Flashback: Widnes On the Title Trail

The Wild open up a 3-1 lead over local rivals Deeside Dragons in their first league meeting of the 2015/16 season.  (Photo by Geoff White) 

The 2019/20 Laidler Division season ended in disappointment with the Widnes Wild team finishing in 4th place in the final league table. This was their lowest finishing position since 2015 but had a rather artificial feel to it, as the final standings were eventually decided by a league committee decision after the season remained unfinished due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The Wild’s first two seasons of competition – 2013/14 and 2014/15 – had seen the club getting established in the Laidler Division and they finished in a highly respectable 5th and 4th place respectively. As such, it wasn’t until the third season of ice hockey in Widnes – in 2015/16 – that a serious attempt was planned on the league title.

Season 2015/16 (1st Deeside Dragons – 49pts, 2nd Widnes Wild – 41pts, 3rd Nottingham Lions – 36pts.)

After original head coach Mark Gillingham stepped down after two seasons at the helm, Wild set their stall out by signing new player coach Scott McKenzie who had spent the previous 5 seasons playing for the Telford Tigers EPL team. In fact McKenzie had amassed a huge amount of experience in higher leagues having played some 500 games at EPL level and Elite League level, before dropping to the NIHL Division 2 level for the only time in his career to join Widnes.

In a recent straw poll among senior Wild players, it was widely agreed that McKenzie had been the best individual player ever to have iced for Widnes and his influence certainly paid off, as he ended up the top points scorer in the Laidler Division with 56 goals and 71 assists from 27 games, finishing 33 points ahead of Deeside’s super sniper Adrian Palak.

At McKenzie’s unveiling press conference, he did provoke some mirth by stating that Widnes would “definitely win the league” that season. This was not an unreal possibility, in all fairness, as the champions for the previous two seasons Solihull Barons had taken promotion up to the Moralee Division and, at the time, nobody could have foreseen that local rivals Deeside Dragons would suddenly benefit from the backing of the Red Hockey media group. This allowed the North Wales outfit to ice a somewhat stronger team than they might otherwise have been able to achieve – and the destination of the league title eventually came down to the outcome of the four meetings between them and the Wild.

The first meeting at Silver Blades Widnes on 13th September saw the Dragons snatch a 5-7 victory. Widnes had been on top for much of the game leading 2-1 at the end of the first period. They went 3-1 up early in the second period but a disastrous spell saw them concede 5 unanswered goals which left them trailing 3-6 by the end of the second. The resulting win handed the Dragons the initiative very early in the season and Widnes found themselves trying to play catch up for the rest of the campaign.

By the time the two teams met in North Wales in early November, Deeside had raced ahead in the league standings, having played more games than any other team while Widnes had lost 2-4 at home to Nottingham Lions to give themselves even more work to do.

The away game was also pretty close with the score tied at 1-1- after two periods but, once again, Deeside had the rub of the green and snatched a 3-2 win with just seconds left on the clock.

The first game of the new year saw Widnes drop more points in a narrow 3-2 defeat away in the Lace City so by the time that the Dragons arrived at Silver Blades on Valentine’s Day, they pretty much had the league title sewn up. The Wild put in their best performance of the season to snatch an exciting 7-7 draw but the resulting league point meant that Deeside could not be overtaken – so their large and noisy travelling contingent was able to celebrate their title win.

The fourth and final league meeting between the two teams finished in a controversial fashion. With nothing to play except local pride, the Dragons appeared to adopt an unnecessarily overly aggressive approach to the game.

Wild netminder Greg Ruxton suffered a recurrence of an old knee injury after a strong challenge which put him out of action for the rest of the season and Lee Kemp had to go to hospital to be treated for a head injury after a dangerous check from behind against the boards.

Keen to avoid any further injuries to his players with the play offs just around the corner, coach McKenzie withdrew the team from the ice early in the second period. The score at that point stood at 3-1 to Deeside and the EIHA later decided that the Dragons should be awarded the win.

Widnes finished the season in second place in the Laidler Division table – 8 points behind champions Deeside. Deeside had only lost 1 game all season while the Wild had lost three times to them and twice to Nottingham.

Season 2016/17 (1st Blackburn Eagles – 44pts, 2nd Widnes Wild – 42pts, 3rd Altrincham Aces – 35pts.)

In the summer of 2016, Wild coach Scott McKenzie somewhat surprisingly upped sticks and went to coach newly promoted Deeside Dragons instead. He was replaced by Ollie Barron – who also had wealth of experience having played more then 200 games in his native Sheffield at EPL and Moralee Division level. Barron was without a club after his Sheffield Spartans team had been forced out of existence due to some internal politics at the iceSheffield venue so he came along to Widnes as his first ever coaching role, bringing 7 more Spartans players – brother Will Barron, Stuart Brittle, Nick Manning, Andrew Tuner, Mike Mawer, Simon Offord and netminder Matt Croyle with him.

