IT may sound like heresy to the 600 or so diehards who made Danny Stewart’s season from hell worthwhile, but the Canadian believes it could be time to mothball professional ice hockey in the North East.
General manager Jaimie Longmuir took hope from Tuesday’s Elite League meeting but the widespread view is that Sunday’s match in Dundee was Newcastle Vipers’ last.
Durham Wasps’ descendants have been homeless since November 2009, ownerless since December. When a proposed Gateshead rink was put on the backburner, owner Paddy O’Connor quit and Whitley Bay attendances dwindled.
After a perfect storm of bad weather, attitudes and finances wrecked his debut coaching season, Stewart is concerned for the future. “Playing out of Whitley Bay in the Elite League is a very difficult situation,” he says.
“This is 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.
“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. That played a huge part in fans not coming.
“Playing Saturday instead of Sunday definitely didn’t help, and the location. People would go to (Newcastle) Arena, then drinks after. Here you drive all the way, watch the game and head home.” Some ex-Wasps fans boycott Hillheads out of loyalty to a team which disappeared in a previous Millennium, contributing to a bewildering mindset.
“One of the things I first noticed was the negativity towards the Newcastle Vipers,” Stewart says. “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 better 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.” Starting afresh is what this season was supposed to be about.
“(Then-coach and co-owner) Rob Wilson got in touch at the end of last season,” Stewart recalls. “Paul Thompson at Coventry suggested I might be a good fit for a coaching job. We thought they’d be playing out of the Arena at Newcastle. I believe it was at the second interview it became known we might be coming to Whitley Bay. Paddy and Jaimie assured me although it would tough, things would be secure.
“Paddy sold a good situation and Jaimie was selling as well. Plain and simple, one kept to their word and one didn’t.
“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. We were spending 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 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.” O’Connor, who has promised to break his silence in next week’s Journal, is not high on Stewart’s Christmas card list. “We’d hit some bad weather in November and December and had a few gates that were pretty poor,” he explains. “At home to Coventry 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. We had a few bad gates but it was stuff we were prepared for. 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 around the end of November. 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. I didn’t get chance to talk to Paddy after he made his decision.
“It was unfortunate it happened after a few good results.
“Me and Jaimie were meeting almost daily. I can’t praise that guy enough. To stand by out of loyalty towards me, the guys, the organisation and the fans and keep the team going for six weeks without ownership was just amazing. Fortunately the league stepped in during the second week of January.
“How much Paddy lost no one will ever truly know but I don’t think it was a great amount more than expected.”
Stewart is proud wages were always paid on time, but Jamie Carroll, Dave Mahovsky and Patrik Forsbacka left. Under a transfer embargo, Newcastle borrowed players from junior clubs and remained in play-off contention until the penultimate weekend.
“If we had lost another player I don’t think we could have kept going,” he admits. “I would have had to call games off.
“I thought I was going to celebrate like we’d won a championship after the final buzzer (in Dundee) but it was kind of a weird feeling. Part of me was relieved 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.”
Shortlisted as coach of the year, Stewart leaves with fond memories, including a Challenge Cup run which saw Nottingham Panthers beaten in a semi-final first leg before reality struck.
“The 15-0 game with Nottingham was definitely a low point,” Stewart admits. “On the Wednesday, all we did was wake up a sleeping giant.
“We had 11 guys on that big ice surface and I think they had 20. Nottingham Panthers have arguably the most skilled team in the league and just came at us wave after wave after wave.
“The win in Coventry, in my old rink, was special for me. The Belfast win was as big as any I’ve been involved with – catching the bus to Stranraer, then the ferry and beating a very good hockey team to reach the Challenge Cup semi-final. The two wins against Nottingham were special, especially the last one after we’d been thumped 15-0.
“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.”
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DANNY Stewart: “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.”
“Dale Mahovsky didn’t really give me the heads-up until a couple of days before. He played the Saturday night, then told me on Sunday morning (he was leaving) before the bus went to Coventry. I think we had 11 skaters.”
“I got an email from Jaimie (Longmuir), who’d got an email from (Patrik) 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
THE TRANSFER EMBARGO
“After Forsbacka left we tried to sign Maris Ziedins from Peterborough. That’s when they told us we wouldn’t be able to sign anyone. I realised we were going to be in for a long three months!”
HIS EURO STARS
“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.”
You can read the interview in greater detail at www.journallive.co.uk/newcastle-sports/ice-hockey-news/ from tomorrow.