NIHL North Division One Moralee Conference 2016-17

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As a new ice hockey season dawns, NIHL fans leave behind a summer which brought about the shocking collapse of Sheffield Spartans,  the drastic transformation of last seasons’ league leaders and the introduction of five new imports to the Moralee Conference in preparation for the rollercoaster-of-a-campaign which lies ahead.

Blackburn Hawks

Responsible for the signing of three of those imports, Blackburn Hawks are set to defend their NIHL league and playoff titles for a second consecutive campaign with the help of Latvian netminder Niks Trapans, Swedish centre Patrik Nyman and Finnish forward Mikko Sierman. Less than one month after their NIHL playoff final victory, the Lancashire outfit announced Matt Darlow as Head Coach in response to the departure of player-coach Daniel MacKriel.

Over the summer months, the Hawks have lost nine key players, including their top three highest points scorers in Adam Brittle, Richard Bentham and Chris Arnone, as well as first choice netminder Daniel Brittle. Needless to say, the Hawks will ice a very different team to the one which triumphed over Solihull Barons in April. Seeking out strong replacements for those who have parted company with the club, Darlow has worked hard to strengthen his team across all areas of the ice. Adding Nick Oliver, Bobby Streetly and former EPL defenceman Steven Duncombe to his blue line, the Head Coach has equally taken the time to fortify his offence with the signings of Bobby Caunce, Corey Stones, Jacob Corson-Heron, Thomas Parkinson and Philip Mulcahy besides imports Nyman and Sierman.

The Hawks also have a strong junior contingent this campaign with more youngsters progressing to the senior team than that of last season as Darlow prepares the foundations for the club’s future. Beginning their campaign against Billingham Stars on the 11th September, the Hawks will aim for no less than the top spot as they set their sights on the silverware for yet another season.

Whitley Warriors

Hoping to repeat the successes of their previous campaign are Whitley Warriors who achieved second place in the NIHL standings last season to secure a well-deserved spot at Playoff Weekend. At the helm for a second consecutive season, player-coach David Longstaff and assistant coach David Holland will again be on hand as the Warriors look to compete with the very best in the NIHL.

This will be no easy task however, as the strengthening of fellow Moralee Conference outfits suggest that Division One is going to be at its toughest this season, with each team securing the services of at least one import. To add to this, the departure of captain Jamie Tinsley, netminder Mark Turnbull, defenceman Scott Cooper and skilled youngsters Callum Queenan and Kyle Hindmarsh-Ross has required the Warriors to make some new additions to their roster in the form of shot stopper Rory Dunn and former recreational players Liam Brown, Lawson Glasby and Niall Simpson.

Set to make their debuts against Solway Sharks on the 11th September, forward Brown and blue liners Glasby and Simpson will line up alongside the team’s returnees which include long-serving Warriors DJ Good, Callum Watson and Shaun Kippin, power forward Jordan Barnes, Canadian Andre Payette and sturdy netminder Richie Lawson. Retaining many of the players who facilitated the Warriors’ success last season, Longstaff will no doubt encourage his side to match the intensity they exhibited in his first term as player-coach to gain a strong foothold in the topmost positions of the league.

Solihull Barons

Finishing third place following their promotion to the Moralee Conference last season, Solihull Barons are another of those teams striving to reach the heights of the NIHL. Acquiring signings at a rapid rate, Perry Doyle has completed his roster without losing a single player to the opposition, instead enhancing his squad with the recruitment of youngsters Matthew Maurice and Jacob Smith, the versatile Dale White, former Dragon Paul Davies and forward Richard Slater who makes his return after a season away from the sport.

Ahead of their upcoming campaign, Solihull appear to be an incredibly convincing outfit, boasting a great deal of quality in offence with top points scorer Thomas Soar returning for a third season at the club alongside wingers Josh Bruce and Joe Henry. Collectively, the trio were responsible for seventy nine of the goals scored by the Barons in their previous term, not to mention eighty one assists. However, it should be noted that, whilst Solihull demonstrate their firepower in front of goal, they are also susceptible to picking up penalty minutes.

