This week, The Journal spoke to Newcastle Vipers player-coach Danny Stewart about the 2010-11 campaign, and his fears for the future of North East ice hockey.
“(Then-coach and co-owner) Rob Wilson first got in touch with me. He’d spoken to Paul Thompson at Coventry, who suggested I might be a good fit for a coaching job. I spoke to Willy and he got me interested. We thought they’d be playing out of the Arena at Newcastle. Paddy (O’Connor) had come on board looking to move it forward and I met Jaimie (Longmuir) face to face at the play-off weekend.
“I believe it was at the second interview when it became known we might be coming to Whitley Bay instead of the Arena. Paddy and Jaimie assured me although it would tough, things would be secure, the funding would remain and the team would move forward.
“I figured I had accomplished enough at Coventry and wanted something new and fresh.
“I knew they had some troubles in the past and I was aware the rent at the Arena was pretty steep and that had caused some troubles. There were some mistakes made in the past and they’ve been open about it.
“Paddy sold a good situation and Jaimie was selling as well. Plain and simple, one of them kept to their word and one didn’t."
“A lot of the sell was the project in Gateshead. We weren’t looking to finish top half of the table in two seasons. We said if we could make some noise in the cup - which we ended up doing - and make the play-offs, that’d be a fantastic season. Paddy’s played in the past and Jaimie’s been involved with teams and we knew the money we were spending was the lowest in the league.
“I had thought we’d go through two tough seasons at Whitley Bay and try to build a core of players. I thought it (Gateshead) would be a fantastic place to play, and coach especially. A couple of months into the season that project was pushed back and it changed a lot of people’s minds."
“I knew the type of teams they’d had in the past. When we planned the team we wanted to build in Whitley Bay it was going to be a big, physical team that would compete. It wasn’t long after I started recruiting we all realised with the budget we had that was going to be very tough to accomplish.
“Some people might say we should have put a tough, rugged team in here. At the start of the summer I tried everything in my power to build that type of club, it just wasn’t happening. These days guys who are big and tough but can also play come at a price.
“We decided to go young and bring in some guys with energy.
“One area where we were lacking, especially at the start of the year, was a top-quality Brit. We were able to sign Paul Sample but he had missed a whole season, which is always going to take a bit out of you. A few of the younger guys like Nathan Salem and Rob Wilson weren’t, I didn’t think, at par at this level.
“The British players had moved on before I even got chance to speak to them. As for the imports, from what I had heard, there was a lot of guys who when they spent the second half of last season in Whitley Bay got really negative, and just didn’t enjoy playing here. I didn’t want the start of a new era to have any negativity.
“Those guys definitely weren’t going to take reductions to come back and play a full season here. A lot of players didn’t want to come to Newcastle: one because of reputation, two they were playing out of Whitely Bay, and three the money we were paying.
“I maybe made a mistake in not pursuing a couple to keep a bit of foundation. But it was my first year recruiting and those are the mistakes you’re going to have. I don’t think they were major mistakes. Who knows, maybe they weren’t mistakes.
“I don’t think I would have had the resources to get David Longstaff back, I think Ben Campbell had a pretty good situation in Guildford and I don’t think we could have competed over money. I think their minds were pretty much made up."
“It’s not like we have scouts, or the resources to fly out and watch guys. A lot of the recruiting comes from hearsay - old coaches and guys you know who have played with them. Every import was new to the UK and it was always going to take time.
“We had a slow start. A bit of it was down to inexperience but a major part was we started later than teams who were already on way bigger budgets.
“Whitley Bay was a type of arena none of these (imported) guys had ever played on. For a goaltender like Charlie Effinger to play in a rink where the lines aren’t always on the ice, the lighting’s a bit poor, it is very difficult.
“Blair Stayzer never really got settled in, Dan Speer never really became the offensive threat we thought he would, even Jamie Carroll took time to settle in. The way things ended up shows if you have patience you’re going to end up flourishing, as we saw with Rszeszutko, Hartmanis, Sibley and Sammy Zajac.
