LONDON, UK – The two smiling figures stood behind the netting at Alexandra Palace could have been any of the twenty or so London Rangers players freshly showered and changed from their recreational scrimmage; however the faces were familiar to those skating on the ice in front of them.
The duo observing the latest attempt at making a success of senior hockey at this iconic North London ice rink paused only for five minutes or so before walking through the large glass doors at the end of the rink and out into the warm summer air of the capital.
Tom Wills and Pavel Pojdl were key players on and off the ice in the previous Haringey Racers team that subsequently morphed into the London Racers, the last top flight hockey team this city of over eight million souls has tried and failed to support.
They know more than most how difficult it can be to run a hockey team in this part of the world, and Wills is probably the closest thing to a club legend Haringey have had in recent times.
That they should witness the rebirth first hand makes a good by-line for this article; but their presence was of pure chance.
This time round, the new look Racers management are aiming a little lower, grounded by past failures and lessons learnt. The hope is that this time, the team will tap into a community that has yet to embrace hockey fully since the much fabled halcyon days of the late nineties.
“It’s been ten years since I first walked into the palace as an eager guy wanting to play EPL hockey there and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then” says new Head Coach Simon Kears, who iced in the last Racers team in 2004 alongside Wills and Pojdl.
“Leagues have changed, teams have folded and rinks have shut but there is a certain aura around the place when you pull up to it that is hard to describe”
Whilst the background preparation for the team has been in the planning as far back as two years ago, the on-ice aspect has started to take shape in the last week or so.
Open trials for the team, such as the one taking place this evening have seen sensational interest, no doubt boosted by the closure of Romford ice rink a few miles to the east in the London Borough of Havering.
The standard of players ready to wear the Racers iconic jersey has surprised the management and heartened the small band of supporters who sit in the stands watching their team take shape.
“The first session was crazy to be honest” admits Kears, dressed in a tracksuit and clutching a paper full of names.
“We could honestly have had 60-70 players and 12 net minders on the ice and I think we were all a bit shocked by that”
“It’s never easy for players to do themselves justice with so many guys on the ice so we had to reduce the numbers to a manageable size and thirty players plus four goalies fits perfectly”
“It’s never an easy job for a coach to cut guys especially when you know some of them really well but it’s part of the job and everybody understands this. We’ve still got guys contacting us about coming on the ice so we need to manage it as best we can to ensure we get the right guys on and off the ice for the team”
“Each session the intensity increases and guys are putting in 110% to try and make the team. We’ve got a real opportunity to put together something special at the palace and make a statement to the ice hockey fraternity that we are here to stay and progress up the leagues”
The appointment of Kears by Haringey came despite applications from players and coaches for the role in higher leagues and could prove a masterstroke.
The 34 year old may be a former Haringey player; however the appeal in his resume does not come from his time in a Racers jersey, except maybe his familiarity with the surroundings and locals.
A player and then coach with the Romford Fury over the past few seasons, Kears knows the league, the players and the standards needed to compete at the top. He knows the show ponies, the grafters, the bullsh*tters and the type of player that can make an impact.
This knowledge is not to be sniffed at in the lowest rung of British league ice hockey.
“I’ve been in and around the league for a number of years and I know how it works and what you need to succeed” says Kears, now sat in his stall up in the Racers changing room.
“The guys turning up at our trials could slot into any team in the league and obviously with the problems some of the NIHL 1 players are facing with ice time, we’ve had plenty players from there show interest in us also”
“One thing I’m keen on is getting a real good look at young players from clubs who can grow with us and I’m working hard behind the scenes to ensure we are seen as a team that the best of young British talent can come to and get that senior experience”
A quick browse of the new Haringey coach’s senior hockey CV hides an important point.
Learning his hockey at the renowned Durham Junior ice hockey club, Kears played as a junior international and won national titles throughout his youth under the tutorage of quality coaching staff such as Glyn Hall, Tommy Punton and Roly Barrass.
Kears has been involved with the junior section at Romford in recent years and knows the emerging talents in the area, and has already signed up teenage prospect Denis Bell as his starting goalie for 2013/14.
This announcement was preceded by the relatively high profile captures of former Romford Raiders forward Tom Davis and Cardiff Devils defenseman Alastair Band, prompting discussions that the Racers were heading for a physical approach.
“When I sat down with the owners I knew that we needed to make a real statement of intent to the league with our first few signings and I think we did that” explains Kears, who retired from the playing side of the game a couple of years ago.
“In Tom and Ali we’ve got guys who are NIHL1 players but buy into the philosophy of what we are trying to achieve. I’ve spoken to quite a few guys and as a coach you know when someone really wants to be part of your team and both showed this from the outset”
“I’m still talking to a number of guys some with great NIHL 1 experience so I think we may get a few more big announcements yet”
“Although Tom and Ali have stolen the limelight a bit I think a big coup for the team was signing Denis Bell in net. In Denis you get in my eyes the best young net minder in the country for his age and one who is going to benefit from being part of the national team camps”
“Everybody asks the same question what’s the aim for 2013/14 season and I always give the same reply. We need to be challenging for the league title but we also need to be mindful that its year one of a new journey and we need to build a solid foundation for the team”
“I’ve heard so many rumours that we are building this kind of team and that kind of team but I can state we are building a team based around solid defensive systems, forwards who can play two-way hockey and score goals. Some would say the old Durham way of hockey”
If Haringey can get anywhere near to the dynasty that Durham built it would be nothing short of a miracle, and times have certainly changed but the fact that the Racers are starting small and keeping their feet on the ground is heartening.
The Haringey team of late nineties that is spoken of so warmly by long term fans had a simple formula of hard working passionate local guys with a scoring import in the shape of Zoran Kozic The club had a growing fan base spurred on by a winning team who eventually sealed the English National League South Championship in 2000.
NIHL 2 is probably a tad better than the league of that day but so are the players the Racers are recruiting. The past as they say, is the past and Haringey fans need no more reminders of the failures.
That many of the faces in the cold confines of this famous old building have witnessed the dark times is surely a good indication that there is still a desire to push the hockey agenda in North London once again. They are unperturbed by the history books.
It is half past midnight and the players are all showered and changed after yet another tough session on the ice, Kears and Richards are deep in discussion with a player in the foyer. The guy concerned is a natural goal scorer and will do well for the team if they can secure his services.
Up in the stands another face from the past, former Haringey captain and now rink manager Phil Myers, looks on before making his way down towards the men tasked with rebuilding senior hockey at the venue.
“Make sure you guys are off the ice on time next week” he barks before, heading off to the zamboni pit. Myers steely management face gives way briefly as he turns and a wry smile breaks through. This is a man who has bled for the cause and knows what it means.
The rink, the fans and the players all want it, but whether it can be delivered will be there for all to see in April 2014 at the end of the comeback season for the Haringey Racers.
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