Fife Flyers: A season of unfulfilled potential

Fife Flyers players line-up before the play-off quarter-final first leg against Nottingham Panthers. Pic: Jillian McFarlane
Fife Flyers players line-up before the play-off quarter-final first leg against Nottingham Panthers. Pic: Jillian McFarlane

The history books will show Fife Flyers finished their 80th anniversary season in sixth place, were KO’d in the Challenge Cup group stages, finished bottom of their conference and were eliminated from the play-offs at the first hurdle.

On paper it does not make for positive reading, but it does not tell the full story of a campaign of adversity and unfulfilled potential.

This was a Flyers team that led the Elite League in October, that came within just four points of finishing third, and that on its day, could beat every team in the league.

This was evident in a storming start, with 17 points taken from 18, including a four-point weekend, home and away, against eventual title winners Belfast Giants.

Despite admitting to periods of frustration during their summer recruitment, and gambling unsuccessfully on the return of Russ Moyer, coaches Todd Dutiaume and Jeff Hutchins assembled a good mix of returnees and new arrivals, with the addition of EIHL veteran Bari McKenzie providing a much-needed boost to the Brit core.

With one of their strongest forward lines to date, the return of All-Star netminder Shane Owen, and a defence that got better as the season wore on, this was a line-up capable of bringing success to Fife.

So why did they end up with nothing to show for it?

While there were few excuses for the failings in Challenge Cup and conference - the team just failed to show up some nights and that is on them - the injuries undoubtedly had an impact on their league and play-off aspirations.

A number of key players were either missing or playing hurt for significant portions, and in particular, the long-term absence of team leader Chase Schaber seemed to knock Flyers off their stride.

But there were also issues with inconsistency, both individually and collectively, summed up in a Jekyll & Hyde weekend in early December when a dire 8-3 home defeat to Cardiff was followed by a hard fought 4-3 overtime win in Manchester the following night.

A six-game losing skid in November, followed by another poor run in January, taking just five points from 16, saw Flyers drop out of the title race while the chasing pack closed in behind them.

Craig Moore was a key mid-season arrival from Cardiff, further strengthening the Brit pack, and Flyers were showing signs of picking things back up when the game that was to ultimately define their season took place on Sunday, February 10.

The 2-1 win over Manchester Storm - the night of the infamous post-handshakes brawl - resulted in long term injuries to Paul Crowder, Scott Aarssen and Evan Stoflet, who was also suspended for five games.

For the second season running Fife had lost three players in a single night, and the ripples would be felt for the remainder of the campaign, particularly in defence where the reluctance to use youngster Reece Cochrane on a regular basis meant the team was left to rotate just four D-men.

The following weekend saw a depleted team suffer back-to-back defeats to Coventry Blaze and Dundee Stars, and a season that had promised much was now threatening to completely derail.

But the hardship seemed to galvanise the squad and a number of big performances - particularly the overtime win over Sheffield Steelers on March 10 - meant they gathered enough points to secure their play-off spot reasonably comfortably in the end.

After riding high for much of the campaign, sixth place felt like an underachievement, albeit one more win would have been enough to claim a highest-ever fourth while Nottingham, with all their vast resources, were just four points ahead in third.

For such a banged-up team to be so close makes you wonder what Fife could have achieved at full strength.

As if the injuries weren't enough to contend with, Fife also had controversial suspensions to overcome, with the club left feeling that they were being punished more harshly than the rest of the league.

They can also point to evidence to back up this claim, and this lack of consistency within the EIHL's Department of Player Safety leaves it open to criticism.

It culminated in Brett Bulmer receiving a three-game ban following a kneeing incident in the final league game that ruled him out of the play-off quarter-final against Nottingham Panthers.

In a two-game series that was effectively decided by one goal, the club’s top scorer and form player could have made all the difference, leaving the conspiracy theorists to claim that the league got the result it wanted.

But for all the hard luck stories, the Fife team has to take some of the responsibility for its failings on its own shoulders.

Had they produced the same concerted effort shown in their play-off run more often during the season, the Challenge Cup, the conference, and maybe even third spot, as well as the Continental Cup place that comes with it, may have been within their grasp.

For all the many rousing performances there were a number of uninspiring, lacklustre games, particularly in the Dundee Stars series, where six defeats out of eight was criminal.

The highlights were the six-game whitewash of Guildford Flames - a team that would have finished third were it not for their record against Fife - while away victories in Belfast, Nottingham, Cardiff and Sheffield are always extra satisfying.

In the end, after a lukewarm relationship in the early part of the season, even when the team was riding high in the table, the fans truly warmed to this group, so much so that even in defeat at the weekend, the players were hailed as heroes after leaving absolutely everything on the ice.

In many ways, Rick Pinkston personified the team's campaign as a player who initially struggled to win fans over, then became a huge favourite, only to have his season cruelly ended after being hospitalised with an infection on the Wednesday before the play-offs.

All in all, despite the lack of tangible success in the form of silverware, Fife can be reasonably proud of their 2018-19 season, one where they dispelled the myth that their competitiveness was due to being part of the 'easier' conference.

As Steelers found out, there is no hiding place for an under-performing team in a straight-up league where everyone plays each other the same number of times.

The challenge for Fife is now to break through the glass ceiling of mediocrity and compete seriously for major honours in the EIHL, something that Guildford managed by reaching a Challenge Cup final, winning their conference and reaching the Nottingham finals in only their second season in the league.

Better luck with injuries will help, but it will take more than that for Fife to become a major force in this league.

They don't have the resources of a Nottingham or Belfast, but they need to make the most of the resources they do have, which means getting the best out of their imports on a nightly basis, and finding more regular ice time for their Brits. The two go hand-in-hand.

The club has a solid and stable coaching partnership and Dutes and Hutch will be looking to build on the positive strides made over the past couple of seasons.

Off-ice, the club has also taken forward steps in recent years but there is plenty room for improvement in the way it promotes itself and communicates with its fans and the media.

There is also work to be done to re-energise the match night experience and attract higher attendances.

The potential is there with Fife, it always has been. With a good returning core, and a few tweaks, maybe next year will be the time it is finally realised.