Always a force to be reckoned with, the Barons notched seven hundred and twenty three penalty minutes in their 2015-16 campaign, with player-coach Doyle tallying over one hundred penalty minutes himself. As a result, the Barons will present a great challenge to their opposition this season. Skilled and strong in equal measure, Solihull take to the ice on the 4th September against Sutton Sting in their first home game of the season to begin their quest for success.

Solway Sharks

One team looking to avoid a repeat performance of their 2015-16 campaign is Solway Sharks. Scraping fourth place after a poor run of form between September and late November, the Sharks exhibited much resilience and determination to battle back in the latter stages of the season which earned the side a playoff place. Retaining this resilience and determination will be key as the Dumfries outfit aim to improve on both their league and cup performances.

Over the summer, Head Coach Martin Grubb has worked hard to secure the signings of some familiar faces, including captain Struan Tonnar, top points scorer Marc Fowley, enforcer-like forward Ross Murray and left winger Steven Moore.

However, the Sharks are not without some new additions of their own as former Hawks Richard Bentham and Kim Miettinen join the club alongside ex-EPL defenceman James Hutchinson and young forward Connor Henderson. Whilst Bentham is one of the NIHL’s strongest forwards, Miettinen can equally be considered one of the league’s most valuable defencemen, the blue liner having recorded thirty five points in thirty one league games last season to become the second highest points scoring ‘D’ man in the Moralee Conference.

Hutchinson, on the other hand, brings with him sixteen seasons of experience which will no doubt prove invaluable as he prepares to ice against some of the most astute offences the NIHL has to offer. Starting the season with encounters against two of their closest league rivals, the Sharks will first put their ability to the test in a home game against Billingham Stars on the 10th September before travelling to Hillheads for a clash with David Longstaff’s Whitley Warriors.

Billingham Stars

Narrowly missing out on a playoff spot following Solway’s late recovery last season, Billingham Stars will aspire to a top four finish at the very least, having finished outside of the playoff places for the first time since the club’s rebranding. Whilst the Stars’ achievement of silverware in the NIHL North Cup offered some consolation for their underperformance in the Moralee Conference, the side will do their utmost this campaign to ensure that they reach their full potential.

Once again under the guidance of Director of Hockey Terry Ward and player-coaches Richie Thornton and Michael Bowman, Billingham have strengthened their side through the signing of their second Swedish import, Daniel Palmebjörk and one-time Elite League champion Jack Watkins. Set to line up for Billingham alongside the duo are some of Stars’ greatest assets, including import Dennis Boström, who scored thirty three league goals and seventeen assists in his previous term, not to mention forwards Chris Sykes, Michael Elder and James Moss, all of whom tallied thirty points or more for the club.

Combining the efforts of Billingham’s newest recruits with their current top points scorers could potentially make the Stars an insurmountable force as they tackle a busy schedule of league and cup fixtures. Starting with a lengthy road trip to Deeside on the opening weekend of the season to face Scott McKenzie’s Dragons, the Stars will be one of the first NIHL outfits to get their 2016-17 season underway before they hit the road once more to take on Solway Sharks and Blackburn Hawks in back-to-back away fixtures.

Telford Tigers

Claiming sixth place last season following their promotion to Division One, Telford Tigers were able to match, if not better, the performances of their Moralee Conference opposition on several occasions. Striving to do so again this season, the club will be led by Head Coach Daniel MacKriel who has made the switch from Blackburn Hawks to work alongside Assistant Coach Jason Parry.

Also departing from the Lancashire outfit to join Telford, netminder Daniel Brittle replaces Denis Bell between the pipes whilst forwards Adam Brittle, Matt Viney and Ben Simister join the Tigers’ offence. As a result, Telford will certainly not be short of power going forward this season, particularly as the outfit achieved the signing of former Dragon and renowned enforcer Owen Bennett who makes his return to the club after three seasons away from Shropshire’s NIHL team. Ever the entertainer, Bennett notched seventy eight penalty minutes in twenty five games for The Dragons last season and will likely accumulate a great deal more as he encounters the NIHL’s toughest which include Whitley Warrior Andre Payette, Blackburn’s Reece Cairney-Witter and Barons’ player-coach Perry Doyle.

