There are many ice hockey fans in the West of Scotland probably just about now coming to terms with their club’s tame exit from the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) playoffs during the weekend just gone. Or maybe it’s just me. For the third season in a row, Braehead Clan have fallen to Gardiner Conference opponents at the playoff quarter final stage. This year it fell to the Dundee Stars to end the Clan’s hopes of securing a second visit to the EIHL’s showpiece event – the playoff finals weekend (POFW) held annually at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham. Dundee produced a composed, controlled and brutally effective performance over the home and away quarter final tie and fully deserve their weekend in the Lace City. When it counted, they were that much better.
The Clan’s exit from the playoffs prompted an immediate response from the club, with an announcement the following day that head coach Ryan Finnerty would not be returning for the 2017-18 season. This came as a surprise and also as no surprise. A surprise given the speed of the announcement and what Finner has contributed to the club in his four year tenure. And no surprise given the club’s step backward in the league this season and failure to clear either of the quarter final hurdles (Challenge Cup & Playoffs) for the third consecutive season. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the right or wrong call; the club has made the decision and the Finnerty Era is over.
The Finnerty Era. Let’s have a wee look at that.
When Finnerty was announced in April 2013, he inherited a club in disarray. A three year old organisation, Clan had scraped eighth place in the league, and fell over the line to win their first Gardiner Conference title. The 2012-13 season remains Clan’s worst with on and off ice problems and was a definite step backwards from the first two seasons of the club’s existence. Change was needed. The potential for growth remained huge, with Braehead Arena only two thirds full and the huge catchment area of the Glasgow conurbation to draw from. Clan hockey was establishing a presence in the West of Scotland but the third season was a potentially serious brake on the club’s aims and ambitions. The on and off ice product needed to step up and meet the challenge. What the club needed was grit and professionalism, and that’s what it got. There was a real air of anticipation as Finnerty’s first team took to the ice in the autumn of 2013. For the first time the fans got a real taste of what it felt like to be in the hunt for a league title. The Clan kept pace with the eventual league champions Belfast until the festive break, when defeats home and away to the Giants started a slide which ended with Clan finishing fifth.
But the seeds of success had been sown and the coach improved upon his first roster with key arrivals in 2014 in the shape of Matt Keith, Stefan Meyer, Leigh Salters and Scott Pitt. They spearheaded a lethal offence while the returning netminder Kyle Jones found a strengthened defence core in front of him. Early season results saw the Clan top the standings and the club were involved in a season long duel with the Sheffield Steelers for league supremacy. Braehead Arena became a fortress and routinely sold over 3,000 seats as new and old fans turned out in their droves to enjoy watching the Clan battle hard with cross conference teams while putting their own conference rivals to the sword. The Clan had the league title’s fate in their own hands until the second last weekend of the season, when a nervy, narrow defeat on the big ice at Murrayfield handed the initiative over to Sheffield going into the final weekend. Steelers won out, and the Clan were runners up by one point. Ecstasy and agony, but finally the Clan’s arrival as league contenders. And the victory at the home of our fiercest rival Fife Flyers in the final regular season game saw the Clan qualify for the Champions Hockey League – providing one of my favourite Finner moments captured perfectly at the final buzzer by Clan cameraman Alistair Girvan.
The CHL adventure in Finnerty’s third season saw Clan fans heading to Sweden and Germany, with return fixtures at the Braehead Arena. The Swedish team Växjö were a class apart, but German opponents Ingolstadt were a worthy scalp, falling to a spirited Clan performance which threatened to blow the roof off the purple barn. Expectations were again high for the EIHL league campaign, and the team delivered until hit by an injury crisis after a defeat in Nottingham. The eventual third place Clan secured felt like a disappointment – that’s how high Finnerty had raised the bar.
Finnerty’s fourth and ultimately final season as Clan head coach can only be described as frustrating. The league campaign never got off the ground, with the team unable to get any sort of winning streak going. The coach’s frustrations were obvious in every post match interview. The Clan were to finish fifth, just as they had in Finnerty’s first season. But it had been on the cards early in the season; by December as Cardiff raced clear it was clear that Clan’s best hopes of their first major trophy would be the Challenge Cup or Playoffs. Those hopes were finally extinguished last weekend as the final buzzer sounded at a sold out but muted Braehead Arena, and 24 hours later the head coach was gone.
What is his legacy? Some will point to the lack of major trophies, will argue that the club’s record at the two legged format during his tenure (1-7) meant change was needed. I prefer to focus on the positives, particularly the league campaigns and CHL qualification that really put the club on the map. Ryan Finnerty took the Clan from mediocrity and turned it into a club worth reckoning with. The explosion of interest in hockey in Glasgow and the West, in an area where football dominates sporting headlines, is down to the teams he assembled and the performances they jointly delivered. The atmosphere in a packed out Braehead Arena is one of the most intense I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan, and from late 2013 onwards we Clan fans have had plenty to shout about.
The high expectation level of both the club and fanbase, and the phenomenal growth of that fanbase, is a direct result of the success Ryan brought to the organisation. There’s no doubt that he has played a proud and significant part in the Clan’s short history; he bled purple and made sure people knew it. His departure leaves a huge hole at the heart of the club and right now it feels like a part of our identity has been lost. That’s maybe no surprise given he was head coach for four of the Clan’s seven seasons in the EIHL.
Of course, it is the badge on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back of it that matters. The challenge for Ryan Finnerty’s replacement will be to set their own standards and shape the club’s on ice delivery to meet the high expectations of the fanbase. A new identity will take time to bed in behind the bench but let’s hope for a new dawn that hits the ground running, just as it did in 2013. Taking the club forward from the rude health in which Ryan Finnerty leaves it is going to be tough, but that’s the challenge awaiting the new appointee.
In the meantime, thanks for the memories, coach.