FACE OFF 17:30
Widnes Wild were established to enter Division 2 North (now Laidler Conference) of the National Ice Hockey League during the summer months of 2013. Mick Caunce, a leading manager in Northern ice and roller hockey circles, was a leading force in the establishment of the new Widnes club. He had followed, with close interest, the development of the new ice facility on the Widnes waterfront. Mick had managed junior ice hockey teams within the Blackburn club and also at Queens Road, Sheffield, and had also been involved in the top levels of roller hockey, including co-organising teams destined to become National and European Champions.
Before the opening of the Silver Blades Widnes rink, Mick Caunce had two seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13) as manager of the Fylde Flyers Ice Hockey Club, based in a new, small ice facility at Cleveleys, three miles North of Blackpool. The Flyers produced an exciting brand of hockey on the small ice pad with crowds at times reaching three hundred. They produced a few shock results against established teams, leading to criticism of the small Cleveleys ice surface, barriers and netting surrounds. The club helped to re-awaken interest in the sport in the Blackpool area, where the Seagulls had been a force for over fifty years. A few former Seagulls along with a sizeable number of Fylde-based, former Blackburn players, formed the core of the playing squad. A star attraction was the huge Latvian junior international, Elvis Veldze, who was well capable of playing at a much higher level. Mark Gillingham, a ‘veteran’ of over 400 games for the Blackburn club, eventually took on the role of player-coach with advice and support coming from a number of former Seagulls, including Garry Fearon and Peter Bleackley.
With the opening of Silver Blades Widnes and having wound up the operations of the Flyers due to difficulties in attracting players, amongst other reasons, Mick Caunce opened negotiations to base a team in Widnes. Matt Lloyd took on the role of Chairman. The town had long had a reputation for its rugby league team, which once held the title of World Club Champions. Many rugby fans immediately took an interest in ice hockey, a sport with some physical similarities to rugby league. Many of the former Fylde Flyers players transferred to Widnes and were joined by signings from other North West clubs. Mark Gillingham, the youngest Level 3 coach in the country, ended his playing career to concentrate on the role of Head Coach. Many of the match officials, scorers, timekeepers, goal judges, equipment managers, merchandise sales staff, match announcer and match reporter also arrived from Fylde. The team name of Widnes Wild was chosen with a distinctive ‘big cat’ logo and a white, black and gold playing uniform.
During the first season the playing squad gelled well with overseas recruit Filip Supa a regular scorer, well supported by Bobby Caunce, Shaun Dippnall and others. Despite some inconsistent results, public support for the team grew, with crowds often topping 400. Crowd interest was encouraged by huge double page photo spreads in the local press. As at Fylde, merchandise sales grew and support at away fixtures was the strongest in the league. After a credible fifth place finish, Widnes Wild suddenly found themselves elevated into the end-of-season play off weekend at Solihull. Although finishing fourth, the team performed well against their lofty opponents, coming close to causing one of the upsets of the season.
The 2014-15 season opened with great expectation. Filip Supa re-signed and defenceman Pavel Vales filled the other overseas berth. A season highlight was the four league victories over neighbours and close rivals, Deeside. Once again the formidable Solihull Barons proved to be the major obstacle with Telford Tigers NIHL taking the runners up slot in the league. Wild achieved a victory over the Tigers and ran them close. With three teams getting automatic promotion and the Sheffield Senators finishing in third, fourth placed Wild found themselves in the promotion/relegation play-off double header against Whitley Warriors. Once one of the biggest clubs in the country, Whitley proved far too strong, despite the Wild being cheered on by a big travelling support in the North East.
The summer of 2015 saw major changes, with Mick Caunce and some of the players and officials from the previous two seasons leaving the club, and Mark Gillingham stepping down as the Wild’s Head Coach due to work commitments. Former Telford Premier League star Scott McKenzie was appointed as player-coach in a full time professional role. He developed strong links in the Widnes area, encouraging players to support charity events, visit schools and engage with the community. Jon Anderson took over as General Manager, with Richard Charles and Callum Fraine taking on bench coaching duties, and Gillingham staying involved in a more informal capacity.
One big loss was Filip Supa, who signed for Deeside in the close season. His signing, alongside that of fellow overseas star Adrian Palak, probably made the difference, and the Dragons took the league title with the Wild runners up. Supa was replaced by Slovakian forward, Michal Fico. Crowd support remained high and match day arrangements were taken on by a team of local volunteers. Wild met Sheffield Spartans in their second end of season promotion/relegation play off in two seasons, but the Yorkshiremen proved too strong in the game staged at Blackburn Arena.
In the 2016 close season, the club was rocked by the shock resignation of popular player-coach Scott McKenzie, who moved to promoted Deeside. Chairman Matt Lloyd interviewed and appointed Sheffield-based Ollie Barron to replace McKenzie, who immediately arranged for a group of players from the disbanded Sheffield Spartans club to join the Wild and add considerable strength to the playing squad. Jon Anderson carried on as General Manager, Callum Fraine maintained his presence behind the bench, and Mark Gillingham returned in a more permanent coaching role.