Todd Dutiaume has mixed feeling when looking back over the Fife Flyers’ 2018/19 campaign.
The Canadian head coach says there was a bit of frustration that a season which saw Flyers as a feature at the top end of the table, was derailed due to injuries to key players.
Speaking as he looks ahead to the 2019/20 season, he said: “Obviously I was thrilled and enjoyed the excitement of us being up around the top of the table and popping up into first place.
“Around mid-October it was really an exciting time.
“We were rolling, but I don’t particularly think we were playing our best hockey – but you see a lot of time in sports when things are dropping for you, you’ve got to roll with it.
“We’ve learned some valuable lessons.
“Not just us as coaches, the players have too about being up there, and the different pressures of when you have an entire league chasing you.
“We enjoyed our brief glimpse of the top of the table and we’d like to be in and around that spot more often.
“It’s a steady progression we’ve been making over the last eight years.
“It’s been slow and steady and we’ve competed well in a league where we’re not the biggest club.
“We live within our means and over the years I think we’ve given people something to cheer about.”
That’s the day Dutiaume pinpoints as “the flipside of the coin of our season” – when the team’s talisman, Chase Schaber, suffered a groin injury that meant he missed a huge chunk of the remaining season.
“We lost Chase mid-game against Nottingham Panthers.
“We were comfortably winning that game by a wide margin.
“Psychologically the team didn’t take that loss well and we didn’t really recover.
“We got back on it in early November and had a three game winning streak, after losing four or five after we lost Chase, but went on a six game losing streak after that.
“So guys needed to get in shape, certainly the centremen did.
“It’s a heavy position in both areas around the ice, defensive and offensively.
“We had Paul Crowder and Mike Cazzola in those positions, and then we moved Joe Basaraba off the right wing to centre, and it turned out to do the job well for us.
“But in this physical league where you have 70 plus games, and we don’t carry two or three extra imports like some teams in the league, it took its toll on us.”
Dutiaume says the horrendous injury list was the “deciding factor” in Flyers finishing in sixth place in the EIHL table.
“Certainly in the second half of the season the injuries started piling up,” he said.
“But we got into the play offs, did well against the team we were drawn against, but, by that time, the guys were exhausted. We had a skeleton squad and we just ran out of steam.
“A lot of time we don’t report injuries.
“Everybody now has an instant feed to their phones. I don’t mind people knowing but what you have now is certain coaches and certain players in this league will target that injury so we keep a little tight-lipped about it.”
The worst injury of all was undubtedly the ‘Bauer Bump’ suffered by Rick Pinkston which forced him to retire.
The ankle and heel problem saw the defenceman hospitalised for three days with a serious infection.
But Dutiaume says: “Now that he’s healthy both he and I think the hype around it was overplayed.
“He was very afraid about the possible outcomes of it, but he’s a very private man.
“He didn’t want a lot of people knowing at the time, but it puts it into perspective what these guys are willing to play through, for themselves, the team and the support.
“Schaber played at the end of the season without an attached ligament to his groin, we had guys with injured shoulders and we had guys coming back off of a concussion.
“It was a significant injury list, so I’m extremely proud of what they went out and did.
“They don’t often get the accolades from the majority of people, because they don’t know about it.
“But what they managed to accomplish under that duress is pretty incredible.”
Now Dutiaume will turn his attention to building his squad for next season and says there has already been lots of discussion with players.
“We’ve talked with the core guys we want,” he says.
“We’re not just sitting around here twiddling our thumbs, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. It starts immediately after we close up shop on the last season.
“I’m pleased with the amount of guys that have expressed a desire to come back. They’re guys we want to get under contract and the quicker we do that, the better.
“But all my potential returnees have been told to step up their work ethic and attitude towards winning around here.
“This isn’t just an easy ride where you get paid, you go out, you win some and you lose some.
“It’s time to take their games to the next level and continue this push forward that we’re trying to accomplish.”
Dutes and his assistant Jeff Hutchins are looking to assemble a squad of youth combined with experienced players who will help to nurture the stars of the future.
He said: “It’s an incredibly big jump. You can’t just get thrown in at the deep end like you could in 1994, it’s just not possible.
“That’s why we have these pieces in place a) to have people who are capable of playing right now and b) to have them here as mentors for these younger guys to show them what it takes to play at this level.”
And of course, also returning for another season is Dutiaume himself, signing on for another year at the Fife Ice Arena.
He said he was happy to take on the challenege of another year in the hot seat with all its high and lows.
He said: “Ask any coach, it’s a pretty thankless job sometimes but there’s not many of us who do it for the accolades.
“We do it for the team’s success, the community’s success, and ultimately being around a group of individuals who are special people.
“There are not many working atmospheres left like it.
“It can be high pressured at times.
“Everybody is quick to criticise every single decision that you make – it comes along with the job, and I get that.
“You will never please everybody.
“You will get people wanting to pick holes, but you need to focus on the well being of the team, and try to put together a competitive club that this community rallies behind, supports and enjoys watching.”
Dutiamue added that he was delighted that his assistant Hutchins had also agreed to join him.
“Hutch and I were saying the other week if you compare our pay to the amount of hours we work, if you told people you were only getting paid 50p an hour, you wouldn’t get many takers out there!
“But I enjoy working with Jeff. We’re different people but we get along very well and I think we complement each others strengths and certainly help each other overcome our weaknesses.
“He’s a professional, he’s got a winning attitude, he’ll push these guys to be the best that they can be and we’re both pulling in the same direction for Fife Flyers.”