Gary Russell column: NIHL to the EIHL

Moving from the Solway Sharks to Braehead Clan was a big move for me.

The first games I witnessed on the bench were the Champions Hockey League games. I was pretty close to seeing some action in Sweden with Chris Holt getting hurt, but I must not have been trusted to play five minutes in a 10-2 hockey game.

It has to be the coolest arena I’ve been to in my life. I would have been so excited if I got on.

The first time I saw some action was the Aladdin Cup. I remember the game because we’d played the night before. Chris was still carrying a slight injury. I thought to myself that this would be the perfect game for him to get some rest to keep him fresh for the league games.

It was a friendly game which was played for a cup, so there was nothing to lose really. Nottingham played their starting goalie Wiikman, so we did the same and put Chris in.

We go into the third period 1-0 up. Finner then comes in and tells me I’m in. I just remember the excitement for me. I’m pretty sure I knocked down my juice in the room trying to get my gloves on. I’ve no idea why I was like that as I’m usually a calm person.

The moment I stepped on the ice I felt at home – not much pressure on me as it was the Aladdin Cup and I don’t think anybody expected anything from me.

I made some good saves and ended up with 14 shots in the period and we won the game 1-0. I remember as the 10 traveling fans were going nuts – it was quite funny to see.

The buzzer going was the best bit just to see the guys faces as they were chuffed and all congratulating me. I took it on the chin as I thought I was capable of doing it.

But I suppose being a British guy in a import hungry league it was a big thing for the guys to see so I was happy with what I had accomplished.

So we won the Aladdin Cup – my first cup in professional hockey. I didn’t get to touch it or even rub it for a couple of wishes. The cup is a beauty – probably the best looking cup between all the British trophies.

So after the game I get a fist pump from Finner, along with ‘great job Rusty’. I finally get some trust and respect from my coach. It was a good moment for me knowing that my coach doesn’t think I’m rubbish.

I took notes from last year that the back up only played 60 minutes or so. I wasn’t willing to do that.

I joined the club wanting to do something more than sit on a bench like many other goalies in the league. I wanted to play, evolve and most importantly put points on the board with some wins.

My first league game was against the Coventry Blaze. The night before was a very strange one. We were involved in a 9-8 shootout loss to the Sheffield Steelers. We score eight goals at home and we got beat. That was a first for me to witness.

It was great value for money for the fans and I loved watching it, but I also had the mindset that I could’ve been going in the nets at any moment. I’m sure that game alone aged both coaches by a decade or two.

Blaze were a good team who were struggling at that point of the season. They had a lot of good players in the team, but didn’t seem to be clicking at that time.

The year before they won the play-off championship so I knew they had plenty of potential. I got prepared as I usually do and got ready for the game.

This time it meant much more as it was a league game. I came into the league with a goal of starting a league game and here it was. I remember the start and I did not feel nervous as I had a good warm up and was pumped to be playing.

The game started with a quick shot within 10 seconds. The puck came to me and I bobbled it. I thought to myself ‘why do I have nerves, I’ve done this my whole life?’

The next shot comes through a screen and I didn’t see it getting released. I get part of the puck but it sneaks under my pad and into the goal with only 20 seconds gone.

It wasn’t the start I was looking for, but in some ways it calmed me down. I settled into the game, played pretty well and made some good saves which gave us a chance to win the game.

We got killed by the Blaze powerplay that night. I remember watching an interview after the game from the Blaze coach saying it was one of the first nights as a team they all clicked. It was just my luck then that they click on my first start.

It was a very long trip home, but my phone was going nuts with all the Twitter notifications. The Braehead fans are great and bombard your Twitter account at times which can get fun.

So I’d achieved my first goal of the season which was starting my first league game. My next goal was to win my first league game.

The goalie process is a very long one. It’s baby steps – that’s how the goalie progress plods along. It’s a lot off my back after the first league game – it just makes you hungrier to play your next one and do much better.

(Image permission: Carol Ann Jardine)

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