The worrying fragility at the heart of Fife Flyers
Two victories in nine starts in December is a stat which has seen the team tumble down the standings into the eighth and final play-off spot – and, on current form, that position is far from secure.
“Fragile” was how Todd Dutiaume described his team – and that should be a source of huge concern to the boardroom as well as the fans in the stands.
Fragile hockey teams don’t make the post season championships.
Fragile hockey teams are highly vulnerable when everyone else switches to play-off mode and games become that bit more hard nosed as the season heads into the home straight.
Fragile teams don’t fill the rink on match nights.
While wins over Cardiff Devils and Belfast Giants showed what this team can achieve – and there’s a lot of hockey still to be played – it seems mired in the same deep rut which has spread across the whole of the club.
Everything about Flyers right now needs to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and given an almighty shake to bring new life, new energy and new drive to kickstart it on and off the ice.
Crowds are down, the ‘match night experience’ remains woeful, the lack of local players on the ice remains a troubling issue, and the fans who have spent years – in some cases, decades – rinkside feel their voice is being ignored, and their admission money taken for granted.
The club’s marketing, media and promotional operations have continued to stutter and stumble in the dark because of a lack of direction and resource after an abysmal summer of near zero communication - known issues which remain unaddressed - and the ideas pitched by people keen to get things going have simply withered. Frustration abounds.
And all of that impacts on the fragility of the dressing-room. Everything from the powerplay to the PR is interconnected.
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In using the term ‘fragile’ Dutiaume shone a spotlight on the mindset and external pressures that can affect a team.
His post-match summary on Sunday summed up Flyers’ first half of the season, highlighting a group “just waiting for something bad to happen rather than show a momentary glimpse of a spark that makes us successful.”
He added: “ When we show up, you can see how our fans react - but the rest of the time we sit back and, for whatever reason, not really compete even close to our potential.”
That achilles heel – the “when we show up” part – has been apparent for some time, and the fans want a shake-up.
There is no doubt that many are unhappy with results and, equally important, the performances and the style of hockey.
Some want a change in the coaching staff.
It’s safe to say that won’t happen.
In their 24 years in charge, the directors have worked with just two coaches – Mark Morrison and Dutiaume. Change isn’t something they do quickly, and certainly won’t make in a knee-jerk reaction to criticism.
The fans want new faces in the line-up. It was clear from Dutiaume’s comments on Sunday, so does he.
He went as far as he could in his post-game interview highlighting how he had, for some time, made the case for a change, but tempered hopes by adding: “We try to do the job on a daily basis and with what we have until we are provided otherwise.”
In other words, it’s out of his hands.
The fans want players they can identify with – someone with grit, characters who will light up match nights, and skaters who come flying out of the traps every night, rattle their rivals and gun for the biggest teams. They simply haven’t seen enough of that this season.
And, the more other EIHL teams make changes, the more Fife fans look to their club to follow suit.
When fans see Dundee Stars, a team with a smaller fanbase and, budget-wise, in the same bracket, making key changes, then they start to ask why Fife are not.
So far, the club has stuck resolutely with the roster the coaches recruited in summer – one which has come up short – and given no public indication of its intentions.
That radio silence simply adds to the frustration. It has to change.
No team sticks rigidly with its original line up. It adds, it trades, it fine tunes, it speculates and takes a punt until the issues are ironed out, or it finds the team leaders who give it that extra dimension.
There is no doubt Flyers cannot compete with the wages offered by other EIHL clubs – the league is far from a level playing field – and have missed out on potential mid-season signing opportunities.
But that isn’t new. In previous seasons they have still found players who gave them that competitive edge and got them into the play-offs and the finals weekends.
And getting the right players isn’t just about money ...
Of course, change comes with no guarantee of success.
With finances now tighter than ever, the directors may decide to simply sit tight, but that surely risks further stagnation, if not a decline in attendances? It may also widen the gap that seems to be growing between the club and its fanbase.
Tom Muir and Jack Wishart will be well aware of the growing levels of unhappiness – the empty seats on match night speak louder than anyone shouting on the club’s social media platforms which are drowning in criticism and calls for action.
The decisions they take now will define the second half of the season.
Doing nothing, on and off the ice, isn’t an option.