Fife Flyers: Mike Hildenbrand – Kirkcaldy is ‘my kinda hockey rink’

They are the gatekeepers to the dressing-room - the place every bit as important as the ice pad for all ice hockey teams.

Monday, 1st August 2022, 1:55 pm

They patrol who gets access, and their work behind the scenes is vital to the smooth running of a team.

Mike Hildenbrand’s career as equipment manager has taken him across several leagues and countries, and has brought him back to Kirkcaldy for a second season.

He’s already in situ ahead of a new-look squad arriving next month as part of an off-ice team which has been given a summer shake-up to breathe fresh energies into the club after the impact of a two-year lockdown closure and a difficult last place finish in season 2021-22.

Mike Hildenbrand, equipment manager, Fife Flyers (Pic: Derek Young)

He has been joined by his family, with his wife, Catie, taking on a voluntary role to help rebuild a fanbase that has drifted in recent seasons, and improve the lines of communication across the business.

While the puck doesn’t drop until September, Mike’s work has already started.

And coming back, despite last season’s tough times, was a no brainer.

“I had no hesitation at all,” he said. “I love the role, and this is my kinda hockey rink.

The view from behind Fife Flyers bench (Pic: James Assinder)

“Before coming over, I knew and understood it was a smaller rink in a town with a passion for hockey. I enjoy the character aspect of these places.”

Kirkcaldy may be over 3000 miles from Ontario, but the hockey world is a small place, and connections made across 15 years in the sport meant it wasn’t a complete leap into the dark.

Mike began in 2006 with Windsor Spitfires in the OHL before joining former Fife coach Mark Morrison at Victoria Salmon Kings in the ECHL where the team included Matt Siddall, who went on to ice with Fife in their first EIHL season.

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A rinkside view of the action for Mike Hildenbrand, equipment manager for Fife Flyers (Pic: Derek Young)

At Erie Otters, he worked with Mike Cazzola, another ex-Flyer, while his spell with Flint Firebirds threw up a link to another era of British hockey - Joe Stefan, formerly of Slough Jets, was head of player development.

Mike moved into the role after giving up refereeing when his knee gave out.

Like all Canadian kids he played at a young age - “you get a stick, over here you are handed a football” - but his life in hockey was to centre around the bench and the dressing-room.

Having helping out with his local Junior B team, he jumped in at the deep end with Windsor Spitfires.

The familiar pillars at the entrance to Fife Ice Arena (Pic: Scott Louden)

“I learned on the fly,” he said. “I’d never done it before, but fell in love with it.”

As equipment manager, Mike’s to do list is lengthy - “you do everything to get the room in order for the players to get ready for the game” - as well as looking after the guys.

“I am protective of the team,” he said. “No-one just wanders in.”

And there is good reason for that. The dressing-room is the players’ sanctuary.

“It’s their second home. That’s where they live,” he said. “Players spend most of their time there - before games some can be in for a few hours in advance, so you want to treat it the same way as your home.”

With back to back weekend games and a midweek schedule to prepare for, it’s also Mike’s home from home.

Every road trip means a bus has to be packed and unpacked, and every game means laundry - lots of it - to be ready to roll ahead of the next match.

“Win or lose, my job doesn’t change. I can’t be on that rollercoaster after games - the bus still has to be packed. As soon as the players leave the bench, we start work.

“But I love it. On the bench, you hear all the chirps and you hear the fans, and they are very vocal.

“The rink is similar to Erie in terms of passion and noise - both are hard working blue collar towns, but here they take it to the next level! People here care about their hockey.

“You hear everything - and that’s good. Hearing nothing, that’s more concerning.”

Kirkcaldy is only Mike’s second posting outwith North America.

The other was as head equipment manager with Medvescak Zagreb in Croatia for one season in the KHL - the world’s second greatest league.

A conversation on networking platform LinkedIn with Aaron Fox, the club’s sports director - and now head coach at Sheffield Steelers - opened the door to a new experience.

“That was a fun season,” said Mike. “You had a Russian culture and a Western European culture.

“That season in KHL I missed out on getting to the far east so missed out on going tip to top round the world, but it was a lot of travel.

“We were on the plane for 12-18 hours just to get to a game We’d do three games on the road, and every one took us to a different county.”

LinkedIn also came into play when Fife appeared on his radar.

“I was helping Hutchy (Jeff Hutchins) to find the club someone. We started talking, and next thing I was on a plane a week later.

“Fife was one of the first teams I didn’t know any of the players- I knew Mike Cazzola from before and he told me about the team - but I started from scratch building up relationships.

“In hockey everyone checks each other out with the contacts back home. The guys knew my background and spoke to their buddies back home. Then it was up to me to show them what I was capable of.”

Since arriving after the start of last season, he has become a regular voice on Twitter interacting with fans and explaining the changes made ahead of the new campaign.

“Social media is a huge part of how we engage with supporters - it’s a good place to chat and give them snippets of what is happening behind the scenes.“And we’re moving forward - maybe not as fast as some want, but everyone is on the same page.”