This week, The Journal spoke to Newcastle Vipers player-coach Danny Stewart about the 2010-11 campaign, and his fears for the future of North East ice hockey. Here, in greater detail, are his views.
“(Then-coach and co-owner) Rob Wilson first got in touch with me. He’d spoken to Paul Thompson at Coventry, who suggested I might be a good fit for a coaching job. I spoke to Willy and he got me interested. We thought they’d be playing out of the Arena at Newcastle. Paddy (O’Connor) had come on board looking to move it forward and I met Jaimie (Longmuir) face to face at the play-off weekend.
“I believe it was at the second interview when it became known we might be coming to Whitley Bay instead of the Arena. Paddy and Jaimie assured me although it would tough, things would be secure, the funding would remain and the team would move forward.
“I figured I had accomplished enough at Coventry and wanted something new and fresh.
“I knew they had some troubles in the past and I was aware the rent at the Arena was pretty steep and that had caused some troubles. There were some mistakes made in the past and they’ve been open about it.
“Paddy sold a good situation and Jaimie was selling as well. Plain and simple, one of them kept to their word and one didn’t."
“A lot of the sell was the project in Gateshead. We weren’t looking to finish top half of the table in two seasons. We said if we could make some noise in the cup - which we ended up doing - and make the play-offs, that’d be a fantastic season. Paddy’s played in the past and Jaimie’s been involved with teams and we knew the money we were spending was the lowest in the league.
“I had thought we’d go through two tough seasons at Whitley Bay and try to build a core of players. I thought it (Gateshead) would be a fantastic place to play, and coach especially. A couple of months into the season that project was pushed back and it changed a lot of people’s minds."
“I knew the type of teams they’d had in the past. When we planned the team we wanted to build in Whitley Bay it was going to be a big, physical team that would compete. It wasn’t long after I started recruiting we all realised with the budget we had that was going to be very tough to accomplish.
“Some people might say we should have put a tough, rugged team in here. At the start of the summer I tried everything in my power to build that type of club, it just wasn’t happening. These days guys who are big and tough but can also play come at a price.
“We decided to go young and bring in some guys with energy.
“One area where we were lacking, especially at the start of the year, was a top-quality Brit. We were able to sign Paul Sample but he had missed a whole season, which is always going to take a bit out of you. A few of the younger guys like Nathan Salem and Rob Wilson weren’t, I didn’t think, at par at this level.
“The British players had moved on before I even got chance to speak to them. As for the imports, from what I had heard, there was a lot of guys who when they spent the second half of last season in Whitley Bay got really negative, and just didn’t enjoy playing here. I didn’t want the start of a new era to have any negativity.
“Those guys definitely weren’t going to take reductions to come back and play a full season here. A lot of players didn’t want to come to Newcastle: one because of reputation, two they were playing out of Whitely Bay, and three the money we were paying.
“I maybe made a mistake in not pursuing a couple to keep a bit of foundation. But it was my first year recruiting and those are the mistakes you’re going to have. I don’t think they were major mistakes. Who knows, maybe they weren’t mistakes.
“I don’t think I would have had the resources to get David Longstaff back, I think Ben Campbell had a pretty good situation in Guildford and I don’t think we could have competed over money. I think their minds were pretty much made up."
“It’s not like we have scouts, or the resources to fly out and watch guys. A lot of the recruiting comes from hearsay - old coaches and guys you know who have played with them. Every import was new to the UK and it was always going to take time.
“We had a slow start. A bit of it was down to inexperience but a major part was we started later than teams who were already on way bigger budgets.
“Whitley Bay was a type of arena none of these (imported) guys had ever played on. For a goaltender like Charlie Effinger to play in a rink where the lines aren’t always on the ice, the lighting’s a bit poor, it is very difficult.
“Blair Stayzer never really got settled in, Dan Speer never really became the offensive threat we thought he would, even Jamie Carroll took time to settle in. The way things ended up shows if you have patience you’re going to end up flourishing, as we saw with Rszeszutko, Hartmanis, Sibley and Sammy Zajac.
“Dundee were 0 and 15. It took time for them.
“If people had given it time - the fans that went away, the players, Paddy O’Connor - I think we really would have developed into a good team and had a special season. Some people I can’t fault for going away, some I questioned.
“Dan Speer had offensive capability but I’m not sure his heart is in playing professional hockey. (Patrik) Forsbacka, although he was scoring goals for us in the first month, he was nowhere near the physical player we had been sold. When he played in the Finnish Elite League he was maybe the most physical player in that league. I spoke to a couple of his ex-team-mates and I remember them saying, ‘Is he killing guys with hits?’ I said, ‘I don’t think he’s hit somebody since his hat-trick in the exhibition game!’ He scored some goals for us which helped a bit but I was depending on him, Stayzer and Langdon to be a physical force. Langdon was more than physical, which made it an even bigger loss when he went.
“The timing was unfortunate with Dan Speer because I’d released him and Scott Langdon called me two hours after and told me he was leaving. That made us three imports down within the first month-and-a-half. It seemed to snowball from there."
Stewart on Stewart
“The English guys were good in getting guys around for the first month until they felt comfortable driving. I had to help them out setting up bills and stuff. You go to bigger clubs and they have off-ice staff to help with that. We brought some younger guys in who were really huge in helping, but me and Jaimie were right in there too. A week before a guy arrived I was in his place giving it a last-minute clean. I had to take a lot more on board than playing and coaching.
“I was just getting used to playing for a new club, and managing coaching and playing at the same time wasn’t easy. At the start of the year I envisaged a third-line role so I could spend a lot more attention on playing. When guys left I had to increase my ice-time a lot and change positions (to defence). That was really tough, but also you were on the ice every second shift. It really made it difficult to coach between shifts."
“We had a few bad results at the start of the year and there was things promised to the fans that never really panned out. It’s been a few years of that.
“Francis Smith (Whitley Bay Arena owner) has been fantastic with us. It was always going to be the Warriors’ rink and his business first. He can’t hurt his business to accommodate us too much but he did it as much as he could.
“But in a top-flight hockey league it is just not a professional facility. That played a huge part in fans not coming.
“Playing Saturday nights instead of Sunday definitely didn’t help, and the location as well. It’s a huge drive for people out in Durham and Sunderland. When they played in the Arena it was seen as a night out, people would go to the game then drinks after, whereas here you drive all the way, watch the game and head home.
“We’d hit some bad weather in November and December and had a few gates that were pretty poor. Me and Jaimie talked about it all the time, we pinpointed that game at home to Coventry where it was 7-1 after the second period and I think Tommo took the foot off the gas out of respect for me. I think that turned fans off a bit.
“It’s already a cold enough place so when it’s minus outside it gets pretty tough in here. The roads were bad and there’s not a great deal of parking.
“We had a few bad gates but it was stuff we were prepared for. It happened last year. That’s why it was so surprising Paddy left.
“The first time I was aware things were starting to head south was when we tried to acquire Nick Duff at the end of November, start of December. I was told we weren’t going to be able to bring him in for monetary reasons.
“I didn’t hear anything else and the next thing I knew we were without an owner. What Paddy’s reasons were, I’ll never know. I’m not sure it was handled correctly but there was nothing we could do about it.
“I didn’t get chance to talk to Paddy after he made his decision. It was unfortunate it happened after a few good results. The team was becoming tight as a group.
“I don’t think we realised the gap in budgets between the low end and high end had increased. The increase in imports really affected things because we didn’t have that top-end Brit, where some teams had 11 imports, plus three or four top-end Brits. It was tough to withstand that at some points."