Fife Flyers: a season of huge progress and a new buzz among fans rinkside

You can measure the success of a season in games won, points accrued and your final place in the league - but those metrics only tell part of the story of Fife Flyers’ 2023-24 campaign.
Tom Coolen has started team building for the 2024-25 season (Pic: Derek Young)Tom Coolen has started team building for the 2024-25 season (Pic: Derek Young)
Tom Coolen has started team building for the 2024-25 season (Pic: Derek Young)

On and off the ice, the club made huge strides and it heads into summer with a real sense there is more to come on the back of a campaign which saw a renewed buzz about a sport that has been part of the town since 1938.

Tom Coolen was the catalyst, but he’d be the first to deflect the praise to the team on the ice, and to the people behind the scenes whose work and commitment saw what should have been a year of transition turn into much more.

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The fanbase warmed to a hard-working team, while off the ice a busy programme of school and community visits, led by Todd Dutiaume as GM which also saw him cover a host of tasks behind the scenes, brought many new faces rinkside.

Troy Lajeunesse one of Flyers stand out players this season (Pic: Derek Young)Troy Lajeunesse one of Flyers stand out players this season (Pic: Derek Young)
Troy Lajeunesse one of Flyers stand out players this season (Pic: Derek Young)

Flyers finished eighth, but could easily have hit a top five slot, and we can only wonder what might have been had they defeated Dundee Stars on the last day of the season and landed either Belfast Giants or Cardiff in the play-offs rather than Sheffield Steelers who put them to the sword in the quarter-finals.

“I feel really good about what we accomplished,” said the coach as we sat in his office at the weekend. The dressing-room was empty, the players were starting to depart for home after a week of one to one meetings.

“It was an interesting season. Look at where we started and where we were before. Based on the fact the team hadn’t made the play-offs for four of five seasons we set ourselves an initial goal to do that. You have to walk before you run - and you have to crawl before you walk.

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“Making the play offs alone was a success. The pursuit of that goal was interesting in how we made it - that’s a story in itself.”

Brady Pouteau with fans rinkside after a gameBrady Pouteau with fans rinkside after a game
Brady Pouteau with fans rinkside after a game

And it was.

He built his team in about six weeks, unearthing a few gems in a new-look side which hustled and had, at its core, a strong work ethic from the puck drop.

“I tried to build around guys who were strong skaters, After the first few weeks other coaches were asking if I could slow our team down! We caught their eye, for sure,” he said.

The foundation stones quickly emerged; Troy Lajeunesse and Kyle Osterberg’s lethal partnership delivered circa 120 points across the regular season, the tireless endeavour of Lucas Chiodo and Max Humitz drove it forward, while Alexi Makela, the quiet man of the team, was a defensive stalwart. Seven players logged 30-points or more.

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Coolen also made more changes than Flyers’ fans have been accustomed to as he embarked on a learning curve in British hockey.

“We had a lot of guys who were new to hockey in the UK and we had a whole new team,” he said “Guys had to learn how to play with each other - as a coach I look at who fits together - so we made some changes, and I think every one was an upgrade.”They started with Reece Harsch, one of only three import returnees from the previous season. The defenceman dialled in sick on the opening night - not the best way to endear yourself to a new coach - and always looked to be on the periphery on the team. He handed in his notice ten games into the league season, and went to Cincinnati Cyclones, one of three ECHL teams he would ice for this season. Ironically Cyclones traded him to Jacksonville Icemen for another Fife departee, Ben Hawerchuck who was here for just 13 league starts.

But the biggest disappointment was Anton Erikkson. The big Swede was a character in the opening few games, but just as the fans took to him, his form plateaued and he was gone after 15 games, while defenceman Adam Holwell was cut after eight league games.

Sean Giles came in to shore up the blue line, Vitalijs Pavlovs brought size and experience to centre - and also proved to be more than useful in defence when injuries hit - and Drake Pilon brought what Coolen called ‘grit and sandpaper’ to the line up.

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“I knew speaking to fans they wanted a hard working team, one that would leave it all on the ice every night, That is what they expect and we accomplished that,” said the coach. “There might be a few games we’d want back, but that happens in any season to almost every team. We showed that form on the road and at home, and almost every game was close. Every game was a battle. We made them that - I am really proud of that fact.

“If it wasn’t for December’s schedule where we had injured and lost our netminder it could have been a very different…”

Playing 14 games in 28 days took its toll - one week the team spent 50 hours on the road - and nearly derailed the club’s season.

“That was a tough month,” said Coolen. “Take it out of the equation and we could have finished fifth. We went on a run after Christmas and had one of the best form records in the league - a real accomplishment.”The Fife side that emerged from the debris of December found some breathing space and started to motor.

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The blue line lost Stephen Desrocher with a broken finger for six weeks, but in that time, Brady Poteau, who had been one of the healthy scratches, stepped in and played his way to a starting slot - resulting in Desrocher being released. Netminder Shane Owen returned from injury and was in a fine groove as the play-off race intensified.

“What changed was we got healthy,” said Coolen, “and we saw guys step up. Brady improved his game and earned the right to be on the roster every night, In the first half of the season I had six defencemen and I was rotating them, and he didn’t get the opportunity to establish himself. Once he did, he gave us more than I anticipated.

“The guys worked hard. December put us so far down we had to battle back. We had to chop the tree down piece by piece and build it up, and get points every weekend. We had a goal to reach.”

That goal was the play-offs. Flyers found themselves in a remarkable race that went to the wire, and big road wins in Guildford and Cardiff were worth their weight in gold, but a last day slip at home to Stars saw them drop to eighth and that head to head with Steelers.

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“I’ve not really been in a league before that came down to so many possibilities in the final weekend - it was incredible,” said Coolen. “Nothing came our way, we had to make it happen, Went to Guildford and won, went to Cardiff and won - knocked off two top teams in their own rinks.”

With one to one exit interviews concluded and the players heading home for a summer break, the coach is already looking ahead to 2024-25.

He has potential players bookmarked – the number runs well into three figures – for further checks and calls to coaches and GMs, and with the benefit of a year in the EIHL under his belt, knows where he wants to strengthen and improve, and also accepts that he lose some of his star skaters.

“I know we had players who turned heads last season, so we will see how that settles. There are some guys we want back, but there are no guarantees.

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"Some won’t return - that’s the way the sport works - but the thing I have learned is to be patient, Recruiting is like fishing - there is a season when the fish bite, If is too early they don’t bite, so you have to get them at the right time. There are plenty of fish.”

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