Video: Matt Nickerson - his EIHL legacy and tales from the wild side

We’ve probably seen the last of Matt Nickerson in the Elite League.

A 20-game ban and his contract torn up by MK Lightning, his season is done, and so, in all probability, is his career in the UK.

Matt Nickerson fights Kevin Bergin (Pic: Steve Gunn)

Matt Nickerson fights Kevin Bergin (Pic: Steve Gunn)

The red mist moment which saw him lash out wildly as he left the ice, catching a fan with a ferocious backhand, is the image which will be dredged up any time his name is mentioned in conversation or searched online.

That’s a sad way for any player to be remembered – especially one who was such a character and such a huge hit with the fans whose colours he wore.

Many in hockey look down on the enforcers – the word ‘goon’ is just one of the derogatory terms thrown around.

The reality is they are among the most fascinating of sportsmen; engaging, funny, open, and also happy to hit you like a sledgehammer if you take liberties with one of their team-mates.

Matt Nickerson, Fife Flyers introduced to the crowd for ther 3rd place play-off match at the 2014 EIHL play-off finals weekend(Pic: Steve Gunn)

Matt Nickerson, Fife Flyers introduced to the crowd for ther 3rd place play-off match at the 2014 EIHL play-off finals weekend(Pic: Steve Gunn)

Guys like Matt play on the edge. When he applauds after a fight it’s not bravado or showmanship, it’s an acknowlegdement of the bravery of the other guy who stepped up to the dance.

But, when it goes wrong, the results can be catastrophically bad.

He isn’t the first tough guy to lose it and pay a substantial price – he probably won’t be the last either even as the sport moves ever closer to marginalising the guys who take on the toughest role.

Enforcing isn’t just about fighting.

Shaving off his beard foir CHAS and becoming unrecognisable! (Pic: Steve Gunn)

Shaving off his beard foir CHAS and becoming unrecognisable! (Pic: Steve Gunn)

By his presence alone, Matt could intimate opposition players – be in no doubt, some players in this league were genuinely scared of him.

It took him barely 15 minutes into a jet-lagged debut for Fife to earn a three-game ban after levelling Cardiff Devils’ Andrew Lord at a face-off – a step too far after twice circling him like a shark and tapping him on the skate to say ‘let’s go.’

Fife fans had seen nothing like this before; an enforcer who really enforced. Matt made Mike Rowe – a man nicknamed ‘Death’ – look like a pussycat.

He was box office gold as the fans adopted the ‘fear the beard’ slogan, and he loved it.

Matt Nickerson reveals his gold & blue tinted hair in club colours for the 2014 finals weekend (Pic: Steve Gunn)

Matt Nickerson reveals his gold & blue tinted hair in club colours for the 2014 finals weekend (Pic: Steve Gunn)

When he shaved off that famous beard, hundreds turned up to watch and raised £5000 for CHAS – a sum that left him speechless and completely blown away.

It’s hard to think of many players who could command such interest.

His first season in Fife was packed with highs and lows, but he clearly enjoyed the camaraderie of his team-mates where he was a big character in a noisy room, and the buzz which followed him around town.

The late skates saw him swarmed by young fans, at school visits he was the only guy they wanted to see – the fearsome giant who, deep down, wasn’t really that fearsome after all.

Except when he stepped on the ice.

His fight with Kevin Bergen of Braehead Clan produced that iconic image of Matt standing with his arm aloft in centre ice like a gladiator, holding on to a player whose legs had buckled. Rarely has the rink been so electrified. Enforcing at its most effective.

And, focussed and disciplined, Matt was a huge asset to the team, and to Belfast Giants too who probably got the very best out of him.

He once said ‘’when ice hockey goes well, life is good’’ - and you could sense that with his time at both clubs, perhaps less so at Milton Keynes?

The road from Old Lyme, Connecticut – a town of less than 8000 people and no hockey history – to the UK effectively ended in the new town filled with plastic cows and roundabouts.

It’s hard to see an EIHL return next season, and the player now has an extended off-season to mull over his next move.

While it’s impossible to condone his actions as he left the ice, there’s a part of me which says we’ll miss the big fella.

Sure, when he blew, you stood well back, but there was another side to him; a fan first and foremost, who remembered his own days crowding round the team bus for autographs whenever the NHLers rolled into the nearest arena; a player who supersized everything about Fife’s play; a guy who fizzed with adrenalin while doing post-game media interviews, and a guy who loved everything about the sport.

They’ll be telling stories about big Matt for years to come; not just the rinskide fracas, but stories that’ll make fans smile at every forum and Q&A.

My favourite came in the bar of the Murrayfield Hotel after an Edinburgh derby.

The team gathered for a quick drink before the bus journey home when a Caps’ import wandered in, and, in conversation, he mentioned he’d played against Matt back home.

‘’Hey!, wasn’t that the night you chucked a chair at our coach?’’ he suddenly remembered.

Cue laughter all round, and another tale from the wild side of hockey.

From squeezing into Todd Dutiaume’s car at Edinburgh Airport on his arrival in Scotland to his red mist departure, it’s been an eventful five years in the UK ...