Ice hockey’s original derby still crackles with excitement

Murrayfield Racers v Fife Flyers ice hockey match at Murrayfield ice rink, April 1993. Racers' Mike Newberry celebrates a goal.
Murrayfield Racers v Fife Flyers ice hockey match at Murrayfield ice rink, April 1993. Racers' Mike Newberry celebrates a goal.

If the walls of Murrayfield Ice Rink could talk, what tales they’d tell of the days Fife Flyers came to town.

Across the generations and throughout the myriad of league set-ups, a Fife-Murrayfield game stood apart from the rest.

In its heyday it was THE biggest derby going - one that needed no hype from a slick PR machine either.

It was the rawest of rivalries, so much so Fife fans would go over the Forth in huge numbers when their own team was down south and support whoever was playing Racers!

True, its status has ebbed in the past decade or so as new rivalries have been forged, but put these two teams on a stage such as Hogmanay and this grand old game still crackles with excitement.

Maybe it’s the history, the links that have seen many players skate for both teams across the decades, or maybe it’s the old-time hockey rink itself - functional, cold, unloved, and yet, still doing its damnedest to keep the sport alive in a capital city more used to the comforts of the massive rugby stadium that towers over its roof.

The very first time I set foot in Murrayfield was to see the debut of the Czechs - Vincent Lukac, Jindrich Kokrment and the late, great Milan Figala.

A rink that had nurtured its own greats - Johnny Carlyle, Pecker Reilly, the Lovells, and the Hands to name but a few - had a full house as hockey fans from across the decades came to see three truly world class skaters.

The only empty seat I could find was in the rafters of the back row behind the home support, The first, and last, time I’ve ever sat on the ‘wrong’ side of the rink.

If you’re from Fife you turn right going into the rink and take a seat.

To have done anything otherwise during the Heineken era was as unthinkable as going into the Hampton Court rather than Murrayfield Hotel for a post-game pint.

Racers had their pub. We had ours.

Back then Tony’s mum, the redoubtable Lorraine, held court from her seat immediately above the walkway leading to the away dressing-room,

With one wave of the hand she could induce apoplexy among 1500 Fife fans who’d retaliate with songs about her. And they belted them out with gusto.

It was incredible theatre - noisy, passionate, more divided than a canyon, and electrifying to watch and take in.

And back then Fife couldn’t buy a win in Edinburgh.

Every Sunday showdown, Fife would fall at the hands of a Racers’ side that played eight-man hockey - three imports (Chris Kelland plus the two newcomers signed that season), two Hands, Jock Hay, Paul Pentland and Moray Hanson.

Tony would hang high, snap on to a long pass and ring the red light even before the fans had finished yelling ‘’hit him!’’

I remember Gordon Latto explaining how it was like trying to catch a shadow - get too close and he burnt you with his pace, step back, and he used the space and his 360-degree vision to make the play or go for goal.

Hand tormented Fife every season. So did Jim Mollard, a one man wrecking ball of a forward, and then came big bad Mike Ware, arguably the fiercest D-man of his time.

They had Flyers’ number across the Heineken League,and it culminated in a harrowing club record defeat.

Fife were heading to relegation when Mike Fedorko took his shell of a side across the Forth.

True story - he’d had enough of players bitching about ice time, so he took a stop watch, and changed the lines every 30 seconds without fail, regardless of the score. On. Off. On. Off.

The goals piled up so quickly I recall the first Fife fans leaving the building before the first buzzer. The howls of outrage continued long into the night.

It took the arrival of Doug Smail and a January GWG circa 1993-94 to ease those memories, and, since then, Flyers have enjoyed much success at Murrayfield.

Racers’ demise and exile to Livingston changed the nature of the derby, and Flyers’ collapse to the SNL rendered it dormant for many years, but it was never, ever extinguished.

It remains a fixture soaked in tradition and memories - and one that can ignite at any time. Remember the Russ Parent-Roger Hunt fight? Mike Ware’s devastating rag-dolling of poor Rob Abel? The night Paul Hand stuck the heid on Rob Abel? Derek Keller’s stunning winner with 0.01 seconds on the clock? The legendary night an effigy of Mike Rowe was dangled from a noose high in the rafters?

The stakes on Sunday are high.

Caps win and they could jump from eighth to sixth. Fife win and they crank clear daylight between the teams and, more significantly, stay at the helm of the league’s second tier - the clubs out of the title race but locked firmly in the battle for the play-offs. A five-team league within a league with the only certainty being that two will miss out completely. Right now those berths belong firmly to a Dundee side drifting out of touch and a Coventry outfit that has simply lost its way.

Caps are completely unpredictable; a team that couldn’t win transformed into one that scalped the very best.

During games they drift so far out of the zone you wonder if they are even awake, and then they suddenly zap you with a couple of goals in successive shifts. It’s like being hit with a taser gun.

They grab the momentum just when you think it’s in the bag - and when that happens they become formidable.

Fife are just as inconsistent; They buzz with energy and drive one night, labour the next.

But there are signs - real, tangible signs - that the spirit which drove them to Nottingham is crystallising once more.

Jordan Fulton’s workrate and drive has been utterly immense in recent games, Ned Lukacevic has turned his stick back into a magician’s wand, Bobby Chaumont - the streakiest of streaky players - is snaffling pucks and sniffing goals once more, and behind them sits the workhorse of Scott Fleming,and behind him the powerful figure of Matt Nickerson who protects, dominates and unsettles entire teams.

There’s absolutely no doubt they need Kyle Haines back soon - he is a true team leader - and Chris Auger, but, while they heal, this team simply must deliver points.

The time for casually taking a night off here and there - individually and collectively - is over.

A win in Edinburgh on Hogmanay is essential.

Not just because it’s a derby, but because it sets the scene for January ... and that’s where play-off hopes and dreams will burn bright or implode.