Dave Simms’ Steelers column: Loved by kids, feared by opponents; the wacky world of Zack Fitzgerald

Zack Fitzgerald, right
Zack Fitzgerald, right
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It takes some players years to obtain hero status at the Sheffield Arena, some get it a little quicker. For some it’s a work in progress and for some, it doesn’t matter how hard they try. It just isn’t happening.

Some players get it for different reasons. Ron Shudra was the first; good looks, soft Canadian accent, a bullet of a shot and a man who just wrote his own scripts when it came to the dramatic moments.

The man who will shortly take over from Shudra as the club’s most capped player, Jason Hewitt, has had to work at it for a little bit longer. In fact in the early days, it would be safe to say he wasn’t really noticed by the Steelers faithful.

Then, that same faithful saw a young British player who wasn’t the most talented, but had just the biggest heart and cared for their club. Hewitt’s popularity grew and grew over his time with us. Now in his testimonial year, he is the most recognised face on the team.

The kids love the Bulldog. In fact, we all love the Bulldog.

The agitators, those guys who get under your skin, are always heroes as well. The Plommers, the Finnertys, the Mike Perons.

I guess the tough guys are always popular, by the very nature they have the big personalities and are larger than life characters in many ways.

Perry Doyle was our first; Mike Ware, Dennis Vial... the list goes on and one.

In an instant, the Steelers’ present day policeman Zack Fitzgerald has already reached hero status to many inside the Arena, especially the kids.

Fitzy is out there, different, exciting, a little scary. Funny, isn’t it, that here we have a killing machine - yet put a group of kids in front of him and he becomes the biggest softie you have ever seen. In a millisecond the likes of Fitzgerald and Mike Duco have an instant connection with a star-struck eight-year-old.

I hosted an awards night last week for the Steelers Junior Ball Hockey Club, and I asked the kids who their favourite was.

“Fitzy”, they shouted - and then started ‘honking’.

Imaging some kind of pig interpretation; that’s the sound I’m looking for. Fitzgerald walks into a room and his way of announcing his arrival is with that very noise.

It’s crazy, it’s perhaps childish but it’s brilliant - cue instant smiles in the whole room and total buy in from every kid who then goes home and annoys the life out of his parents with non-stop ‘honking’.

I guarantee that the next big thing that will develop at Steelers games will be that noise every time Fitzy gets involved with a skirmish, every time he fights, hits, scores.

It will get louder and louder until Boxing Day, when 9,000 inside the Arena will “honk” the roof off.

Now for those who haven’t seen Fitzgerald, maybe not even been to a Steelers game, don’t think that we have some daft bloke here. Far from it, we have a dedicated professional.

A great hockey player, a beast of a man and, best of all, someone who cares for his teammates to the point that he puts his body on the line for them all each and every night. The Fitzgerald job is the toughest job in professional sport. One as a policeman. A man there to save and protect. Look after the skilled guys.

Imagine the school playground - there is always one lad who is probably the toughest in the school. He doesn’t brag about it. He doesn’t go around bullying other kids but everyone in the school, the other kids, the teachers, the caretaker, they all know he is the one.

Then there is the bully, the kid that goes around picking on the smaller guys, being a pain, a brat.

Then one day, the bully is picking on the quiet kid behind the bike sheds and bang - our hero, that lad who doesn’t large it up, comes in and sorts the bully out, once and for all.

Zack Fitzgerald is that guy. You come after our smaller, skilled guys and Fitzy will sort you out good and proper – and we love him for it.

Jason Faryna, for example last Saturday, messed with holiness Mathieu Roy. Now, you don’t go near the great Roy without an invitation, something Faryna didn’t have - and I think over 10,000 have watched the resulting fight on YouTube already.

Fitzy stepped and the fans loved it. Instant hero status for the big man.

So this weekend, when the Steelers take on the Belfast Giants on both Saturday and Sunday, keep yours out for big Fitzy.

And don’t forget to honk.