“Dundee were 0 and 15. It took time for them.
“If people had given it time - the fans that went away, the players, Paddy O’Connor - I think we really would have developed into a good team and had a special season. Some people I can’t fault for going away, some I questioned.
“Dan Speer had offensive capability but I’m not sure his heart is in playing professional hockey. (Patrik) Forsbacka, although he was scoring goals for us in the first month, he was nowhere near the physical player we had been sold. When he played in the Finnish Elite League he was maybe the most physical player in that league. I spoke to a couple of his ex-team-mates and I remember them saying, ‘Is he killing guys with hits?’ I said, ‘I don’t think he’s hit somebody since his hat-trick in the exhibition game!’ He scored some goals for us which helped a bit but I was depending on him, Stayzer and Langdon to be a physical force. Langdon was more than physical, which made it an even bigger loss when he went.
“The timing was unfortunate with Dan Speer because I’d released him and Scott Langdon called me two hours after and told me he was leaving. That made us three imports down within the first month-and-a-half. It seemed to snowball from there."
Stewart on Stewart
“The English guys were good in getting guys around for the first month until they felt comfortable driving. I had to help them out setting up bills and stuff. You go to bigger clubs and they have off-ice staff to help with that. We brought some younger guys in who were really huge in helping, but me and Jaimie were right in there too. A week before a guy arrived I was in his place giving it a last-minute clean. I had to take a lot more on board than playing and coaching.
“I was just getting used to playing for a new club, and managing coaching and playing at the same time wasn’t easy. At the start of the year I envisaged a third-line role so I could spend a lot more attention on playing. When guys left I had to increase my ice-time a lot and change positions (to defence). That was really tough, but also you were on the ice every second shift. It really made it difficult to coach between shifts."
“We had a few bad results at the start of the year and there was things promised to the fans that never really panned out. It’s been a few years of that.
“Francis Smith (Whitley Bay Arena owner) has been fantastic with us. It was always going to be the Warriors’ rink and his business first. He can’t hurt his business to accommodate us too much but he did it as much as he could.
“But in a top-flight hockey league it is just not a professional facility. That played a huge part in fans not coming.
“Playing Saturday nights instead of Sunday definitely didn’t help, and the location as well. It’s a huge drive for people out in Durham and Sunderland. When they played in the Arena it was seen as a night out, people would go to the game then drinks after, whereas here you drive all the way, watch the game and head home.
“We’d hit some bad weather in November and December and had a few gates that were pretty poor. Me and Jaimie talked about it all the time, we pinpointed that game at home to Coventry where it was 7-1 after the second period and I think Tommo took the foot off the gas out of respect for me. I think that turned fans off a bit.
“It’s already a cold enough place so when it’s minus outside it gets pretty tough in here. The roads were bad and there’s not a great deal of parking.
“We had a few bad gates but it was stuff we were prepared for. It happened last year. That’s why it was so surprising Paddy left.
“The first time I was aware things were starting to head south was when we tried to acquire Nick Duff at the end of November, start of December. I was told we weren’t going to be able to bring him in for monetary reasons.
“I didn’t hear anything else and the next thing I knew we were without an owner. What Paddy’s reasons were, I’ll never know. I’m not sure it was handled correctly but there was nothing we could do about it.
“I didn’t get chance to talk to Paddy after he made his decision. It was unfortunate it happened after a few good results. The team was becoming tight as a group.
“I don’t think we realised the gap in budgets between the low end and high end had increased. The increase in imports really affected things because we didn’t have that top-end Brit, where some teams had 11 imports, plus three or four top-end Brits. It was tough to withstand that at some points."
“Me and Jaimie were meeting almost daily. I can’t praise that guy enough. He’s been in similar predicaments before but I think this year might have been the toughest. For him to stand by out of loyalty towards me, the guys, the organisation and the fans – it’s just amazing he kept this thing going.
