The big-hitting cricket batsman, self-confessed Belfast Giants nut, who has just completed his first season as General Manager of the Manchester Storm ice hockey team, Neil Russell has quite a story to tell.
It was high summer, 2015 when the 35-year-old provided the iconic image of the local cricket season, down on his knees in the NCU’s Challenge Cup final in his home town of Comber, blood gushing from a head wound.
Russell didn’t wear a helmet despite facing the pace of his friend Johnny Thompson and when he jetted out of Northern Ireland the following day to start his new job, he was sporting a war wound inflicted by a bouncer he had tried, with typical confidence and fearlessness, to hook out of the ground.
Russell might have started his new job looking like he was fresh out of 10 rounds with Carl Frampton, but his employers were confident they had the right man - after all Russell had been recommended by a man described as the ‘Alex Ferguson of ice hockey’.
“It was a complete bolt from the blue in the middle of June last year,” Russell explained. “Everyone in the wider cricket circle knows how big an ice hockey I am, it was my dream job was to take over as a General Manager of the Belfast Giants, and to work in professional sport.
“Paul Thompson, GM and head coach of Sheffield Steelers called me out of the blue to say he had put my name forward for the Manchester Storm GM job and asked would I been interested. The obvious answer was yes, without thinking through all the logistics. I was interested but I had a lot to ponder. I just couldn’t turn it down, it was getting the opportunity to work in professional sport. It doesn’t feel like work to me, but I have pumped more hours into this than any other job. It’s something I’m so passionate about.”
This position amounted to more than your average General Manager’s role. Manchester Storm, once British ice hockey’s biggest brand in the mid-1990s when they played in front packed houses at the MEN arena, fell on hard times and subsequently folded in 2003.
An attempt to resurrect a sleeping giant was launched last summer and when Russell arrived in the North West of England, his brief was the small matter of creating a fully professional ice hockey club in a matter of weeks, in time for the new Elite League season.
“It was a daunting task, we still had to find half a team, and many of the players were still in North America and we needed to get them to the UK,” Russell added. “It was literally started overnight and the level of work that had to go in to getting us ready for the start of the season was astronomical.”
The Storm set up base at the Silver Blades Arena in Altrincham in greater Manchester. By the time pre-season got under way the Storm were playing in front of around 1,000 fans, and by Christmas, they had their first sell-out.
“The crowds just continued to get better,as word started to get out that the Manchester Storm were back,” Russell said. “We weren’t just able to attract old Storm fans back, but we were also able to get a lot of new people coming to the games. Ice hockey is just a family-orientated sport and people loved what they saw. I know of people who came for the first time in January and who have already purchased season tickets for next season.”
Nothing in life is perfect though and Russell readily admits that he was secretly dreading one aspect of the job - coming face to face with his beloved Belfast Giants. A devoted supporter to the Belfast team since its formation at the turn of the century, Russell was suddenly in the opposite camp.
“I absolutely hated it, I’m not going to lie, I found it incredibly difficult, I followed the Belfast Giants from game one back in 2000, it’s in the blood,” he explained. “I followed them all over the UK and parts of Europe so it was strange wanting them to lose when we played them. We even picked up a road victory in Belfast during the season.
“I want Storm to win when we played the Giants but I’m always looking out for the Belfast scores. I even pop my head into my office occasionally during period breaks and see how they are getting on via the Giants webcast. I find us playing them pretty difficult. It’s strange.”
Results were initially hard to come for the Storm, no surprise given how hastily the team had been put together, but a late-season surge only just failed to deliver a play-off place.
“We had a slow start, which was totally understandable, given how quickly the team was put together. It took a while for the team and the club to form its identity. I said to the fans that I genuinely believed we would be a second half of the season team and we went on a major push. We came close to qualifying for the end of season play-offs. It was a monumental effort on and off the ice. We had laid very solid foundations for the years to come.”
Life away from his County Down home and young daughter Evie hasn’t always been easy.
He added: “I’m a Belfast boy, I do miss home and I haven’t got back as home as often I would have liked given the sheer workload. Anyone that knows me, knows that my daughter Evie is my absolute world, but we have made it work and she’s been across to a few games here and fallen in love with the Trafford Centre!
“I see this as a unbelievable opportunity to head up a professional team in Manchester. It’s been an invaluable life and career experience and something to put on my CV.”
Ice hockey is now in the close season but there is no time to relax.
“It’s going to be just as busy as the regular season. I want to put down foundations for this club for the years to come.”