By Kris Smith
It has been almost four years since the Dundee Stars team of 2013-14 lifted the Gardiner Conference trophy in front of the packed-out crowd at the Dundee Ice Arena.
Led by Jeff Hutchins with Nikita Kashirsky as his assistant-coach, they successfully guided their squad to the top of the conference standings and produced some big results that no one could have predicted.
The Gardiner Conference title race had come down to the last few weeks of the regular season as Dundee faced-off against their Scottish rivals, Braehead Clan on Sunday March 9, 2014. Goals form James Isaacs, Billy Bagron and Nikita Kashirsky were enough to secure the silverware for Dundee.
Only eight members of that year’s roster returned as many moved onto continue their successful careers all over the world.
Starting from the back, Dan Bakala, played a key part in every game and collected five awards from that single season, including EIHL netminder of the year. He had a very successful spell in Sweden where he won the Champions Hockey League last year but is now playing with Düsseldofer EG of the DEL, in Germany.
The backup netminder Craig Chalmers also moved on after that year and is now playing as the starting goalie for the Aberdeen Lynx in Scottish National League.
Sam McCluskey and Andreas Persson played a few more years before retiring from the blueline but assistant captain, Tysen Dowzak retired after lifting the trophy that season.
Some of the players have moved onto other Elite League teams and now compete against the Stars. Paul Swindlehurst signed a one-year extension with Dundee but moved onto the Nottingham Panthers before joining his current team, the Manchester Storm.
James Isaacs also returned to the DIA for another season, but he also swapped Scotland for England as he spent a half season with the Coventry Blaze before signing with the Fife Flyers where he is now trying to help them win their first Gardiner Conference title.
Dylan Quaile is still playing in Europe after signing with EV Lindau in the German third division, which is also where Rory Rawlyk is playing this season except he is icing for ECDC Memmingen.
Although he spent little time with Dundee, Jordan Southorn has gone on to make a name for himself in the Russian League’s and now plays with Barys Astana of the KHL.
Dundee’s forwards were firing all season long and goals were produced from all over the ice and that was a key component of what made this team such a success.
Arguably their best forward Jerry Pollastrone was lost mid-way through the season to the lure of Swedish side, Mora IK. Mora arranged an agreement for the Stars to release the American from his contract, to allow him to join them for the rest of their campaign. He has since moved onto the EBEL in Austria, where he plays for the Vienna Capitals and won the league title with them last year.
Lubomir Vaskovic arrived in February but still made his mark on season, he is now back in his native Slovakia playing for HK Skalica in the Slovakian second division.
Latvian Marcis Zembergs, who departed just after the season had begun, signed with his former club, Edinburgh Capitals, before also returning to his native country, he now ices for HK Kurbads.
The now retired, Nico Sacchetti was the top point scorer that season and finished in the top five of league’s points table with a total of 29 goals and 34 assists for 63 points.
Jeff Hutchins retired from playing after one more year as Dundee’s player-coach before continuing with his management career which has now landed him across the Tay as Todd Dutiame’s assistant in Kirkcaldy. He has also taken up the role of head coach to the Great Britain under 18 squad.
His number two, Nikita Kashirsky has also retired now and so has Billy Bagron, Mike Wirll, Jack MacLellan and that year’s captain, Brock McPherson.
Stars legend John Dolan, continues to play competitive hockey but in the SNL with the Dundee Comets, the same league that his former conference-winning teammates, Robbie Hill (Kirkcaldy Kestrels) and Lewis McIntosh (Aberdeen Lynx) are now playing in.
British-born forward Vince Connon is now playing with the Canadian side, Eckville Eagles of the North Central Hockey League.
Bari McKenzie is the only forward from the team that is still playing in the Elite League, he played the following season with Dundee, but his contract was not renewed. However, the conference runners-up were quick to offer the Scot a deal, he is now in his third season with Braehead.
Former head coach, Jeff Hutchins, who is now behind the bench at Fife Flyers as an assistant coach, gave his thoughts on that season and shared some of his favourite moments, he said: “I realised that we had a special team in the first ten games of the season, we had won our first six or seven games and were sitting at the top of the Elite League standings.
“We had the best goalie in the league and the guys I took chances on (Jerry Pollastrone, Nico Sacchetti and Rory Rawlyk) were all on the score sheet every night.”
“I think they were a tight knit group that had a lot to prove in their game and they were ambitious, they wanted to move on to higher leagues, so they bought into the team concept knowing that success as a team would translate into personal success and as a result a lot of those guys moved on to higher leagues and are flourishing.”
Jeff added: “I honestly think if we hadn’t had all those injuries we could have won the league or came very close.
“All in all, it was great memories, the ownership, rink staff and the fans played a big part in the success we had, without their support it would have been tough to get it done.
“Finally, I take pride knowing that I brought those guys together and we delivered the organisations only trophy in the Elite League to date.”
Brock McPherson captained the side for the 2013-14 season, talking about the year, he said: “It was an amazing experience to be part of that conference winning team and it was one of the years that as a player I will never forget.
“Early in the season we had games at home against Sheffield and Nottingham and won both, I think it was at that point that we began to realise that we had a chance to do something special.
“My favourite moment was winning the conference, especially since at the start of the season nobody would have had us in the conversation to win the Gardner Conference.
“The relationships I was able to make and build upon that season with teammates, like Wirlly, Bags (Bagron), Kash (Kashirsky) and staff such as Andy Bell and Kevin Ward made it even more special.”
Mike Wirll amassed 96 points in his two years with Dundee and says he “saw the potential” right from the start.
“I saw the potential right from camp, with the competitive nature of everyone and with the talent we had, you were bound to see success.
“I really enjoyed the entire year, but it can’t really contest with the day we hoisted the trophy and we had a lot of beauties on that team, which doesn’t happen too often.
“It’s very special to win anything hockey and even more rewarding when it is a team’s first in the league, but the best part was proving people wrong that Dundee is a hockey town and is an extremely competitive team.”