Mark Turnbull on the ice prior to the encounter against Hull Pirates

In 1987 a man named Mike Babcock stepped into the doors of Hillheads Ice Rink in Whitley Bay and started a journey that would make him one of the greatest NHL coaches of all time.

Babcock has won Olympic Gold medals and Stanley Cups during his illustrious career, but it all began for him in 1987 in the little seaside town of Whitley Bay. The current Toronto Maple Leaf coach credits some of his current success to the Warriors because they gave him his first chance.

Mike Babcock back in his Whitley Warrior days.

He told to the NHL website: “I had a guy named Terry Matthews. He ran the bench during the games. I just helped with practices.

“I never said anything. I never changed the lines or did any of that during the game. In between periods I did, but not during the games. What happened was because you’ve got the word coach on your resume, that means you’ve had some experience.”

Much like Babcock before him, Whitley Bay have a goaltender in Mark Turnbull who has aspirations to be involved at a higher level. Turnbull was recruited last season to play in Canada and he looked at it as an opportunity to improve his game.

“I learnt a lot about hockey. The hockey was a lot different. There was a lot of Europeans there, Swedish and Finnish. There style is a lot different, it was not what I was used too,” said Turnbull.

“We were on the ice every day. We played midweek games, often Thursday nights and Saturdays nights too. It was set out like an NHL team.”

Turnbull also had to struggle through some turmoil when the team he initially signed for – Wiarton Rock – folded.

“It is a tricky one to explain. They were owners from a previous team the year before. Basically they had debt. It was all financial which obviously went over my head.”

But despite the struggles of his first team in Canada, Turnbull enjoyed far more success when he signed for the Toronto Attack. The side made the play-offs and though they fell short of winning them, Turnbull left Canada with some success.

Now though he is back at the place it all started and he could not be happier. When asked the question about coming back to Whitley Bay and what the place meant to him, his face lit up like the goal light behind the net at Hillheads.

“I was always going to come back. I have a lot of memories here and it is somewhere I enjoy playing.

“Even just walking through the doors. It always makes me think back to being a 10 year old. I just love playing here. It is not the best place in the world, but it is special to me. I have played here for all of my life.”

The history of the Warriors is clearly something that Turnbull thinks about.

When he was asked about how he feels that the best coach in the world cut his teeth at this famous old rink, he replied: “I think we got a mention once during the Olympics when Mike Babcock was coaching Team Canada.

“It is great. You look at a lot of teams we play now and they are all new. Look at the fans we get. I just love playing here, it is steeped in history.”

Me and Mark went into the Whitley dressing room and sat down for a chat with a few of the other Whitley players. First thing that struck me was how bad the dressing room smelled, but also the togetherness of the group.

I spoke to Martin Crammond, the Whitley assistant captain and Mark about fighting – a contentious debate in hockey as to whether it should still be tolerated. I asked Mark if he had ever had a fight.

“I have never had one no. I just let other people do the fighting for us. I don’t think I would ever have a fight. You never know though.”

Crammond responded with a laugh: “Tonight could be the night though.”

Whitley Warriors vs Hull Ice Hockey

Back when Babcock was in charge in the late 80s the North East was a hockey hotbed with Whitley Bay and Durham Wasps regularly competing for honours and filling out their respective buildings.

I asked Turnbull where he saw the future of hockey in the area and if an Elite League team could return as we have been without one since the Newcastle Vipers folded in 2011.

“Getting an Elite League team would definitely make a difference. There is obviously the support. You see how many fans we get and Billingham get. If we had a team in the Elite League that was professional I think it would be fantastic.”

What next though for the talented netminder? Obviously his spot in this team needs to be battled for, but could a professional move into the Elite League be in the question?

“I would say yeah. I would say that is probably my goals. Even if it was just one game. I would be happy with that. I would love to get a few pro games under my belt.”

Before I left Mark to get on to play against the Hull Pirates, I asked him a final question about how difficult being a goaltender is. Often they are dubbed as being the craziest people on the planet – a statement that is hard to argue against since the try to block flying blocks of rubber with their body every night. Mark though had a more reserved response.

“Everyone will be different, you could speak to loads of different goalies and they would say things every time. But for me the pressure is more off the ice. If I prepare well and go into games ready then the pressure just disappears. It is not really a big issue for me.”