The unedited version of my interview with Nick Poole, Head Coach of MK Lightning – for those Lightning fans who don’t read the Blaze #OnFire magazine
Milton Keynes Lightning play in the EPL, where they are allowed to ice only 4 imports and to have up to three on the ice at any one time. Amongst their number this year they have former Blaze players Tom Carlon and Leigh Jamieson. They have also called up Josh Nicklin and Adz Andrews from the NIHL Blaze to help them out when they were particularly short benched over the Christmas period.
This summer, Planet Ice in Milton Keynes closed for refurbishment, which left Milton Keynes Lightning temporarily homeless. They relocated to Coventry, where they have taken the Saturday evening face off slot. I spoke to Nick Poole, the long time head coach of the club and asked him when they expected to be moving home. ‘If it’s on schedule the developer hands over the keys to Planet Ice mid August. Allowing a certain amount of time to get the rink kitted out, we should be back in by the end of September. Fingers crossed for everybody!’
It’s not easy playing away from home, and being an hour further north saw some MKL players unable to commit to a season on the road. Nick explained, ‘we’ve had a pretty stable group for the past six or seven years and most of the guys were on board with the move. We had a few players who travel from further south and that extra impact on travelling meant that it was too much for them. We missed out on one of the key players that we were going to bring in from the south this season, but on the whole we got all the guys we wanted to and we were really pleased with that.
One of the new players to the team this season lives in Coventry and has iced for the Blaze in the past. ‘Tom Carlon was a player that we’ve spoken to for two summers now and I’ve always admired the way he plays. This year it was ideal for him to test the waters with us and it was more convenient for him. I think he’s having a really good time with MKL and touch wood he’s with us for a few more seasons to come. He’s a great player, as well as putting up the points, I like the way he plays,’ said Nick.
Playing away from home means that pre-game routines are a little different. The majority of the players meet in Milton Keynes and travel up together by minibus. ‘It’s a little bit different this season. There’s nothing better on a hard Saturday to get in the car and drive five minutes to the rink and play in front of a packed house. Mentally we need to be a bit more switched on because as great as the fans are who travel, as well as the local fans who come and watch us, we’re still playing in front of a relatively empty building and it’s really tough to get that atmosphere. We’ve changed our warm up routine a little bit but on the whole it’s going pretty well.’
Playing out of Coventry also means that training opportunities are limited as well. The team have had an hour and a half every Wednesday in Coventry, getting on the ice at 10pm. ‘That’s been tough’, said Nick. ‘We’re getting off the ice at 11.30pm! It’s late, all the guys work full time and after a long day at work you can see that we’re not exactly fresh on the ice. But the guys have been good and there’s been no complaining. We said at the beginning of the season that we’ve just got to get on with it and credit to the guys they have done that.’ There’s a new, temporary rink in Milton Keynes, housed in a disused warehouse, which has helped a little bit. ‘We’ve now got an extra hour at MKIce on a Thursday, which is helpful, but it’s so small and the dimensions are so different that there’s not a lot we can do as far as team training goes,’ Nick added.
It goes without saying the playing an hour away from home has had an impact on attendance, most weeks there are about 500 people in the Skydome, some from Milton Keynes – there’s a coach that is put on each week – and some who are more local. ‘We realise that we are lucky to get as many fans as we do, it’s lot of commitment from them. It would be great to have a bit more atmosphere and the place to be a bit louder. Often, if things aren’t going well on the ice, the fans would lift us. It’s tough sometimes when we’re a bit flat and the atmosphere is a bit flat to find a little momentum, on the whole we are really incredibly grateful for the support that we’ve had. We are also so lucky to have our Supporters Club. Over the years they have generated so much money for us, and with a smaller supporter base it’s harder for them as well. Once again, they have stepped up and helped us play wages, equipment, travel expenses. They have been fantastic.’
Does the Skydome feel like home yet? ‘No, we know it’s temporary, it was never going to be a home,’ explained Nick. ‘We know that we are guests here, that we have impacted on Coventry’s hockey community and hopefully when we leave here we’ll be a closer community. The rink staff and the people who have helped us out in Coventry have been fantastic and we’re really very grateful.’
The ideal end to the season for an MK Lightning fan would be to see the team at the EPL Playoff finals, and make the most of the home advantage. ‘That’s the plan!’ laughed Nick.