It could be described as some kind of real life fairy tale, perhaps an example of the old adage that good things happen to good people, maybe a case of you simply get out of, what you put into life. It could be conceivable it’s all three of these things, but Neil Russell is currently living the dream in Manchester.
As I walk into his office, pre game on Saturday, the Manchester Storm General Manager is having a sneaky look at his beloved Belfast Giants via their website. He grins and tells me in that unmistakable Northern Irish twang “I like to keep an eye on what they are up to” as if to justify looking at what the opposition (as they surely are now) are doing.
The Storm office is typical of one found in an ice rink, small, cold and windowless but open the door, and you can comfortably see the ice “That’s the way I like it” he tells me “It means I am always in the thick of it”
It was the 7th July when 36-year-old, Belfast born, Russell was announced the GM of the newly reformed Manchester Storm. Russell had been naturally looking for the next opportunity in Hockey, after 3 years being the lead man on Giants TV, the excellent Belfast Giants Webcast, and also during the same time period co presenting and commentating on Premier Sports Elite League coverage.
A complete natural behind a microphone, he quickly became known for calling the Giants webcast games in his own raucous, rowdy style, but then the complete opposite in front of a Premier Sports TV camera. A calmer, more observant type, and coupled with the fact he is tall, dark and ridiculously handsome, he was the perfect side kick to Aaron Murphy when the TV executives began their search for a pundit.
As well as the Giants work, and the TV gig, Russell is also a loving father and held down a responsible “normal” job before landing this new position. A workaholic? Maybe. A grafter, a mover and shaker, a great big ball of Irish fire? Almost certainly.
It was surely this hard work ethic, that led the Storm owners to the door of Neil Russell. Recommended by Sheffield Steelers boss and long time GB Head Coach Paul Thompson, as well as being endorsed by close friend Todd Kelman, Russell was tracked down, interviewed and appointed in a matter of days. It was a whirlwind. It all had to move quick, and move quick it did.
Family aside perhaps the hardest wrench was having to leave Instonians Cricket Club towards the end of their season. The season previously Russell captained them to the League title, no mean feat in a very competitive (the highest standard of cricket in Northern Ireland) standard of club cricket. However it should come as no surprise that a) he was succesful or b) he was the captain. Russell is simply a winner, a leader of men and someone who can be counted on when the chips are down.
This job can’t be done half-baked, Russell goes on to explain. The hours are put in, they have to be, it’s a 24 / 7 job especially in these early days. We discuss at length the current situation and task still in hand, where the Storm are currently as a club, and where as an organisation he wants them to be in the future.
The game starts and we are stood together down by the dressing rooms, with every attack he is willing his boys on. As time ticks on, he naturally gets more and more animated. The big man is back to his raucous and rowdy style. Calling off-sides and disagreeing with icing calls. The period ends, and we take a breath. I compliment him on the job he has done thus far. We discuss the side Omar Pacha has pieced together in record time. A quick, physical side, competitive on every part of the Altrincham ice.
We look around the rink and consider the attendance. There are plenty of empty seats, but still the crowd is up around the 1200 number, and these aren’t crowds boosted by hundreds of free tickets to school kids who do everything but watch the game in front of them. These are noisy, loyal, passionate Storm fans, some old and some new to the game, but they are here to win, and here with their new Storm gear proudly on display and foam fingers waving a plenty.
I clumsily make the point that “The hard work is done now then” He looks at me like I am a mad man and curses. “Like **** it is”. I get the feeling Russell wont rest until every seat is full and there is a banner being raised in the Altrincham Ice Arena. Two long-term goals maybe, but unimaginable? No chance.
“There is still so much to do here, we are not a fraction of where I want us to be” The big man is far from content, he puts his index finger and thumb close together to emphasise the points he is making. He doesn’t need to, the tone in his voice expresses everything he is trying to say.
I put to him that the strides taken so far have been immense, something close to a miracle. A miracle on ice maybe? (I can hear the reader groan, apologies) Despite his reluctance to admit it to me, I can see from the glint in his eye, that he is very proud of what has been achieved up until now.
“None of these Imports we have recruited, have played in the UK before, apart of course from Pach” The GM is back talking about from what I can ascertain is his favorite part of the job, the on ice product. It’s a fact that I hadn’t considered. Pacha could surely have gone to previous team mates and contacts and called on them. Jereme Tendler was available for a while for example. But as a club, that may have been too easy, the Storm already like to push themselves, they are not here to be rolled over, not here to make the numbers up, and come what may in April, Russell is convinced they will play a part in where the League title is presented.
Who can doubt him? Not me that’s for sure.