Flashback : Widnes In The D2 National Championship

Chris Gee (#46) scored the Wild’s solitary goal in the D2 National Championship game at Coventry against Slough Jets.  (Photo by Geoff White)

Following their historic Laidler Division title win at the end of the 2018/19 season, the YKK-sponsored Widnes Wild qualified to take part in the NIHL Division 2 National Championship game. This was a relatively new fixture in the ice hockey calendar and, to date, has only ever been played twice – so being only one of 4 teams ever to have taken part in the national N2 final, the Wild are part of a very select club.

Since the launch of the modern British League in 1982, club ice hockey in Britain at its highest level has always been played on a national basis. The current Elite League has regional conferences but an overall national league structure and the new, second tier, NIHL National Division is, by its own definition, also a “national” division.

From 1982 onwards, the British Championship (a completely different trophy and title to the “British League league champions” title) has been decided by a play off weekend held at a big venue at the end of the regular season. It started off at Streatham ice rink in 1982 with Dundee Rockets seeing off Blackpool Seagulls, Murrayfield Racers and the home Redskins team to become the first modern day winners and, over the years, many traditions have grown up surrounding the event.

The lower levels of British ice hockey have always been operated at a regional level to cut down on travelling distances and costs for teams with limited budgets and resources and, therefore, the league competitions have been split between NIHL North and NIHL South.

Both the NIHL North and South Division One competitions (known as the “Moralee” and “Britton” Divisions and both named in honour of previous ice hockey administrators) have always had their own play off competitions, with the top finishing teams in the league playing home and away legs to arrive at an overall winner – but these have always been kept separate between the north and south.

There was, for a while, a meeting between the two champions of the North and South Division 1 leagues but this died out over time as teams variously claimed they couldn’t get the ice time at their rink on such short notice (in all fairness, who knows back in August that they are going to win the title at the end of the following March…) or they didn’t have enough players available because they all had holidays booked, or their imports had already flown home – or whatever.

However, after the demise of the English Premier League (national tier 2 competition) in the summer of 2017 after several teams had left for various reasons leaving the competition with too few teams to remain viable, the leftover sides joined either the Moralee (north) or Britton (south) Divisions – depending on their location – and, because the EPL had always had a national play off weekend in the past, the appetite was there to come up with a new type of event to finish off the season.

It was decided that both the expanded North and South Division ones would have their own separate league championships and then home & away play off competitions but that, following all of that, the top two teams in each would meet in Coventry in April for a “Final Four” weekend to decide an overall national play off champion. The two semi-finals were to be played on the Saturday and the final on the Sunday and, in order to pad out the programme somewhat and to include more teams and attract more fans to this new gala event, it was decided to invite the winners of the two regional Division 2 leagues – the Laidler Division in the north and Wilkinson in the South – to take part in a new Division 2 National Championship game – the first time this had ever been done.

The first such Division 2 game took place at the inaugural “Final Four” weekend in Coventry in April 2018. This saw North champions Sutton Sting take on South champions Oxford City Stars with the result being a very close 1-3 victory for the Wilkinson Division winners.

The Wild had visited the Coventry Skydome Arena on many occasions before, playing against the Coventry NIHL Blaze in the Laidler Division, and had not lost there since their debut 2013/14 season – but this was a special one off game at a neutral venue being played in front of a sizeable crowd of fans from mixed teams and so was very much an unknown quantity.

Prior to the Coventry game, Widnes had never played a competitive game against a team from NIHL South before – although they had played two pre-season challenge games in the past against the Bristol Pitbulls, winning once and losing once.

In fact, they did not even know who they were going to be playing against in the National Final until the last of the NIHL South Division 2 Wilkinson league games, which were only completed the weekend before.

The South 2 title race was incredibly close and finished with both Slough Jets and Solent Devils locked on 51 points at the top of the final league table but, as Slough had won both games against the Devils – 3-1 at home and 8-3 away on successive nights back in October – it was the Jets who were able to claim top spot based on results between the two teams.

The top points scorers for the Jets in the Wilkinson Division were Lukas Smital with 27+57 in 19 games and Sean Norris with 35+44 in 24 games and they finished in 4th and 5th place in the overall scoring standings respectively. Before moving to Slough in 2017, Czech born Lukas Smital played over 500 games in the North American minor professional leagues and 550 games in the EPL for Guildford Flames and Bracknell Bees and added a huge amount of experience to an otherwise relatively young team.

Before the game, Wild’s Daniel Fay – who had previously spent his whole playing career at Bracknell before joining Widnes the summer before – when asked about the differences between NIHL North and South said:

“There are a few differences between the North and the South – mainly being the physical aspect of the game. Back home (ie NIHL South… ), the hitting aspect of the game isn’t really focused on much so, even though I took the occasional hit, I have definitely been hit much more this season.”

Widnes netminder Matt Croyle was to come up against some familiar faces as he had learned his junior hockey with the Slough club before moving to Sheffield and had played with and against a number of the current Jets team. Upon arrival at the Coventry arena, he discovered that he actually had his own mini fan club among the Slough fans who remembered him from his time at the Berkshire club and had put together flags and banners bearing his name!

As to the match itself, while it was a obviously a privilege for the North 2 champions to be involved in this one-off game against the South 2 champions, it will probably be looked back on as a bit of a disappointment overall. Slough had the upper hand for long periods of the game and, when Widnes did have their chances, they weren’t able to make them count.

That said, the first period was, in fact, very close and Widnes had the chance to take the lead after Jakub Hajek was felled while bearing down on goal and he was awarded a penalty shot. Unfortunately, his attempt was blocked by the Slough netminder’s pad and the first goal eventually went to the Jets in the 17th minute.

