Their logo’s a seagull – with attitude. The type who thinks he’s an eagle rather than a seagull. Given Fylde Flyers beat Blackburn Eagles on their last meeting it’s an attitude the ice hockey team carry into play too.
The team is transforming perceptions that Cleveleys is the kind of place where working hips are thin on the ground.
Flyers player-coach Mark Gillingham is flying high in what is believed to be the most physical sport of all. He’s had his share of body crunching moments but nothing’s snapped. “Not yet. Touch wood,” he adds.
Fylde Flyers Ice Hockey Club, managed by Mick Cauce, is only in its second season but is one of the best turned out teams in the National Ice Hockey League North Division Two.
Sponsorship and marketing are well developed, website good, match night experience professional – there’s even a range of good quality merchandise and their own official photographer Lisa Jones.
A handy glass-fronted bar lounge as well as viewing balcony with upholstered seats overlooking home ice rink Sub Zero, on Cleveleys seafront, pulls in hundreds of spectators for home matches.
The ice surface is the smallest in the league but that leads to a fast aggressive brand of hockey with the emphasis on short sharp runs, agility and rapid passes.
The club’s already making its impact felt in the NIHL, formerly English National.
Sub Zero offers community ice skating for all ages and ranges by day and night. There’s even a group of considerably older skaters who style themselves the Old... well, it rhymes with arts. But the resident ice hockey team is the rinky dink ice panther of them all.
Fylde Flyers have helped revive the sport on the Fylde coast which had been without an ice hockey team since the demise of the Blackpool Seagulls in 1993.
In July 2011, it was announced that Fylde Flyers would play their inaugural season in the then English National Ice Hockey League.
Effectively they compete in the third tier of British hockey with the televised Elite league the pinnacle.
They finished the season in sixth place with victories over both Hull Stingrays and recently-promoted Sutton Sting the highlights of a stop-start first season. Their next home match is against the Sheffield Senators on Saturday at 5pm. Then away to Blackburn next day.
The Flyers are aiming high – hoping to make the play-off places at the top of the division. It’s a tough call. Due to the limited number of rinks in the UK distances travelled by players tend to be considerable.
Training times are usually between 10pm and midnight after rinks have been used by the public for community skating.
The Flyers frequently play two fixtures, back to back, at weekends, late finishes followed by early starts to the next match. They have had five such double header weekends this season alone. But they love the lifestyle. Mark admits: “You wonder why you do it but once on the ice all cares just vanish, and you get stuck in and in it to win it.”
He’s skated since he was two, and played ice hockey since he was four, trained by his grandfather, who played hockey in the 1940s and was a professional figure skater too (as was Mark’s grandma). “My mum was secretary of Blackpool Seagulls so I’m third generation in ice hockey.”
Mark has played against many Elite players in his career. At Solihull, top player Chris Allen played for Florida Panthers in the North America NHL, regarded as the world’s top competition. Last year’s lead player for the Flyers Elvis (yes, really) Veldze, a Latvian, played in the junior world championships. Both men are capable of making the vulcanised rubber puck travel at 100mph. Picture being on the receiving end of that in the nets!
Physically the game is tough. Players wear protective padding but impact injuries are frequent, either as a result of collisions or hitting the perimeter boards hard.
Mark admits: “I’ve had knocks, cuts, bruises but nothing bad. I still think it’s a great sport for kids, the sooner they learn the better.
“Sub Zero’s great because it’s a proper community rink and puts skating where it should be – for all and all ages. We train late but we also get recognised a lot too when out and about. That’s pretty nice considering it’s still a minority sport although still acknowledged to be the world’s toughest sport.
“This is just our second season but we give visitors a good game. We tend to have a tough image because the rink is so small we have to stand our ground. Some who dominate on large surfaces have to be far quicker on their feet with us – because we get out of holes far faster and give them hell.
“We also hope the club is giving Cleveleys a rather different image to the retirement spot many believe it to be!”