This year ice hockey overtook cricket as my favourite spectator sport.
Trips to Altrincham to watch Manchester Storm became my go-to weekend plan and when the season was cancelled by the Coronavirus pandemic, I was sad enough to simulate the remainder of the season.
There’s no point in arguing that this was for journalistic purposes. It was 100% for my own amusement… but I digress.
To celebrate my first season as a fan and fill the week which should have been occupied by play-off finals build-up, I’ve selected my three favourite matches from a rollercoaster season at the Storm Shelter.
3) Manchester Storm 1:2 Nottingham Panthers (Challenge Cup, September 21 2019)
“People’s reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.” (Edward Lewis, 1990)
The same can be said of ice hockey. This Challenge Cup fixture probably doesn’t stick in the memory of many Storm (or even Panthers) fans, but it will forever hold a special place in my heart as my first hockey game.
I don’t know what hooked me. Was it the end to end action? The fights? The lights? The student’s union playlist, chip barm and general party atmosphere?
And, truth be told, I don’t remember much of the on-ice action from this match. (According to the EIHL website, all of the goals came in the first period with two goals in two minutes for Nottingham cancelling out Adam Hughesman’s opener).
But what I do remember is the feeling when the final buzzer sounded that I couldn’t wait to come back to the Storm Shelter for another ice hockey fix.
2) Manchester Storm 5:4 SO Belfast Giants (EIHL, February 22 2020)
Manchester’s very own ‘Miracle on Ice’. This fixture had everything, and I would like to thank StormTV for allowing me to relive this delightful sporting spectacle at my leisure on YouTube.
The first period alone would have been enough to seal a spot in anyone’s top three matches: three unanswered Storm goals (including one after just 52 seconds!), 20 penalty minutes and that Mathieu Gagnon fight.
The same night as Fury vs Wilder II, Gagnon and Belfast’s Matt Pelech went several rounds before the Storm player sent his opponent tumbling to the ice with a lovely left hook. Cue cheers from the home fans and five penalty minutes for either player.
FIGHT CLUB: Mathieu Gagnon takes on Matt Pelech during Storm vs Giants (YouTube: Hockey Fights UK)
When Tyson Fawcett added Manchester’s fourth at the start of the second period, it should have been game over.
However, after changing goaltenders Belfast were revitalised and hit back with two goals to end the second period with the score at an increasingly uncomfortable 4-2.
Just like the second period, the third was all Belfast and last season’s league champions got the all-important equaliser with three minutes remaining to send the game into overtime.
With Manchester on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, one player stepped up to literally save the day.
Matt Ginn produced a phenomenal save with his skate in the last 10 seconds of overtime before stopping four Belfast penalties (Pearce hit the post) to ensure that Frankie Melton’s penalty would be enough to take two valuable points.
Wild celebrations in the stands, huge sighs of relief for coaches Ryan Finnerty and Mike Morin and the best on-ice action I witnessed all season.
— Manchester Storm (@Mcr_Storm) February 22, 2020
1) Manchester Storm 5:2 Fife Flyers (EIHL, January 18 2020)
Another high-scoring thriller. However, this match takes top spot just as much for the atmosphere off the ice as the action on it.
Settling into our seats in block 104, chip barms in hand, my three friends and I made an interesting discovery shortly before puck-drop. Seated in front of us were two couples in their fifties, one from Manchester, the other- it transpired- from Fife…
When Henrik Samuelsson put Manchester ahead in the 18th minute, our celebrations were fairly restrained. After all, it had been an evenly matched first period and there was still a long way to go in the contest.
However, when Fife took the lead courtesy of Carlo Finucci midway through the second period, the Scots were on their feet and the whole block had their number.
Alas, they had rejoiced too soon. As we approached the final ten minutes, Storm scored twice in 60 seconds (Aulin and Fawcett) sparking pandemonium in 104. In the aftermath, the Manchester wife turned around for a photo with Mrs Fife, cheekily posing with her fingers indicating the score line.
Scott Simmonds added Manchester’s fourth in the 56th minute before Jared Aulin shot into an empty net in the final minute to put the icing on the cake for Storm and expose the Fife duo to more good-natured ribbing.
It might not have had the Oscar-worthy drama of the Belfast clash but the atmosphere in the stands was something very special.
The friendly rivalry confirmed exactly why I enjoy spending my Saturday nights at the rink whilst the hopeless romantic inside me gushed at the sight of people my parents’ age enjoying a night out at the ice hockey. If that isn’t me in 30+ years, I’ll be disappointed.
My first season supporting Manchester Storm has been extremely memorable and although I can’t guarantee I’ll still be in Manchester come September, one thing is for sure: wherever I go, there has to be an ice hockey team.
All highlights from @OfficialEIHL