Besides these additions, the Tigers have also re-signed forwards Callum Bowley, James Smith and Slovakian import Karol Jets who collectively contributed fifty five goals and eighty three assists in their previous campaign. Opening their season with a home fixture against Solihull, Telford will be hoping to build on their recent achievements but it is clear that this game will be no mean feat, the Barons having narrowly defeated the Tigers in a heated pre-season challenge match.

Sutton Sting

In contrast, Sutton Sting found it difficult to create a good run of form last season, particularly between October and January, which left the side scrapping at the foot of the table and only just escaping the league placement playoff position. Aiming to turn that around is new Head Coach Simon Butterworth who has a good knowledge of the club, having played for the side from 2010 to 2014. Re-signing sturdy netminder Dmitri Zimozdra as well as experienced defencemen James Goodman and Ryan Johnson, Butterworth has also recruited former Spartans David Pyatt, Chris Wilcox and Scott Morris as he continues to build his roster.

In addition to these signings, there will be another new addition to the NIHL this season as ex-EPL player Lloyd Gibson joins the Sting for their 2016-17 campaign. Playing for the Sheffield Scimitars from 2005, Gibson continued playing for the outfit subsequent to their rebranding before switching to Peterborough Phantoms. In his previous outing in the EPL, the versatile forward tallied forty one points in fifty six games and will no doubt make an excellent contribution as he lines up with the Sting.

Encountering Solihull Barons at Hobs Moat Road on the 4th September, Sutton will be one of the first to ice this season; a very different scenario to that of last season which saw the side open their campaign mid-September with an away game against Blackburn Hawks. The Sting have three consecutive away fixtures before they play at home on the 18th September and will therefore hope to take two points from Perry Doyle’s men to get off to the best possible start.

Speaking ahead of the upcoming campaign, Sutton’s sturdy shot stopper Dmitri Zimozdra reported:  “We are excited as a team to get going. The biggest challenge for us is to have a full squad playing every game. We know it’s going to be a tough season for us but that’s nothing new for us. Hopefully we can pick up some points from our three away games.”

The Dragons

Also one of the first teams to ice this season, the newly promoted Dragons will be put to the test against Billingham Stars on the opening weekend of the season. Battling to become Laidler champions in their 2015-16 campaign, The Dragons soared to Playoff victory against Widnes Wild in April, completing the double for the first time in their history.

Unfortunately, the Flintshire-based outfit have lost several of those players who helped to secure promotion for the club last season, with Slovakian import Adrian Palak moving to EPL outfit Sheffield Steeldogs, enforcer Owen Bennett returning to the Tigers and forward Paul Davies joining the Barons. Head Coach McKenzie has taken time to strengthen his roster however and, having made the move from Widnes, brings with him forward Geoff Wigglesworth and defenceman Chris Gee.

Further to these signings, McKenzie has also signed Finnish import Markus Kankaanranta from Crocodile Hamburg. At twenty eight years old, the centre played for youth team Lluja in the Suomi-sarja, the third tier of Finnish ice hockey, before relocating to France. A season with Bordeaux was then followed by a return to Lluja which saw Kankaanranta become top points scorer in II-divisioona further to the twelve goals and twenty two assists he achieved for Lluja’s Suomi-sarja outfit in the same term. Experiencing NIHL ice hockey for the first time, Kankaanranta’s points production will be essential for The Dragons this campaign.

Meanwhile, with the rise of on-ice leaders in the Moralee Conference, McKenzie has rewarded two of the side’s longest-serving players with positions of leadership as Marc Lovell steps into the role of player-assistant coach and James Parsons becomes captain. Preparing for the challenges of Division One, it is hoped that McKenzie and his men can avoid the onslaught which several newly promoted clubs have encountered in the past but, if last season’s run of form was anything to go by, The Dragons will surely give their all as they contend with life in the Moralee Conference.

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