Calum Ruddick (#19) in action for the Wild in their first ever home meeting with the Deeside Dragons in January 2014. (Photo by Geoff White)
After several false starts, ice rinks have finally started to re-open across the country following the further relaxation of government regulations concerning the use of indoor sports facilities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
There are a lot of restrictions in place, such as reduced numbers allowed on the ice at any one time and no body contact allowed in ice hockey training, but this development will still come as a great relief to skaters and hockey players who have not been able to get on the ice for almost 5 months.
Competitive ice hockey matches are still a long way off, however, and no announcements have yet been made as to when the new season might start. There are also question marks as to which teams will be competing and what format the league competition – once it gets underway – might eventually have.
Sadly, one popular fixture in the ice hockey calendar that looks unlikely to take place this season is the Widnes Wild / Deeside Dragons local derby game as the Dragons currently have no home ice and there are doubts as to whether any of their teams will be able to operate this year.
Their Deeside Leisure Centre home was converted into an emergency hospital to help cope with Covid 19 cases and there are no current plans to re-lay the ice pad. While public health and wellbeing – obviously – has to be the main priority, this will be a bitter blow to the many skaters and hockey teams that use the North Wales facility.
The Widnes/Deeside on-ice rivalry stretches back 7 years to when the Wild team was first founded and has been a big talking point around the sport since day one.
Fully trained ice hockey players don’t grow on trees so any newly established team will always attract players from other local rivals and, with the Widnes catchment area falling slap bang between Deeside (22 miles to the west) and Altrincham (21 miles to the east), it was obvious right from the start that a few players from each of those clubs would de-camp and join the new Wild team. Regular player movements between neighbouring teams are very common in ice hockey, and this is how local rivalries build up.
One of the first such players to join the Wild was Calum Ruddick a Manchester based former roller hockey international who had been with the Dragons for a number of seasons. Another early defector from Deeside was Ben Simister, who had been a Flintshire club junior and played the previous 2 seasons for the Dragons senior team and he was installed as the Wild’s first team captain.
Looking back at his decision to join the new Wild team, Ruddick said:
“I had left Deeside in the middle of the previous season and had a few months away from hockey. I wasn’t enjoying it and, when Widnes came about – and the chance to play with Ken Armstrong, and a few other boys I had played with when I was younger – I didn’t want to miss the chance. You could tell from the start that Widnes was going to be a fun place to play. From day one, Gaz Fearon and Pete Bleackley were great with me and all the boys. I think at the time nobody really expected much from us as a team or club but I’d argue, in time that has changed a fair bit.”
The first ever meeting between the two local rivals and, in fact, the Wild’s first ever league game of any sort took place on 8th September 2013 at Deeside Leisure Centre. The rink at Widnes was not ready to stage home games at the start of the season so they had to start off by playing away game until the end of October.
Chris Preston put the Wild ahead in the very first minute of the game but the more experienced and numerically superior Dragons hit back and led 4-2 at the end the first period after a Joe Charlton strike had evened the scores again briefly. Shaun Dippnall scored the only goal of the second period to keep Widnes in the hunt but two quick strikes for the home team early in the third edged them further ahead. Wild captain Simister fired in two for Widnes but three late goals flattered the Dragons somewhat with a final scoreline of 9-5.
After the game, Simister said: “Overall, it was a disappointing result to go into the third period one goal down, and then lose by 4. We were still short benched on our defensive lines so, once we have a full squad and our roster is complete, I’m pretty confident we will be right there with any team in the league. Away at Deeside was always going to be a difficult first game of the season, but we have them again in 2 weeks, so we’ll get to work at practice and come out flying next time.”
The second Dragons v Wild came just two weeks later on 22nd September and saw Bobby Caunce top score with 4+1 in what finished up as a 10-7 defeat for Widnes.
The first visit by the Dragons to Widnes eventually came on 19th January but the Wild were unable to make the most of their home advantage. After a close, 1-1, first period with Shaun Dippnall scoring the Wild goal, the visitors ran away with the game in the second with 5 unanswered goals. A goal-less third period left the score standing at 1-6 to the Dragons
By this time, Ben Simister had moved back across the border and rejoined the Dragons and his main contribution to this game involved picking up an entertaining 2+2+10 roughing penalty – along with Wild’s Tom Jackson – in the closing minutes in a generally bad tempered game that’s saw 90 PIM handed out overall (34-56).
