Manchester Phoenix’s sledge hockey team kick off their debut season in the expanded Planet Ice British Sledge Hockey League on Saturday hoping to emulate the success of their playoff-winning EPL counterparts.
Phoenix face tough opposition in the form of the Peterborough Phantoms and last season’s league champions, the Kingston Kestrels.
The Manchester boys are very much the newbies in Division One, having only formed as a team last May. But there is valuable experience in the form of GB paralympians Karl Nicholson and Tony Booth, while players like Rob Allan and goaltender Steven Midghall have made rapid progress since taking up the sport and have already won international honours.
Phoenix’s up-and-coming coach Pete Hagan is looking forward to testing his side against two of the top established teams in the country.
The Kestrels have been around since the 1980s and the reigning champs are very much the dominant force in sledge hockey. The clash on Saturday promises to be a tasty trans-Pennines affair, with the fact that Kingston lost star player Nicholson to the Phoenix adding some extra spice.
Phoenix can take some encouragement from their performance against Kingston in a friendly tournament last summer, when Hagan’s side ruffled their feathers before a late flurry of goals put some gloss on the win for the much more experienced Kestrels.
Phoenix’s other opponents on Saturday will be the Phantoms, a team looking to move out of the shadow of the Kestrels and stake their own claim for the league title. The Peterborough squad features a number of GB players, including Tom Graham, Jack Waring and goaltender Rob Gaze, an all-star at the recent IPC New Year Cup in Russia.
Nevertheless, Hagan’s side beat the Phantoms 5-1 in last summer’s exhibition tournament and they will no doubt be hoping for a repeat performance with league points on the line this weekend.
The Phoenix coach told CT Sport: “I’m really looking forward to putting ourselves against some real quality opposition and see how we have improved since our exhibition games.
“I’m hoping for some solid performances, both from individuals and as a team – and I’m also hoping we have a good crowd to showcase the sport and the players. With lots of GB players on all squads, all three games should be fast, skilful and physical!”
Saturday’s first round of matches will run from 4pm to 8pm and entrance will be free.
With the growing popularity of sledge hockey, this year’s Planet Ice British Sledge Hockey League comprises two divisions. Phoenix, the Kestrels and the Phantoms are in one and Coventry Honeybadgers, Cardiff Huskies and the Battle Back Bison, a team featuring former Armed Forces personnel, make up the other.
There will be playoffs at the end of the regular season, which will pit the top two teams in Division One against each other, with the bottom side playing the top team from Division Two and the remaining teams from the second tier playing each other.
By Andy Jowett