Match Preview: Stars v Sharks 12/09/21
BILLINGHAM STARS finally return to the ice on Sunday evening after the COVID pandemic forced ice hockey in the UK into near hibernation for 18 months. Last in front of the fans at the Forum in March last year, the Stars will have an unfamiliar look about them as they skate out for the season curtain raiser – a North Cup clash with old foes Solway Sharks.
The long break from the sport and the changing circumstances of many has meant that this season will be one of rebuilding for Billingham. Seasoned campaigners such as Cal Davies, Craig Thurston and Mark Watson have left the side, leaving the door open for a crop of younger players who were knocking at the door prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus and now find themselves with an opportunity to step up and make a name for themselves. A core group of seniors remain to guide the youngsters through what is bound to be a challenging season as the new side beds in and finds their collective skates.
Sunday's opener is in the North Cup competition, a round-robin format to begin with which will see the Stars take on visitors Solway, local rivals Whitley Warriors and Scottish National League outfit Dundee Comets home and away, the top two sides progressing to a semi-final round against the top two sides from the Midlands Cup competition. Billingham’s National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 campaign will get underway later this month, an eight-team format expanded from season 2019-2020 by the additions of Sheffield Scimitars and Widnes Wild, whilst Sutton Sting drop to Division 2.
The Sharks will travel to the Forum on Sunday afternoon having already kicked off their League campaign with the visit of Sheffield to Dumfries tomorrow evening. Consistently a challenger for silverware on all fronts, this season should be no different for Solway and they be a tough initial test for Stars’ new-look side. Coached once again by the hugely experienced Martin Grubb, the Sharks roster boasts many familiar names, including those of Richard Bentham and Ross Murray who have both returned to the Solway fold after spells at Leeds and Whitley respectively.
Coach Stephen Foster is under no illusions as to the size of the challenge Billingham will face this year, but sees this season as a major building block towards future success. Sunday should see three full lines icing, with at least three under-18s added to the squad. Late addition Lewis Hall will only take part in the game if his paperwork is completed in time.
General Manager Allen Flavell cannot wait to get back to the action after so long off the ice:
“It’s been a long time coming – it’s going to be a welcome sight to see the lads skating back out in front of fans after all this time! It’s certainly going to be an interesting season – we are building a team for the future and bringing on players that we hope will form the backbone of the Stars for years to come. It may take a while to come together, but this group of players are playing for the shirt and will give their all in every game they play – as long as they do that then no one can ask any more from them. The atmosphere in the dressing room is first-class, if we apply ourselves and keep growing with every game, who knows where we will end up? It’s going to be a great watch from the stands that’s for sure!”
Billingham welcome Solway Sharks to the Forum for their opening North Cup fixture on Sunday evening, face off at the new regular time of 5.30pm (doors 4.30pm). Tickets are priced at £12 adults, £7.50 concessions, £35 family [2+2].
Solway Sharks v Sheffield Scimitars, Saturday 7pm
Solihull Barons v Nottingham Lions, Sunday 5.30pm
Widnes Wild v Whitley Warriors, Sunday 5.30pm
Billingham Stars v Solway Sharks, Sunday 5.30pm
Blackburn Hawks v Widnes Wild, Saturday 6pm
Sheffield Scimitars v Blackburn Hawks, Sunday 5.10pm