The first mistake this raw, rookie recruit to the frontline of ice hockey made at the weekend was not putting enough layers on. Which is quite daft really given that you don’t have to possess the combined sleuthing prowess of, say, Bergerac, Columbo, Poirot and, er, Father Dowling to realise that it’s going to be decidedly parky.
Let’s face it, the clues are all there. It’s called ICE hockey, the venue was the Fife ICE Arena and the general crash, bang, wallop of the whole affair unravels on ICE. And what does ice tend to be? Yes, that’s right; cold.
It was Saturday night fever in Kirkcaldy. Well, possibly for this shivering scribe but not the well-equipped regulars who turn up with more clothes than Liberace’s wardrobe. A showdown between the Fife Flyers versus Braehead Clan always gets the juices flowing. It’s east against west, the old (Fife were formed way back in 1938) versus the new (Braehead emerged in 2010). By all accounts, the visitors tend to receive the kind of frosty reception you’d get if you asked for a cup of tea and a lemon slice during a house visit in Morningside.
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This was the Clan’s first trip to the Lang Toun on Elite League duty since a Fife fan was involved in a boisterous altercation with Manchester Storm bruiser Eric Neilson and punches were thrown.
"It’s an old barn and it’s different to perhaps anything else throughout the world,” suggested Ryan Finnerty, the Braehead coach, as he mulled over this Kirkcaldy theatre for all things skitey. “There is a huge rivalry between us and them. Any time we play, there’s going to be hostility and tension.”
As a neutral observer, your correspondent did his best to blend in while trying to mask one’s general jitteriness when it comes to things unfolding on ice. This nervousness stems from a particularly calamitous caper on one of those winter wonderland rinks that pop up in city centres over the festive period. In more carefree days of youthful exuberance, taking to the ice was a birling, twirling exercise in fresh-faced, enthusiastic abandon. As you clamber the brae on the age front, though, it becomes a perilous, pessimistic palaver of tottering, wobbling self-preservation as you try to avoid serious bodily trauma amid a chaotic, thudding, thunderous frenzy that resembles the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
Funnily enough, the warm-up for this encounter looked like all out warfare with a vast battalion of players careered about and thrashed away as pucks went flying left, right and centre and thwacked off the high density protective shields while making the kind of ear-shattering din that resembled a heavy artillery bombardment.
Being something of a quivering feartie, my sense of trepidation was heightened when I bumped into a couple of well-kent faces in the seats directly behind the Fife bench which had no protective covering. Leslie, who works with golf’s governing body, The R&A, and her hubby, Mark, have been hardy perennials of the Fife ice hockey scene for over 30 years. “Watch out for stray pucks, they’ll take a few teeth out,” said Mark cheerily before adding, “but don’t worry, you’ve got more chance of being hit when you’re out watching the golf.” Feeling marginally more re-assured, we all sat down before Leslie gently suggested that “at the end of the day they are both going to hurt.” Wary of the potential damage wrought by the meeting of a slab of circular, vulcanised rubber and my tender features, I slid gingerly into a cowering foetal position, emerging just in time to see the referee, Pavel Halas, take to the ice and immediately tumble to the floor amid the kind of withering hoots, howls and hollers from the crowd that tend to be reserved for Willie Collum. The hapless Halas had forgotten to take his skate guards off.
For an ice hockey novice, the spectacle was all rather captivating. The relentless action, the rampaging, exhilarating speed and the juddering, shuddering clatters combined with a gliding elegance in movement was a bit like watching Torvill & Dean performing an extreme version of Ravel’s Bolero. And as for the goal tenders? Well, anyone who can basically stick out an arm and catch something akin to a ball bearing being fired from a musket at close range is a hero in my book. “For your safety, keep an eye on the puck at all times,” said the M.C. “Whack his heid off,” shrieked one local with a clear understanding of the tactical intricacies at play.
Fife won 3-1, the puck did land dangerously close to this ducking-for-cover scribbler, there were a couple of fights on the ice as things got heated and the brassed off Clan coach Finnerty took his frustrations out on an oversized novelty cheque which was used as a prop for the winner of the 50/50 draw. It was great stuff. And, thankfully, my teeth are still intact too.