Sunday 11th August 2013 – Challenge Match
Widnes Wild 1 – Sheffield Spartans 6
The first ever Widnes Wild game took place on Sunday 11th August 2013 when Mark Gillingham’s brand new team took on the Sheffield Spartans in a challenge match at the Silverblades Rink, as it was then known.
The choice of opposition was significant as the Spartans played in a higher division than the new Widnes team had planned to enter and would represent a considerable challenge – even more so as the game was right in the middle of the holiday period and several of the Wild players were unavailable.
The Wild team had been put together over the summer by new head coach Mark Gillingham and team manager Mick Caunce, who had been in charge of the Fylde Flyers club in Cleveleys and had brought a core of players with them when that team folded at the end of the 2012/13 season. The rest of the team had been selected via a series of open player trials, which had attracted hopeful candidates from across the north west.
Aside from being the novelty of the first ever Widnes Wild game, the match was notable for several other things. Firstly, there was no spectator seating installed and the crowd had to stand round the plexi-glass – which gave for a very intense atmosphere.
Also unusual – although nobody knew it at the time – was the Wild team used the away players’ bench (ie the left-hand side bench when viewed from the spectators’ stand). However they switched to the other bench for the next home game, two weeks later against Trafford Metros, and that has remained the home bench ever since. The only other time that Widnes have ever used the away bench was in the 2018 Laidler Division Play Off final against Sutton Sting – held at Widnes – when they were the “away” team due to Sutton’s superior finishing position in the league.
A third unusual aspect to this game was that the Wild iced three netminders over the course of the 60 minutes playing time. The reason for this was that it was a brand new sport being introduced to the people of Widnes and they had signed three netminders – Steve Gilmartin and Greg Ruxton who had come from Fylde and Tom McDonald, who had been signed via the player trials.
Normal ice hockey rules only allow for a team to use two netminders during a game and, if both of those get injured, a skater has to come off the bench, put the pads on, and take over in goal. However, Widnes got special permission from the EIHA to be able to use all three of their netminders for this one-off game – with the agreement of the opposing team – and, as such, this is likely to be the only ice hockey match in history where this has ever happened.
Tom McDonald started off the game in goal and the full line up for this first ever game was:
#37 Tom McDonald (nm), #32 Steve Gilmartin (nm), #64Greg Ruxton (nm), #4 Dan Bracegirdle, #8 Richard Charles, #10 Kurtis Hall, #14 Stewart Marriott, #19 Calum Ruddick, #21 Filip Supa, #27 Ken Armstrong, #47 Chris Preston, #58 Troy Evans, #77 Bobby Caunce, #88 Craig Williams. Head Coach: Mark Gillingham, Asst Coach: Garry Fearon, Asst Coach: Peter Bleackley
The game started off at a tremendous pace and there was little to choose between the two teams in the opening stages.
Craig Williams scored the first ever goal for the Wild in the 11th minute – assisted by Chris Preston and Troy Evans – and the score remained 1-0 until the last minute of the period when Sheffield broke away to equalise.
With Steve Gilmartin in goal for the second period, the Spartans took the lead in the 22nd minute and then edged further ahead a minute later. The Wild continued to have their own chances but with some 5 players missing from the team, they began to tire as the game went on.
In the 39th minute, Sheffield scored again to make the score 1-4 at the end of the second period. Interestingly enough, that goal was scored by Nick Manning – who would later go on to play for Widnes for two seasons and be part of the Wild’s play off winning team under fellow former Spartan Ollie Barron.
Greg Ruxton took over in goal for the third period but, despite plenty of passion and enthusiasm from the Wild players, higher-league Sheffield were well in control by now and two more goals for Manning rounded off his hat-trick and left the final score at 1-6 to the visitors.
Of the Widnes team that played in that first game, Dan Bracegirdle, Ken Armstrong and Tom McDonald still play for the Wild, while Richard Charles remains with the club as Assistant Coach. Mark Gillingham has also remained with the club in various coaching capacities after handing over the reigns as head coach to Scott McKenzie in summer 2015. Stewart Marriott has the unique distinction of having played in the Wild’s first game but never making another appearance, while the rest of the original team eventually hung up their skates or moved on to pastures new.
Looking back at the Wild’s first ever game, Ken Armstrong said:
“I don’t really remember much about the 1st game apart from the rink being packed and the fans were crazy. I think a lot had come straight from the Vikings game so were fair tipsy and didn’t really know much about hockey but seemed to be having fun. The 1st season went quite well for a new team. A lot of the lads already knew each other so it was good.”
Dan Bracegirdle added:
“I remember from the word go, the enthusiasm and commitment people around the team had. The off-ice staff and volunteers were all as committed as the players were and you could tell from the beginning there was going to be something good here for years to come.”
“The main thing I remember from the first game was the fans! To be a brand new team and have that many people there to watch you play and making the kind of noise they made, I was flabbergasted and they haven’t taken a backward step since.”
And Tom McDonald chipped in:
“We played all three goalies – myself, Greg and Gilly. I seem to remember that I played pretty well and only let in 1 goal in my period. I had just returned from a training camp in Switzerland. It was a shame I didn’t keep that form going into the first game of the season!”
“From my memory, we were clearly a very new team that was just learning to play together and due to that, things were a bit disorganised. The atmosphere in the rink was awesome, there were fans chanting and cheering, it was probably one of the best atmospheres I had played in, and it was a pre-season game.”
“I think the team put in a good show for itself against a team from the league above and we lost 6-1. Seeing how the Wild have grown over the years, I am really proud to have played in their first ever game.”
Keen fan John Hogan said:
“I took 2 wheelchair users to that first game and they could not see over the barriers but we really loved it and we have been attending ever since. I would like to say a big “thank you” to Planet Ice for adding the wheelchair ramp. Graham, Mike and I are missing the hockey so much and looking forward to when play can resume!”