LIGHTNING have already begun shaping their squad for the 2011-12 English Premier League ice hockey season with the announcement that player-coach Nick Poole has committed himself to the club for another year.
Canadian Poole arrived in Milton Keynes in 1998 when he was on the roster of London Knights who used Planet Ice for training sessions, and in 1999 he signed for MK Kings, becoming the team’s top point scorer in his debut season. When Kings folded and Lightning were formed, he took on the role of player-coach and since then has been a constant presence for the club, successfully combining his coaching duties with an influential role on the ice.
The signing of a fifth import in January - Blaz Emersic - gave Poole the opportunity to do more coaching from the bench, spending more time in a suit rather than a match kit, including the recent EPL play-off campaign in which Lightning were narrowly beaten in the final by Guildford Flames.
Lightning general manager Vito Rausa said it was appropriate to begin the announcements of Lightning’s 2011-12 signings with news that Poole has committed himself to the club, with little official news on which players will return yet.
“Nick’s experience and leadership have been absolutely vital to the enormous success that Lightning have enjoyed over the years, and we’re thrilled that yet again he’ll be with us to guide the team both on and off the ice,” said Rausa.
“It’s easy for everyone at Lightning to take it for granted that Nick will just always be here for us - but he’s a coach and player we know many other teams would love to have, so we’re very fortunate that he’s chosen to stay with us for the foreseeable future. His record in the EPL is second to none and we know for a fact that a number of players sign for us on the back of not only the coaching they receive on and off the ice, but also due to the very positive ethos that he creates in the changing room.”
“Not only is he a key player whenever he’s on the ice, but in my opinion - and I know many supporters will agree - he’s an outstanding coach, and brings out the best in his players, year in and year out.”
Looking towards next season’s prospects, Poole says he’s hoping for better than the fifth place finish Lightning achieved this year, with the city side well off the pace behind champions Manchester Phoenix - who they actually beat in the play-off semi-final - and runners-up Flames.
Poole said: “I’m really excited about next season’s team. This past year has been a bit frustrating as I felt we only played to our potential in patches - however I don’t believe we need to tinker too much with the group of players we have. Our success has always been because the group over-achieves through hard work and team spirit. As a group this happened in the final weeks of the season when we put ourselves in a good position to win the final.”
“Our fans were brilliant over the course of last season with unwavering support that was crucial in helping us get to Coventry. They can be confident in the fact that all the players want to come back and that we’ll do everything in our power to make sure they are once again proud of the team we put on the ice.”
The only official player news to come out of Planet Ice post-season is that of long-serving Gary Clarke’s decision to move to Guildford next term. Clarke has spent more than a decade playing in Milton Keynes, sandwiched between stints at Basingstoke Bison and Flames. And at his best he’s been one of the best players the EPL has seen, top scoring for Lightning in 2002 with 110 goals from 60 games in all competitions - a title the Englishman retained for seven consecutive seasons.
Poole acknowledged the part Clarke has played at Lightning and wished him well for the future, saying: “Gary’s scoring record during his time at Lightning speaks for itself. In what has been a difficult and frustrating season just ended, he has been an offensive threat and has scored some valuable points for us.
“Clarkey moving on will leave us with a huge gap in our roster - but just as he is moving on to new challenges, Lightning will also move on as a team and we’re hopeful of appointing another equally effective forward to fill his shoes.”