NIHL North gets underway this weekend with its strongest looking line-up for a number of years. Coast to Coast takes a look at the teams and what we can expect from season 2012/13:
Billingham Stars – Last year’s double winners rolled four lines for the majority of last season which proved to be the key to their success. Netminder James Flavell & defenseman Richie Thornton are class acts at the back, while the addition of Stephen Wallace & Michael Bowman from the EPL will only improve an already impressive looking squad.
Blackburn Hawks – Have endured a turbulent summer, losing a wealth of experience both on and off the ice. Influential import Sami Narkia returned to Finland, with Rick Hughes, Aaron Davies, Brian Worrall & Tom King all being allowed to move to Deeside Dragons. Defenseman Scott Glover has joined Sutton Sting, while Jordan Bannon may not feature much due to work commitments. With Hawks’ main summer transfer target Shaun Kippin deciding to join the revolution at Deeside, Coach Jared Owen could find himself under pressure if early results are poor.
Coventry Blaze – Battled against relegation for much of last year before securing their NIHL1 status in the final weeks of the season. Blaze wll be boosted by the return of netminder Josh Nicholls from Telford Tigers, while Dale White has been brought in from Solihull Barons to strengthen the defence. Will rely heavily on Josh Nicklin & Rikki Bryniarksi to increase their points output once again.
Sheffield Spartans – Coach Chris Wilcox endured a difficult first season in charge and has had a busy summer. Spartans’ new-boys include Scott Morris from the EPL’s Sheffield Steeldogs, Nick Whyatt from Nottingham Lions & Andrew Cook from Whitley Warriors. Ollie & Will Barron are back for another year in what looks a much-improved squad.
Solway Sharks – Last season’s unbeaten Division Two champions are hoping to make an immediate impact on NIHL1. Prolific forwards Adam Reynolds & Nathan Salem are likely to be at the head of the scoring charts, while Gary Russell will contest Flavell for the right to be called the league’s number one netminder. Have added Elite League experience in the shape of defenders John Connolly & Craig Mitchell, to what looks a very strong roster.
Sutton Sting – Promoted to Division One after winning their play-off against the Lions. Coach Ian Johnson has strengthened his roster adding ex-Manchester Phoenix duo Ryan Johnson & Jamie Spurr. Defenseman Scott Glover has also joined from the Hawks, along with talented ex-Hull Stingrays forward Craig Thurston. Sting boast plenty of firepower with the likes of Richie Oliver & Ben Lowe in their ranks.
Telford Titans – Exceeded most people’s expectations last time around by finishing fourth. Netminder Ben Hunt has stepped up to the EPL to join Telford Tigers, but ex-Solihull Barons stopper Sam Hewitt would be a more than adequate replacement. Rink refurbishments leave Titans facing an October start to their season and they’re yet to reveal the majority of their roster. If they can retain Ashley & Ryan Stanton, Karol Jets and Chris Jones, Titans will be a handful again – particularly on home ice.
Trafford Metros – Suffered a miserable end to last season and but for their good start, could well have been drawn into the drop zone. Forward Sean Day is likely to lead their scoring charts, while Metros will hope netminder Paul Maudsley can repeat his form from early last year. Metros’ roster looks to lack the strength in depth of many of their rivals.
Whitley Warriors – Finished runners-up to Billingham last season and will be keen to reclaim their crown. Warriors have snapped up Simon Hehir & Alex Gibson from their rivals and will hope netminder Richie Lawson benefits from a full pre-season. Top forwards Dean Holland & DJ Good will no doubt rack up the points once again. May need to strengthen defensively if they’re to mount a serious challenge.
It’s fully anticipated Billingham will put up a huge fight to defend their titles, but Solway have assembled a strong squad and will push them all the way. Whitley look sure to be in the mix, but perhaps lack the depth of the other pair. Sheffield, Sutton & Telford appear likely to contest the final play-off slot, while Blackburn’s roster needs strengthening if they’re to repeat last season’s efforts. Coventry & Trafford could be set to struggle.
Division Two looks to be a two-way fight between Deeside & Solihull, with Nottingham just behind. Dragons have put together an impressive roster with the likes of Kippin, Hughes & Davies sure to put up decent numbers, though they appear short of quality in the netminding department. Barons will be hopeful of making an immediate return to the top flight & look strong defensively – with ex-Peterborough Phantoms Coach Chris Allen & Adam Andrews a formidible pairing. Forward Richard Slater posted 83 points during Barons’ successful 2010/11 promotion season & will be keen to produce similar numbers. Lions have lost a lot of players in the last twelve months & their success this term will depend on how their numerous two-way signings from Nottingham Panthers work out.