Ice hockey needs big characters like Nickerson

Matt Nickerson in discussion with a linesman. Fife Flyers v Sheffield Steelers, Saturday, October 19 2013. Pic: Steve Gunn
Matt Nickerson in discussion with a linesman. Fife Flyers v Sheffield Steelers, Saturday, October 19 2013. Pic: Steve Gunn

Todd Dutiaume believes big characters are important in ice hockey, and they don’t come much bigger than Matt Nickerson.

With his iconic beard, six foot four inch, 240 pounds frame, and tough-guy image, the 29-year-old American is one of the most instantly recognisable figures in the Elite League.

In stark contrast to his on-ice persona, Nickerson is also one of the most approachable players off the ice, and these opposite personalities have secured his place as a firm favourite among Flyers fans of all ages.

Nickerson helps put bums on seats, and Dutiaume recognises the importance of the defenceman’s role at the club.

“It’s hugely important to have characters in hockey,” explained Flyers head coach. “It’s what the British game has been about for a number of years. Matt will be remembered for a long time on these shores whether he goes on to play one or 10 more years here.

“He’s instantly recognisable wherever he goes - he can’t hide himself with that big beard - and he’s very popular on and off the ice.

“He wasn’t initially taken to by a lot of people but once you get past the image and realise he’s a great player and someone who talks to every kid, and takes photos with everyone, you realise he brings a lot to the table.

“The club reaps the benefit from having big characters like Matt and Bobby Chaumont, who is another popular figure with the fans.

“It’s all very well having popular guys, but you have to win games - if we’re losing the rink won’t be so busy.”

Nickerson endured a difficult first few months last season and served some big suspensions, but Dutiaume believes the player has learned from his experiences.

“I don’t think Matt was used to how the referees react to certain individuals in this league,” he said.

“He showed his frustration at times, but we knew that we had a pretty special player who stuck up for each and every one of his team mates.

“When he ran into suspension trouble the team stuck by him - he was loyal to us and we were loyal back to him.

“Matt’s a smart guy so he learned quickly and by the end of the season there wasn’t any focus on the negatives.

“He was a positive force for us every night and it’s important he comes back to take care of unfinished business. We had a great run but we didn’t win anything, that’s something we all want to rectify.”

Dutiaume is also expecting big things from new signing Chris Auger who played on a CHL championship-winning team with Fort Wayne in 2011-12.

“His numbers in the ECHL speak for themselves – he gives us that little bit more firepower up the middle that we’re looking for,” he said.

“Sometimes when a player has won something in the past it gives him that extra hunger and experience.

“It’s our goal to win some silverware in the EIHL, and if you piece winners into the line-up it’s an atttitude that can become contagious.”

Flyers also confirmed this week that they will face top class Danish opposition in a pre-season challenge double-header in Kirkcaldy.

Aalborg Pirates, coached by former Coventry Blaze and Great Britain manager Paul Thomson, will provide Flyers’ opposition in The Bay Hotel Challenge Cup, played over two games on Saturday and Sunday, August 30 and 31.

Dutiaume also confirmed that Derek Roehl’s move to rivals Braehead Clan came after Flyers decided against re-signing the player.

“It was a tough decision,” he said.

“He was another likable character who brought a lot to the table for us, but as a team we decided to go in another direction - that was our choice.

“The Braehead offer was probably always on the table but we made our decision before Derek decided to go there.”