Allan Crow on the enforcer every hockey fan is talking about ...
There were glimpses of two very different sides of Matt Nickerson, the Fife Flyer who in 18 short minutes of ice time has generated more debate than some imports manage in an entire season.
It’s Sunday night and the team has just grabbed a 2-1 win in Murrayfield.
A cold rink is emptying, but in the corridor running below the stands the backroom team are busy packing up and shipping out.
Next to the physio’s table awaiting its first visitors stands Nickerson in conversation with Pep Young.
He towers over the elder statesman of hockey, but his features are soft, his manner entirely engaging.
The talk is clearly hockey - perhaps a gentle chiding from Pep - but there’s laughter and smiles.
Rewind 24 hours and Nickerson the defensive enforcer was making a very different kind of mark, melting Cardiff Devils’ Andrew Lord into the ice in a manner that resulted in an immediate four-game suspension.
If the old saying is true and you really do only get once chance to make a first impression then Nickerson has announced his arrival in British hockey in a style.
He could be the enforcer everyone fears; the big man who steps in whenever someone steps out of line.
Watching him noise up Lord was a masterclass in hockey’s dark arts was delicious until he went a step too far.
Whatever caught his attention - and clearly something behind or around the net did - he peeled away from his marker and circled Lord rather like a shark circles its prey.
The message was clear. A card had been marked.
A second circle followed. Now the fans got it, and thrilled to his no-nonsense approach.
At the face-off, the big man stood eyeball to eyeball with Lord. The wee tap on the skate was hockey talk for ‘‘okay, let’s go’’ and the fact Lord stared straight ahead said it all. Look closely and you might just have seen his knees knocking together.
At that moment, Nickerson owned Lord - he knew it, and Cardiff knew it. The entire rink knew it. Enforcing at its most intimidatory best without the need to even point a stern finger let alone drop a glove.
Pause there, and Fife, leading 1-0 and playing with some verve on opening night, might just have gone on to dominate and win the game.
Instead they saw Nickerson tossed for a fight which wasn’t really that necessary, a cross-check to the back of a player face down on the ice which was as potentially dangerous as it was dumb, and a match penalty that turned into four games in the stands rather than on the ice.
What happens now?
Well, let’s see how be bounces back.
His style may be uncompromising - but that’s fine, provided the boundaries are understood.
Mike Rowe was just as fearsome a decade or so ago, ditto Greg Kuznik, and the authority of Ted Russell and Russ Parent was rarely challenged during their stints on the blue-line, but Nickerson’s style is much more in your face.
That may not be the ‘Fife way’ - and managing a player of his style is a new challenge to the team - but if he defends, protects and supports the team then he will be a huge asset every single game night; one who will light up this rink and create a buzz right round the rink long before the puck is dropped at 7.15
If he picks and chooses the moments to drop ‘em then the message - actually, make that a warning - to other teams will remain constant. We’ll soon see who is prepared to step up and go toe to toe.
I’m pretty sure he’ll be tossed from other games - it comes with the job description - but playing smarter, and thinking smarter can turn the big man into a major asset for Flyers.
He’s also a character, one the Fife fans will love getting to know.
Fast-forward four games - two weekends - and he can show them what really has to offer the team. Grit, strength, leadership and skill.
Like every import new to these shores he’s got a sharp wee learning curve over what goes and what’s doesn’t. It’s going to be fun to watch the man with the awesome ZZ Top beard.
It certainly isn’t going to be dull!
Welcome to Fife, Matt!
>> Follow me on Twitter @fifefreepressed
>> Read Matthew Elder’s hockey round-up in this week’s Fife Free Press