IN years to come, Danny Stewart believes his Newcastle Vipers will feel the benefit of punching above their weight. But he still feels it was irresponsible of the Elite League to ask them to.
“Realistically the roster we had, guys playing out of position, we shouldn’t be competing with any of the teams in our league,” he says. “Calibre-wise we were pretty much a mid to high-table EPL team. With even one or two extra bodies we could have pushed for the play-offs – but we couldn’t be as physical as I would have liked.
“It made it a very delicate situation but we found ways to win. Mike Prpich gave us that extra punch up front.
“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.
“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 lucky more guys didn’t get injured, let alone major injuries.” Nevertheless, player-coach Stewart made a point of putting on a brave face, and his players responded in kind. “I tried to make a point of not coming into the (dressing) room and complaining about things,” he says. “I knew if I brought in more experienced guys who’d played six, seven years in nice areas, they just wouldn’t have lasted.
“It got tough in December. After Scott Langdon left everyone had in the back of their minds, ‘Who’s going to be next?’
“But I never once contacted (Elite League director of hockey) Andy French or (chairman) Eamon Convery to say, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that’.”