“We did not think we were going to make it, it did not look good. To keep the team going for six weeks without ownership was just amazing. Fortunately the league stepped in during the second week of January and provided us with ways to get some extra income in and keep the thing going forward.
“I knew for certain the team was not going to make money this year, and so did Paddy O’Connor and Jaimie Longmuir. How much Paddy lost no one will ever truly know but I don’t think it was a great amount more than people expected.
“I was pretty much promised the finances would be there from start to finish. When Paddy left me and Jaimie promised our priority would be to take care of the players who remained and make sure they were getting paid on time. That was an achievement in itself.
“If guys are missing equipment or don’t have luxury flats, you can get around that, but when you start turning up for your pay cheque and it’s not there, that’s when they look elsewhere.
“If we had lost another player I don’t think we could have kept going. There would have been games I would have had to call off."
“I tried to make a point of not coming into the (dressing) room and complaining about things. I knew if I brought in more experienced guys who’d played six, seven years in nice areas, they just wouldn’t have lasted.
“I don’t think guys ever moaned in public but it got tough in December because a lot of guys didn’t know what was going to happen. After Scott Langdon left everyone had in the back of their minds, ‘Who’s going to be next?’ When Jamie Carroll told us he was going to leave that was a huge blow because he was really starting to come on as our top guy. It was understandable and he handled it 100% professionally. It was just a decision he had to make. Mahovsky then leaving and Forsbacka really handicapped us big time.
“Realistically the roster we had, guys playing out of position, we shouldn’t be competing with any of the teams in our league. We pretty much calibre-wise were a mid to high-table EPL team. We did pull out some results and with even one or two extra bodies we could have pushed for the play-offs.
“I never once contacted (Elite League director of hockey) Andy French or (chairman) Eamon Convery to say, ‘This is bull****, I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ Jaimie told me the news, I took it and we got on with it."
“(Jamie) Carroll had been pursued for a good month and I’d known for almost a month he’d been in talks. He told me he would like to stay but with the uncertainty, and he felt it might be his last season. I can’t blame him at all.
“(Dale) Mahovsky didn’t really give me the heads-up until a couple of days before. He told me he was talking to a couple of teams and within two days he had made his decision. He played the Saturday night, then told me on Sunday morning before the bus went to Coventry. I think we had 11 skaters.
“(Patrik) Forsbacka, I had absolutely no idea. I remember having a conversation with him off the ice after Christmas. He told me he was enjoying it in England, he enjoyed the ice time and getting some points. Then I got an email from Jaimie, who’d got an email from Forsbacka’s agent saying he had an offer in Denmark and needed to fly out the next day. I was so turned off by his actions I told him to get out. I didn’t want guys around who would be negative.
“We became as tight as any group around, as tight as championship teams I’ve been on. I truly believe if we had kept Carroll, Mahovsky and Langdon, then added two D-men so I could play up front, we would have been challenging Hull and Coventry.
“When the league took over Forsbacka was still on the roster. We had a set budget and thought we could maybe add one or two players. Forsbacka was one of our higher-paid guys so we thought if we could at least get back to the budget we’d had we could maybe sign a couple of extra bodies. We tried to sign the Latvian kid from Peterborough (Maris Ziedins). That’s when they told us we wouldn’t be able to sign anyone. That’s when I realised we were going to be in for a long three months."
“In North America the lower-level leagues are seen as developmental leagues. Back home, if I had needed players that would be the first priority. I know Simon Leach has a committee to answer to and he’s committed to that, they wanted to win their games. I can’t fault those guys, it’s the mentality out here, but at certain times I think it’s beneficial to those kids to step up and get that experience when they can.
“There were nights we needed bodies and they weren’t available.
“I tried my best to build some bridges back up, such as relationships with Whitley Warriors and Northern Stars, and thankfully we were able to do it to a certain extent. Without those kids it would have been an even longer season. I’m not saying we had fantastic relations with Whitley Warriors and the Northern Stars, but at least we were on speaking terms and were able to help each other out.