In a season where Widnes visibly improved as time went by, and the fledgling team began to gel, they finally picked up their first win over the Dragons on 16th March 2014 at Silver Blades Widnes.
The score was 1-1 at the end of the first period thanks to a Ben Brown strike for the Wild but Widnes then stormed ahead with goals from Filip Supa and Bobby Caunce to lead 3-1 at the end of the second. They went 5-1 up courtesy of strikes by Shaun Dippnall and Caunce again before Deeside eventually found their mojo – but three goals in the last 5 minutes for the visitors were not enough to stop Widnes picking up their first ever win over their local rivals.
In the end, one win out of three wasn’t too bad a haul over the Dragons, who went on to finish the season in second place in the league table, with Widnes ending up 5th in their first ever season of competition.
The next – 2014/15 – season saw more player movements up and down the M56 with Dragons players Danny Bullock and Matt Wainwright joining Widnes, while former Flintshire junior Aled Roberts switched back to Deeside after playing a few times for the Wild at the end of the previous season, having come back from a stint in Canada.
On 14th September, Widnes picked up their first ever win in Deeside with a feisty 6-7 victory. This game attracted an incredible 174 penalty minutes (Dragons 136 – Wild 38) and three of the Widnes goals came on the powerplay.
The rest of the season followed a similar pattern with the Wild winning all 4 league games against Deeside and each encounter attracting a sizeable amount of penalties. They won 4-2 at home in November and then 5-8 away again in North Wales in December.
The final meeting of the season took place at home on 28th February and this was exceptionally close. After a 0-0 first period, the score was finely balanced at 1-1 after the second – then defenceman Dan Bracegirdle popped up to score what, for him, was a very rare goal with just 5 minutes left to play to secure a dramatic victory – and historic clean sweep for the Wild.
Talking recently about his own memorable moments, Bracegirdle said:
“I don’t pop up with too many goals so I certainly won’t forget the game winner against Deeside at home in the 14/15 season. It’s no secret around the rink that I’m not Deeside’s biggest fan so to score the winner in a derby game at home meant a lot – as I’m sure most people could tell from the celebration.”
Showing an improvement on their first season’s performance, Widnes finished the season in 4th place in the league table, with Deeside ending up 8 points behind them in 5th.
Talking about the special feeling associated with local derby games from a player’s point of view, Calum Ruddick said:
“The derby games are the ones the boys look forward and the ones you look for when the fixtures come out. I missed the first game with Deeside, and then the next two games they beat us, so going into the final game we played them that first season, we were chasing the play offs and we beat them which was a good one. It’s always nice to get one over your rivals, but being an old team and with some of their fans, it adds a bit more to it. Beating them in our own barn, that one felt good!”
“The atmosphere is always good with Widnes and Deeside – the teams feed off it and it makes the games more fun playing in front of a big crowd, especially at Widnes where the fans are on top of you. Deeside have some good fans – some really good guys – but I’d say the Widnes says are by far the best in the league.”
“It’s fun to play against guys who you know – I’m not sure if it’s easier or harder – but there are some players who I would certainly rather play with than against!”
After two seasons of increasingly intense rivalry between these two near neighbours of north-west ice hockey, 8 competitive matches had been played overall. Deeside had won the first three but then the balance in power had swung slightly with Widnes going on to win the next five encounters.
The Dragons had a slight advantage on goals scored, with the count at 43 to 39 in their favour and they were well ahead in terms of PIM with 372 to 176!
Deeside had finished above Widnes in the 2013/14 season when they finished 2nd to the Wild’s 5th, while the Wild had finished above the Dragons in the 2014/14 season when the two teams finished 4th and 5th respectively.
If things had already become rather fraught in the short time that the two teams had been pitched against each other, a particularly volatile set of circumstances was set to emerge in the summer of 2015 that would intensify the Widnes / Deeside rivalry even further.