Barry Almeida and TJ Syner signed for the Blaze in the winter of 2016. Brought in as a late addition just before Christmas the American pair proved to be fan favourites and the offensive pairing that the Blaze had needed to complete their roster. They are an outstanding double act on the ice and their journey together began when they were only 5 years old.
Coming into the Elite League in the summer of 2016, Liam Stewart made an instant impression on the fans of the Coventry Blaze, both on and off the ice. As the son of Rod Stewart and Rachel Hunter, he’d been in one spotlight or another for a lot of his life. He was born in London, but because of one thing or other ended up living in Los Angeles with his mother.
Finding ice hockey at a young age, he found himself training and learning with the Los Angeles Junior Kings, a team he still supports to this day and I asked him about how he felt it set him up for his career thus far. “The LA Junior Kings system was obviously great. The coaches I had growing up taught me a lot and I’m obviously very grateful for that! You see the players coming out of California now and especially the Jr Kings program, so that says a lot about the organization!”
From the Junior system in LA, Stewart went to the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. As a fresh faced youngster, the LAJK system had begun to shape him as a player, but with youth on his side he was still very much willing to learn, adapt and grow as a player. Here, he spent five years and as you can often see from twitter, he gained a very loyal bank of followers who still check in on his games and support him. I asked him about how he felt that it shaped him as a player to be in one team for such a long time. “Yeah, I spent 5 years in Spokane so a lot of the credit goes to my coach Don Nauchbaur. Then to everyone else at the Chiefs organization for helping me grow as a person first off, and then a player.”
With his move firstly to the Coventry Blaze in 2016 and subsequently to the Guildford Flames in the summer of 2017, I was interested to know how he found the hockey in the UK, compared to the WHL in America. “As for comparison it’s hard to say because the ages are only from 16-20 year olds and in the EIHL you have 17-35 year olds.” Understandable that it might be difficult to compare the two. “But the skill level in the WHL is very high and a lot of kids get drafted to the NHL out of the WHL.” He also had a little bit of possible advice for the Sheffield Steelers Liam Kirk. “I personally think a guy like Liam Kirk should give it a shot over there so he can be compared to playing against the best kids his age. Think it would be really good for him.” He offers. Sound advice and maybe worth a thought?
Liam has made quite the impact with fans, both young and old and not only of his own team either. Does he think he’ll stay here for the foreseeable, or consider playing somewhere else? Stewart laughs, perhaps he’s been asked this question before? “The fan base around the UK is probably the best I’ve ever seen… a lot of respect to the fans out there and thank you for all you guys do! As for staying in the league obviously I would love to but I also want to try and explore other leagues/places! It’s really whatever feels right is where I’ll end up!
With this being the first Elite League season for both Guildford and Milton Keynes, I asked whether he felt that Guildford had something to prove in their first season in the top league. With Guildford very much in the picture for a playoff spot, I asked whether he was feeling any kind of pressure to prove themselves. “Yeah for sure! I think both sides have proved that they will stay at the Elite League level for years to come! Guildford is exceeding expectations I think and hopefully we make a push for/in the playoffs!”
Back in December, I traveled down the M1 (and slowly around the M25..) with other Lightning fans to see the two clash at the Spectrum. Stewart made quite the impression on both home and away fans. It was a pretty harsh defeat for the MK Lightning after an extremely late start to the game, with Jordan Headley stepping into the crease in the third period. That night Stewart scored a hat-trick, including a penalty shot. I asked him about it and whether he planned on doing it to us a second time. He laughed. “I doubt it, I only get a hat-trick every three years or so!”
Keep an eye out for Stewart on the ice, at the moment he’s back in the United States recuperating from a concussion sustained earlier in the season. We look forward to seeing what the future has in store for him and with any luck, we will be seeing him return to the EIHL in the Autumn.
Last night the Coventry Blaze took on the Belfast Giants at the SSE arena. What went from a game dominated by the Blaze in the first and second, the Belfast Giants went on to take the win.
What did catch fans attention however was the new mask, worn by Coventry Blaze netminder Kevin Nastiuk. For most of the season, Nasti has been wearing an older mask, which was customised for his previous team.
However now, he’s showing off a new white, silver and gold design showcasing the Coventry Blaze dragon logo on top. Each side features a flag. Canadian as a nod to his heritage and Great Britian on the other, no doubt as homage to the country he currently plays in. The backplate is plain as far as I could see from photos and of course his number 52 is on his chin.
It’s a beautiful mask, clean and concise and well designed. Very nice!
Photos used are from Coventry Blaze twitter, but taken by Belfast Giants photographer William Cherry.
