MK THUNDER begin their new ice hockey league season with a double-header this weekend and have high hopes under new coach Simon Howard.
The former defenseman turned coach has taken over and brings a wealth of experience with him. There are only a handful of players still lacing up the skates in UK ice hockey that have experienced the highs and lows of the sport in this country like Howard.
The 37-year-old blue liner will line-up in the 2011/12 Division One South campaign for his 20th season of senior hockey, spanning over 600 games and representing nine different teams.
Thunder finished the regular season strongly last year before being edged out of the play-offs by Chelmsford Chieftains in the quarter finals. Howard played a big part in the team’s success providing experience and composure in defence, and he believes it took time for the team to fulfil their potential across the season.
He said: “We had the slow trigger fast bullet syndrome as it was essentially a new team. We didn’t quite gel, we lost a few games by the odd point and before we knew it we are behind the eight ball.
“The season changed when Maros (Stefanco) joined us and gave Rosco (Ross Bowers) a partner to work with. We could score goals and every now and again we played good defence but not enough to make a top five place.
“By the time the play-offs came round the team was firing, and the two games against Chelmsford could have gone either way. I know pushing them that hard in those games prepared them better than the other top four sides for the later rounds, so in some ways we played a part in their success”
This is only the second time Howard has taken on a coaching role, with the only previous experience being in charge of Chelmsford whilst the club were in the English Premier League in 2006/07. The Chieftains struggled during that campaign and the subsequent one as they failed to cope with higher spending teams in the league.
It could be argued that taking charge of Thunder could give Howard the same difficulties due to the presence of former EPL teams like Romford, Wightlink, Invicta and ironically Chelmsford all now competing themselves in UK ice hockey’s third tier.
However, Howard believes that the task at Thunder is markedly different from his spell at the Riverside, and believes that the presence of the former EPL teams does have some advantages.
“I certainly see the Thunder role as very different from my time at Chelmsford in that the Thunder is a development team whereas the EPL is a professional league in the guise of a development league,” he explained.
“Too many clubs are short sighted and demand instant success, sadly I feel it’s a geographical and cultural issue for teams in the South East and I can’t see Romford, Chelmsford, Invicta or Streatham coming back to the EPL.”
Howard’s first big test comes on Saturday when Thunder hosts the much fancied Romford Raiders at Planet Ice at 7pm. They then travel to Streatham Redskins on Sunday.