Slough edged further ahead early in the second period and were 4-0 up before Chris Gee finally put the Wild on the score-sheet with just under 2 minutes to go to the second break.

Any hopes of a third period rally by the Wild were dashed by another Slough goal just two minutes from the restart – the fifth from the same player, Sean Norris – and insult was added to injury with two more goals within 20 seconds of each with five minutes left on the clock, which rounded off the scoring for the game at 1-7 to the Jets.

Despite the eventual result, Wild player Chris Gee still has fond memories of the game:

“I remember the atmosphere was good. It was loud with the bigger crowd but still not the same atmosphere as being at Widnes – even though we have fewer people at the games.”

“Before the game everyone looked calm and composed in the changing room and we were all having a laugh. We had a decent warm up and felt excited to play and I feel like the score didn’t tell the real story of the game. We did play well, but not to the best of our ability, even though we all still worked hard and wanted to be there – but sometimes these things happen.”

“I personally think if we got to replay the game, it would have ended as a different result, as we were definitely a good enough squad to get the job done, even though on that particular day it didn’t fall that way.”

Looking back at his goal – the only goal that Widnes scored in the game, Gee said:

“During the game, I personally felt fit, strong and confident. In my mind, my job was to put the pressure on the other team as much as I could and be the workhorse chasing down everything in sight.”

“I remember the goal. We had been putting pressure on them in their zone and, as the puck was shot in I remember skating towards the net. As I looked at their goalie, I noticed he had left a gap on one side. As the shot missed the net, the puck bounced off the back boards and I knew that all I had to do was to get a touch in as quickly as I could whilst there was still a gap.”

“So, without over-complicating anything, I just went for it and, once I saw the puck go in the net, it was an awesome feeling to get a point on the board for the lads to keep some wind in our sails!”

Looking back at the D2 National Championship game, Wild Assistant coach Richard Charles said:

“These are the kind of games as players you should relish and rise to. Unfortunately I think the significance of the event took over the team a bit. The biggest thing I can remember – and which I personally thought deflated the team – was the news that Michal Novak had come down with a stomach bug overnight and wasn’t going to be able to play. He was clearly a big part of our strike force and we did look to him and Jakub, as our imports, to really rise to such games and, when they do, you then hope that the rest of team follows. Jakub worked very hard – maybe too hard at times – and got a little frustrated, which is understandable.”

“There was nothing to be intimidated about in this game I felt. There was no pressure on us as a team. We were clearly the underdogs, but more than capable to cause an upset. Over the years I have thought that as a team, we just don’t believe in ourselves enough and this was another example.”

“We didn’t really single out anyone in their roster. Obviously Smital brought a wealth of experience to Slough and he was clearly their leader, old head and calming influence both on and off the ice. With the slow start that we had, a door opened for Norris and he capitalised with a fantastic performance scoring 5 of their 7 goals.”

“In games like this, you need to do something significant early doors, be it a goal, a good play, a hit, but something to get the other team on the back foot and thinking ‘hold on’. We just didn’t have that. Chris Gee’s goal was obviously significant and lifted morale, but again it just came a little late.

“We just didn’t make an impact early enough and we played catch up the whole game. I recall myself, Ollie and Mark having a final rally of the troops in the second interval and the boys gave everything in that third period but it was just too late. The score in my opinion did not reflect our performance, our fight or our capability, but the belief just wasn’t there. That comes with experience and Smital’s presence certainly brought that out in the Slough team.”

“It was a great experience and the feeling of losing shouldn’t be forgotten, but be brought to mind in future games to drive the belief and success of the club forward. A mentality of ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’ has to be the mantra. It did put a little damper on the success we had over the season, but two golds and a silver is something that I was, and we should all be, very proud of.”

The advent of the new NIHL National Division (2nd tier) for the 2019/20 season saw another reshuffle in the end of season play off arrangements across the divisions.

It was decided that the “Final Four” weekend would continue at Coventry as before with the top teams from two qualifying groups meeting in semi finals and final. The Moralee, Britton, Laidler and Wilkinson north and south divisions were to have their own play off weekends – held at Sheffield, Bracknell, Widnes and Alexandra Palace respectively – with the top four teams from each league meeting in straight semis and final. The plan was for the winners of the North 1 play off weekend at Sheffield and the South 1 event at Bracknell to meet up in a new one-off Division 1 National Championship game at the Coventry weekend, as had been done with the D2 teams in the two previous years, although there was no mention of continuing with the Division 2 version this time around.

As things turned out, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it was all rather academic as the ice hockey season was curtailed in mid-March and none of the proposed post-season play off events took place.


MATCH DETAILS:
Sunday 14th April 2019 – National D2 Championship (at Coventry)
Widnes Wild 1 – Slough Jets 7
Period Scores: 0-1, 1-3, 0-3
Shots on Goal: Widnes 33 – Slough 45 (11-12, 12-20, 10-13)
Penalties In Minutes: Widnes 20 – Slough 16
Widnes Scoring: Chris Gee 1+0, Bez Hughes 0+1

MVPs: Widnes – Danny Bullock / Slough – Sean Norris

Full Widnes Wild Line-Up: Luke Wilson (NM), Daniel Bracegirdle, Oliver Barron, Ken Armstrong, Daniel Bullock, Scott Cooper, Lee Kemp (AC), Michael Gilbert, Daniel Fay, Bez Hughes, Simon Offord (C), Stuart Brittle (AC), Barry Sprakes, Matthew Croyle (NM), Chris Gee, Jakub Hajek, Ross Jordan, Tom Jackson, Mike Mawer, Shaun Dippnall

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All Photos ©Gw-Images unless otherwise stated

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