Mike Clemente grew in Great Falls, Virginia. From a young age, he wanted to be a netminder. Growing up he idolised Ollie Kolzig, who played at the time for the Washington Capitals, Clemente’s closest NHL team growing up. It was meeting his idol at a young age that meant that Clemente pursued his love of hockey and being an netminder.
November 5th, Skydome Arena and I’m back in block 7. It’s my old stomping ground here, where I started out, cheering for the Steelers in 2015. Only this time I’m cheering on one of my favourites, Miika Wiikman and the rest of the MK Lightning.
Now, let me tell you. In the three seasons that I have been an EIHL fan I have cheered for most of the teams. I love the Elite League, there are no underdogs here. Any team can win on any given night
From the first game I was drawn to the netminders. Firstly, it was Tyler Plante of the Sheffield Steelers and then Brian Stewart, formerly of the Coventry Blaze and now playing for the Guildford Flames.
Last season, while playing for the Nottingham Panthers I found myself drawn to our starting goalie Miika. It was only after watching a good few games and with the rise of my own blog Chasing The Puck, I decided I wanted to interview as many of the Elite League goalies as I could. I wanted to try and break down some of the long held beliefs about them. Namely, that goalies are a bit weird and get to know the men behind the metal cages. Those guys who defend our pipes.
I find watching a goalies play fascinating. They have a way about them that no other outfield player has. Be it the pre-game preparation of Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby or the steely concentration caught on camera by the most talented of the league photographers or the slide – side to side across the goal line – to gauge the distance and the range of movement they’ll need or even the tap of the stick off each post before play begins. There is something I find truly mesmerising.
From Coventry to Cardiff, Belfast to Braehead I have yet to find a goalie who wasn’t open and honest about the pressures they feel when on or off the ice. Whether that be Wiikman discussing the importance of good coaching in his youth or Brython Preece discussing the scary move away from home aged 15 to go and join the Ontario Hockey Academy.
I have interviewed players of all nationalities and each have their own unique style of play that I believe it differs depending on the place they got their training.
I have spoken to eight different goalies in the EIHL, although Mike Clemente, Stewart and Wiikman all come to mind, especially when ‘knocking off the nets’ comes up on a fan forum on the web.
I asked Miika about it after a particularly heated debate on facebook. He sends me a laughing emoji and tells me that only twice in his career has he knocked the net off on purpose. Later the same evening, after the game he played (in which the net came off it’s moorings a couple of times) he tells me I must have jinxed it!
My own personal feeling is this; I believe it depends on the style of play. If a goalie has trained in North America and Canada, their style of play is such that they can lean more on the posts as they are deeper into the ice there than they are in our own league. It’s the nature of the way they are brought up and this possibly could explain why the American Clemente and Canadian Stewart, are considered to be the worst offenders. Though a recent incident with Clemente and a dive at his own goal could definitely be considered deliberate!
Away from the ice, these guys are family orientated. Clemente for example comes from a large family of six boys so he says family time is so precious. He’s also the goalie that spends much of his travelling time napping, reading or eating. Learning to sleep in noisy places is a valuable skill, probably learned while trying to sleep back home in a busy house.
Cardiff goalie Ben Bowns talks about his dog Stitch, who comes to the arena and is fussed by staff and players alike. Stitch loves nothing more than his time in the dressing room. He’ll even get grumpy if Ben walks the long way around so as to avoid the dressing room!
Gary Russell, told me how as a youngster he had a serious Irn Bru problem and likes his tea, Yorkshire style, with milk and two sugars. His celeb man crush is David Beckham and the first thing he picks up after an away game? A piece of pizza! If you meet Moose in a bar, don’t buy him a beer. He doesn’t like how it tastes. Instead buy him an apple juice and ask about his cats.
You learn really interesting things about each player if you ask the right questions. Nothing is too silly or too obvious. I have laughed and joked with a fair few of them. To say that interviewing them has brought me confidence as a journalist would be an understatement. Goalies are some of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and it’s why they will always be my absolute favourite.
This article was originally published in the December issue of MK Lightning’s matchnight program and has been republished here, with permission, now the magazine is no longer in print. All images are my own other than the photo of Ben Bowns, which belongs to its rightful owner and has not been used here for profit in any way.
Brython Preece. Known to his teammates as Preecey or Giraffe and to some fans as Dave… the Welsh goalie is 19 and embarking on his first professional season with the Blaze, backing up Canadian Kevin Nastiuk.