“Nine skaters is absolutely ridiculous and I hope no team ever has to endure that ever again at top-flight level. It’s not realistic, it’s unsafe. We were very, very lucky more guys didn’t get injured, let alone major injuries."
“We couldn’t be as physical as I would have liked because you burn yourself out.
“It made it a very delicate situation but we found ways to win. Mike Prpich gave us that extra punch up front.
“I had Patrik Forsbacka, Jaro Rzeszutko and Toms Hartmanis living together and it seemed when Forsbacka left Toms and Jaro really established a great relationship off the ice which led to them clicking on the ice. They flourished like I’d never seen before.
“Although we were short-bodied we had a goalie (Charlie Effinger) that would win us games, goals from the back, and that quality up front to steal games.
“Every single guy involved will benefit from this season. Guys got ice-time like they’ll never get again, put up points they might not be able to again, Effinger saw more pucks than he’ll ever see.
“Off-ice it was a true test of character. When you’re sitting in a damp, cold room before practice and can barely feel your fingers, then afterwards it’s a cold shower, it gets you after a while, especially when results aren’t going your way. Equipment-wise we didn’t always have what we needed.
“I didn’t paint a nice picture to these guys. I told them they were playing in an old, old facility that was very cold. I didn’t want guys having any surprises, but when they stepped on the ice for the first time it was still a bit of a surprise. But guys got on with it."
“I thought I was literally going to celebrate like we’d won a championship after the final buzzer (of the last game) but it was mixed emotions. I took a shot on the ankle with four minutes left and had to go off.
“It was kind of a weird feeling. Part of me was relieved we had made it, but you’re always a bit down at the end of the season because you’ve become close to these guys and you’re getting paid to play a sport you love.
“I’m just going to get some vacation time, watch the play-off weekend, then figure out next year."
“Playing out of Whitley Bay in the Elite League is a very difficult situation for many reasons. This is a character building and for public skating and junior hockey it’s a good facility. Without it we wouldn’t have anything. But it’s not a facility that should be in the league.
“I’ve really never got my head around the old rivalry between Whitley and the Durham Wasps either.
“Somebody’s going to have to come in willing to get them back to the Arena. It would have to start from scratch and maybe look at taking a hit for a couple of years. I truly believe the future of North East ice hockey is getting a new facility. When that happens this will be a very exciting area to watch hockey.
“A few of our fans might not like this, but I think for now maybe the league is better solidifying the top eight teams until Edinburgh or Newcastle become viable. I don’t think it benefits anyone to come back to Whitley and try and scrape through.
“One of the things I first noticed when I came to Newcastle was the negativity towards the Newcastle Vipers. After this year there’s even more. We have a core of 600, 700 fans that are amazing, as amazing as the players. They deserve a team more than anyone in the country.
“But it might be a better situation to have the team not exist for a couple of years, so long as we know the Gateshead project was going to be done. You could come back fresh with a whole new identity."
“We had a fantastic run in the Challenge Cup. The 15-0 (semi-final second leg) with Nottingham was definitely a low point. To beat them on the Wednesday all we did was wake up a sleeping giant. When they scored a late goal on the Wednesday to make it a one-goal (aggregate) lead, it made it a little tougher.
“We had 11 guys on that big ice surface and I think they had 20 on their sheet. Nottingham Panthers have arguably the most skilled team in the league and just came at us wave after wave after wave. The Nottingham Panthers outclassed us by 1,000 miles.
“Just making it to the end was a highlight. The win in Coventry, beating them in my old rink, was special for me. The Belfast win was amazing, as big as any I’ve been involved with - knowing what we were up against, catching the bus to Stranraer, then the ferry over and beating a very good hockey team to get through to the Challenge Cup semi-final.
“The two wins against Nottingham were special, especially the last one after we’d been thumped 15-0. In any sport it’s easy to be beaten next time before you touch the ice.
“The last home game was a pretty special moment. There are times this year where I’ve wondered if it was worth it, but when you heard those fans and how appreciative they were, it was definitely worth it."