Tigers are fired up and all set to roar back into action

Telford Tigers finally make their long-awaited return to competitive ice hockey in front of a live crowd this weekend.

Tigers celebrate (Steve Brodie)
Tigers celebrate (Steve Brodie)

Domestic ice hockey below the elite leagues is taking its first steps into re-introducing action in front of supporters and Shropshire's premier team get underway in the Autumn Cup in a double-header today and tomorrow.

Tom Watkins' side, NIHL league and cup double winners in the 2019/20 season just before the breakout of coronavirus in the United Kingdom, head to Swindon Wildcats this evening (6.15pm) before icing off against Basingstoke Bison at their Telford Ice Rink home tomorrow (6pm).

Tigers did ice in a newly-introduced Spring Cup at the beginning of this year, to introduce fixtures back to the English game. But the competition, in which Telford finished second, was played in front of empty seats with fans locked out.

Now, with fans having already returned during friendly matches last weekend, head coach and general manager Watkins is expecting bumper numbers this time around.

Telford will mark the occasion ahead of their home clash with Basingstoke tomorrow by carrying out a delayed medal ceremony for those members of their double-winning squad still on the books. Watkins admits his side go into the new campaign determined to 'emulate' what they achieved last time out, but confesses it is strange to think about being defending champions.

"It's quite difficult to say we believe we're defending it, it just feels so long ago," said long-serving chief Watkins.

"We want to go out and emulate what we've won in the past. It's going to be a battle, the league's tightened up, a lot of teams have strengthened.

"We never had the opportunity to present medals to players, so prior to Sunday's game we'll have a short ceremony to present medals with players still here, with their championship and cup medal.

"It's to give something back to the players and fans as well, we lost a huge opportunity to be able to play as champions and market and sell the club as champions. We'll try to take every opportunity we can, it doesn't come along very often."

Watkins, whose side won 4-3 at Sheffield Steeldogs and lost 3-2 at home to Leeds Knights in pre-season action last weekend, added: "It was great last weekend, we had a couple of good crowds and I anticipate a bigger, louder crowd this weekend.

"It's exciting, it creates an atmosphere and I don't think there's any better entertainment than live sport."

The Autumn Cup runs until October 10 and features nine clubs competing in a league system format. Telford will play every team once over four weekends of action ahead of the start of the NIHL National League on October 17.

Prior to a short pre-season schedule of around a fortnight, Watkins has been busy enhancing his Tigers roster ahead of the new season.

The head coach was pleased to have got his business done early, although the club still have space in the ranks for a foreign import, a task made trickier now due to new Brexit laws.

"It would've been nice to have had a little longer to prepare but we're all in a similar position as clubs, it's going to be exciting to play some real hockey," Watkins added.

"We've got a promising young forward called Jack Hopkins, he's coming out of junior hockey so has a lot of progression to make but we think he'll make good progression.

"We had (forward) Austin Mitchell-King during the Spring Cup and he made a positive impact with us, he'll be another in our top six and hopefully a regular on the scoresheet.

"I was really pleased with how Deakan Fielder (forward) played over the weekend, played simple hockey but to his strengths. Ross Connelly was a solid, steady defenceman. I was really pleased with the group.

"It's on us now to find some line combinations with the side."

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