Talks to Peter Collins - January 2000
'HOMEY', 'The Poacher', 'Hilts' or even 'Krell the Tormentor' (remember Ice Warriors?), they're just some of the names one of tonight's visitors from Newcastle is known by. He's the man who will go down in Storm history as the one who scored the Storm's first ever goal in what was then the Nynex Arena and is now the M.E.N - Hilton Ruggles. The first signing the club's inaugural manager John Lawless ever made, Montreal-born Hilton went on to set a few milestones in his three seasons with the club before moving on to the place he's always called home here in the England, Newcastle. As well as netting 'that' goal in the 6-6 draw with Telford Tigers in front 10,034 spectators (just 16 short of the then British record), he also scored the club's first ever hat-trick, which just happened to be in it's first ever game, an 11-3 loss to the Steelers in the 1995 Milton Keynes pre-season tournament. From there he went on to bag the best ever figures of any Storm player in a single game, 6+6 for 12 in the 26-3 win over Solihull Barons. But that was hardly surprising as he'd joined the Storm from the Cardiff Devils having emerged the Premier League's top goal scorer (93) in the 1994-95 season. He rounded off that first season in Manchester by not only top-scoring in the league (112+79 for 191) but also the B&H Cup (14+7 for 21) and play-offs (17+4 for 21), all told he netted 148 goals, the best return of any professional player in Britain that year.
Looking back now on his time as a Storm player, he said: "It was a real wrench leaving Manchester but these things happen in hockey, a new coach comes in and has new ideas . But the suppport there is second to none and I'm proud of the part I played in putting the city on the hockey map. It was a new game in a new arena yet we had sell out crowds and those fans were just awesome, they treated me like no other supporters have." But typical of the player his new goal is quite simple: "This is my second season away from Manchester and one thing I'd really like to do is win a game here in a Newcastle shirt."
The 37-year-old arrived on these shores in 1988, having started out back home in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Laval Voisins, the Trois Rivieres Draveurs and the Longueuil Chevaliers. After stints in Italy, France, Germany and Austria he came to Britain and after Murrayfield and Solihull settled down in the North East with the Whitley Warriors. He moved to the Cardiff Devils for the 1992-93 season and stayed for three campaigns, winning the Benson & Hedges Cup in 1992 and the league and play-off double twice, 92-93 and 93-94. Last season with the Newcastle Riverkings he emerged the club's second highest points scorer with 22+25 for 47 points from 58 games.
Still arguably Europe's biggest and best ice hockey arena, the Storm Shelter was far from that when Hilton first saw it: "When I found out John Lawless was going to Manchester I phoned him up and told him that if he was looking for players I'd be interested. Anyway, David Davies invited myself and James Manson up and I remember the roof hadn't been on long, there was no power and there were still cranes and huge blocks of concrete where the ice is now. We had to walk around wearing hard hats using torches while Johnny would come out with things like '... and here's where the locker room is going to be," pointing to a building site, but I was sold on the deal."
Despite all his scoring feats for the Storm, the one game that stands out in his mind was a game in which the team had to come back from the dead, the 7-7 draw with the Paisley Pirates in which the team were 7-3 down with 15 minutes to go, after having won all six opening games. As you'd expect Hilton got one of the four goals that preserved the team's unbeaten start in the British first division, but he saved his praise for another 'player'. "It's one of the top five games I've played in in Britain. The crowd at first were stunned because they'd got used to us winning because up until then in the league we'd been invincible, but instead of going quiet and giving up they really got behind us. The atmosphere was electric and the crowd played as much a part in turning things around as the rest of us did, it was a game I'll never forget."
One of life's jokers, Hilton soon realised he'd been enticed to Manchester not only for his uncanny ability to put the puck in the back of the net: "I was used a lot in promoting hockey and the club. We did visits to schools and shopping malls and we basically educated the people as to what hockey was all about, but it wasn't a chore, I found it really satisfying. The aim initially was to fill the bottom tier of the arena by the end of the season but we were doing it before Christmas. One thing that stands out was a huge billboard poster of me half way up a ladder in full kit pasting up an ad for the M.E.N. and the Storm. I thought the guys were joking when they said they wanted me to do it but now I'm kind of glad they did. "We had a lot of good players that first season and we had a lot of luck, especially with injuries. We were expected to win promotion if not the league title and I must admit sometimes I found it hard to motivate myself and Johnny benched me. But it was an unforgetable time in my life and I have memories that will last me a lifetime.
"The following season was not so much fun. SuperLeague caught us by surprise and we struggled right from the start, we were also unlucky with injuries, but the EHL made up for it a little bit, it was really exciting playing some of the top teams in Europe and visiting places like Prague, Moscow and Berlin. Although we didn't win any games we took a lot out of them." At the start of his third term with the Storm John Lawless was replaced by Kurt Kleinendorst and the writing at the end of that season was on the wall. "Newcaste had always been my base - it's where my wife's from - and no matter where I played, Cardiff or Mancheser, I'd go back home whenever I could (hence the name 'Homey'). So when I knew Kurt was releasing me I made it known to Newcastle that I was interested in joining them and fortunately for me it happened. It was the first time in seven years I'd be playing at home and it's saved me a fortune in petrol!
"Last season was hard being run by SuperLeague because we had no money to strengthen, this year with Jokerit taking over it's been much better. I think a lot of the Finnish guys underestimated the standard of hockey played over here now when they first came over, along with the officiating and playing Saturday and Sunday. But they and the organisation are adapting all the time and next year we'll be a lot stronger. Look at London, last season they were the whipping boys, now they're chasing the title. We've got 5-6 players with good ISL experience and we can help Newcastle in this transition period and hopefully for a while longer.
So who is he backing for the SuperLeague crown - Storm? "Realistically we can't win it now, although the play-offs are a whole new season and we're guaranteed a place there. I'd like to see Manchester do it again, but it's going to be pretty difficult. They have to get on a really good run and other teams have to beat each other up. Manchester also can't really afford to drop many more points but it's still possible, although I''ll be doing my best tonight to make sure we - Newcastle - win!"
Peter Collins 2000