I’ve never met another Brython so I just had to ask about the pronunciation of his name. The y is more like the i in Britain. His middle name, in case you were curious, is the very easy to pronounce Mark. His brother James also plays hockey and used to play on a two way deal with the Blaze from the Telford Tigers, he got the middle name Tomas, which isn’t pronounced like Thomas. Just to make things interesting!
Following his brothers footsteps took him to the family run Ontario Hockey Camp. He liked the way the academy was run but says it was very much a case of being thrown in at the deep end. From being away from Mum and Dad for the first time to simply traveling and maneuvering an airport on his own, he says it was the first time he had to be responsible for himself. While out there, he not only spent time on the ice training but came away with a whopping 8 A-levels, studying PE, the single sciences as well as a few others. English was his favourite and he has enjoyed reading some of the English classics. Getting up in the morning for classes and keeping his bedroom tidy were two of the hardest things he had to learn to do as he claims to be one of the messiest people, but the school was run in such a way that if you didn’t go to classes, you didn’t get to go on the ice so lay ins weren’t an option.
When talking to Brython about playing goalie, he had fond memories of the early days of playing in the Cardiff Academy. He always wanted to be a goalie and his parents still have his first pair of tiny pads. He says he wasn’t always the tall kid and that when he was younger he was actually quite small and so he’s deceptively quicker than his height might suggest as his growth spurt never really changed the way he played. He still plays like the small kid, even now he’s 6ft 5! When asked about the way fans have come to perceive goalies as being ‘weird’ he laughed.
“I don’t get why they think we’re weird or crazy.. We wear full face masks, more padding and don’t fight. We’re the sensible ones.”
I asked about how his relationship had developed with Nastiuk and whether the older goalie had given him any advice. “Not so much advice, I mean not in the beginning anyway. It was more support from a guy who had been where I am now 10 or so years ago. He knows what I’m dealing with and can be there for me in a way most of the other players can’t.”
He thinks it’s extremely important for a young talent to have the direction of a goalie coach. He explains that the job of a goalie specific coach isn’t quite the same as a coach for the rest of the team and not only encompasses the mechanics of actually playing the game but also covers development on a more personal level as well. “The work is there but it isn’t such a pressure or a strict relationship and it’s far more relaxed. Which really helps.” Brython goes on to discuss the mental side of being a goalie. “If you’re playing your absolute best and someone scores on you, it makes you angry and annoyed but if you know you’re not playing your best, you can laugh it off and think, well you got one, but you won’t get any more.”
When the time came to set foot onto the ice in his first professional game, I asked him about his thoughts when he was on the bench. “Everyone said I looked really confident afterwards. I just treated it like any other game. I got into it and acted like there was no pressure… If I worried about it or got too much pressure on myself then in goal, you notice it. If there’s no pressure on myself then I can only do what I can do.”
Brython is so far enjoying his first season within a professional team and was surprised with how well he has kept up. Talking to him, I can tell he has a stellar work ethic and a will to succeed. He is an asset to the Blaze and a player we can all depend on to always do his best. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Brython and I look forward to seeing him on the ice more during the season.
This article was first published in the November 2017 edition of the Coventry Blaze’s match night program OnFire and has been reproduced here with permission from the editor Stu Coles now the program is out of print.
Brian Stewart is what some might call a veteran goalie in the Elite League. If you look through the lists of import goalies who come and play here, most only last a year and some, not even that. Following some of the interviews with the Elite League goalies this season, I can definitely see why that is the case.
When you type ‘Ryan Dingle’ into Google, not a great deal comes up. Elite Prospects, his Wikipedia entry and a couple of articles from the past summer about his re-signing with the Fife Flyers and earning the Captain’s C. Pretty much the usual suspects really and nothing that outwardly screamed ‘read me’. There doesn’t really seem to be much in the way of media surrounding the Steamboat Springs, USA native – which considering his role did throw me for a minute.
A little while ago now, I asked some of the Coventry Blaze players about their furry family members and Jim Jorgensen was kind enough to share some photos with me of his adorable French Bulldog Fleetwood Mac.
So of course I asked Jim about this adorable little cutie!
This photo is the first time that I had ever seen who would become Fleetwood Mac. We were playing in France that season and my coaches wife drove me to the breeders. She was my translator! Alekz was still back home so I had to send pics and obviously we both fell in love with him instantly. So Fleet is an authentic French Bulldog, but sadly left France before he learned any French.
Do you have any furry companions? Share some of their baby pictures today with the hashtag #nationalpuppyday
GENTING Casino Coventry Blaze fan Emma Knight is trying to raise money for Guide dogs for the Blind with this once in a lifetime piece.