard.

With a debut goal and his first MoM award in the bag that night, it was a good day at the office for a player whose whirlwind start to life in Fife is now settling into a familiar pattern of training, game days, club events and PR, and some down time.

The post-game skate was the fun part of the job - something he understands and appreciates.

‘‘I remember being a kid going to Hartford or Newhaven and anytime you got a chance to stand next to a player or get a stick, that was always pretty special,’’ he said, ‘‘so it was great to see many kids out on the ice.’’

Such events didn’t happen on Nickerson’s doorstep growing up in Old Lyme, Connecticut, population just 7000.

Hockey was an hour’s drive away, and the sport wasn’t part of his school- baseball and lacrosse were - but he still caught the bug after lacing up at an early age.

‘‘Doug Roberts played NHL and stayed in my road. He got me to go down to the rink when I was about five, and it went from there,’’ said Matt. ‘‘As I got older we had to drive further and further to find competitive hockey. My parents drove an hour and a half just to get me to training and then got me home again - 
I reckon we blew out 
three engines driving thousands of miles, but I am so grateful they were there and so supportive.’’

Season 2001-02 saw Nickerson ice in the NAHC with Texas Tornados, but it was his second season that he caught the eye - more goals and a hefty dose of PIMs with 277 minutes to his name

His size and strength caught the attention of the scouts in 2003 and he he was a third round draft pick, 99th overall, by Dallas Stars.

‘‘I got to play some exhibition games and played against the Oilers - that was incredible,’’ he said.

‘‘I got to see the life and how it was in the NHL - so close and yet so far away, but it was great, and I still think about it.’’

By 2005 he swapped North America for Finland - dispatched to Scandinavia originally by the Stars to play in a league where fighting isn’t part of the game.

He spent most of the next five seasons there, clearly enjoying the game despite some drawbacks such as language.

‘‘Last year the coach spoke in Finnish and didn’t translate. There were three others from Canada and when we asked what he said, the guys just said ‘nothing important’ - we just went to the rink and made it up!

‘‘So it’s good to be in a dressing-room where I can understand everyone. The accent here isn’t that hard to get!’’

Nickerson’s role here on the ice is clear - he’s here to protect and defend, but there is much more to it than just enforcing or going head to head with the league’s hard men.

‘‘I’m hear to protect my team-mates. If someone is going to hurt the guys or intimdate them I am here to step in; almost like a guardian.

‘‘But I’m here also to help with offense when I can, to make the plays and passes and chip in on the power play.

‘‘I play my own style, sure, but I know my limitations and also know I can’t take penalties that hurt the team, and on my first game that’s what happened.

‘‘I’d just arrived, and I felt I had fog on the brain. I was terrible.

‘‘I’d barely met the guys after arriving that morning - after getting kicked out I was watching the game still working out who was who! - and sitting out the four-game suspension was very, very tough, I was training with the guys and then had to watch them play on the ice and not be part of it.’’

Fast forward just a few weeks and the bonds that tie every dressing-room together are growing by the day and Nickerson is enjoying life with his team-mates and in town.

‘‘It’s a really nice town. Coming from a place of 7000 people it’s almost a big city to me, and I like the fact you can be in the country in a few minutes - just like home.

‘‘I’m starting to stretch my legs and give me a couple more games and I will back to where I want to be and to the level I should be playing at.’’