With last season’s champions Deeside now playing in the higher division and most of the Wild’s squad that finished second last season still in place, you might have thought that the addition of 8 players with Moralee Division backgrounds would make winning the league title a sure thing. But things did not exactly go to plan…

As it turned out, the hitherto unfashionable Blackburn Eagles team put together an extremely strong roster and went on to surprise everybody by winning the league title by 2 points. Widnes finished second again well clear of the chasing pack but, once again, it was games between the top two teams that were the deciding factor.

After a good pre-season – and four wins from their first four league matches, the wheels came off big time with the Eagles’ first visit of the season to the Silver Blades rink on 9th October.

Wild import Michal Fico had suddenly swapped teams during the week and lined up against his former teammates and the Eagles team that had previously been the whipping boys of the league pitched up with an impressively strong line up. During the summer they had managed to coax former Hawks captain Chris Arnone out of retirement and they also had a second import for the first time ever in Tomas Mitrik.

Blackburn took the lead after 5 minutes but Widnes equalised soon after through Shaun Dippnall. The Eagles then retook the lead with a short handed goal from former Wild player Sam Dunford and the score stood at 1-2 at the end of 1st period. It was 1-3 at the end of the second and, although the Wild threw the kitchen sink at the Eagles in the third, out-shooting them 32–8, they failed to make up the ground they had lost earlier and the game finished at 3-5 to the visitors.

In the Eagles’ second visit to Widnes on 6th November, the Wild held a 1-0 lead 1-0 at the end of the first period but penalty trouble and two goals conceded within the space of 30 seconds saw them trail 1-2 at the end of the second. A third goal on 52 minutes secured the 1-3 win for the Eagles and put them well in the driving seat in the title race.

The Wild finally struck a blow on their first visit to Blackburn on 3rd December where they put in a superb performance to beat the Eagles 1-3. After a goal-less first period, Widnes took the lead on 30 minutes and were 0-3 up before Blackburn finally managed a consolation strike in the 57th minute.

The second visit to East Lancashire on 4th did not go so well and the Wild started off badly, trailing 4-1 at the end of the first period. It was 5-2 after two periods and a late Widnes rally wasn’t enough to take the points. The result left Blackburn needing just one point to secure the league title – which they managed away at Hull the night after.

The Wild won their three remaining home games to narrow the gap at the top of the table to an agonisingly close 2 points – showing how important those 4 games against the Eagles had been over the course of the season.

Stuart Brittle ended up as the Laidler Division’s top playmaker for the season with 40 assists in 26 games and 59 points overall, while Ollie Barron and Nick Manning weighed in with 30+22 and 14+30 respectively.

Season 2017/18 (1st Sutton Sting – 59pts, 2nd Widnes Wild – 52pts, 3rd Hull Jets – 52pts.)

With Ollie Barron and most of the key players back again for the 2017/18 season, Widnes once again looked likely to be favourites for the Laidler Division title. However, Moralee Division Sutton Sting suddenly decided that they would like to drop down a league for the season as part of a rebuilding exercise and that changed the whole dynamic of the Division.

Widnes gave Sutton a very good run for their money. They won their first three league games of the season then dispatched the Sting 6-4 in September in the first meeting between the two teams at Planet Ice Widnes.

They did the same in the next game in mid-November, which ended up 1-1 at the end of normal time, and Pavel Vales fired in a superb strike to win the game in sudden death overtime.

The third meeting between the top two ended in a 0-2 win for the Wild after a fantastic shut out and it was only the final game in Sheffield at the end of January where the Sting managed to take any points off Widnes with a 4-2 win.

So the Wild finished the league season with a “3 and 1” record against the eventual league champions and ended up in the runners up spot for the third time in a row – this time 7 points adrift of the Sting and even with third place Hull Jets.

Sutton had actually lost 5 league games in all – including the 3 defeats to Widnes but the Wild lost 9 games overall – and if anything, it was home and away defeats at the hand of bottom half team Bradford Bulldogs that did for their title hopes. They lost 3-1 away in West Yorkshire just before Christmas and then 2-4 at home in January and that really gave Sutton the edge in the championship race.

Two defeats to the Altrincham Aces compounded this, as did a pair at the hands of Sheffield Senators, and the Wild had to lick their wounds and wait for another year.

The following 2018/19 season finally brought the Widnes club the league title that had previously eluded them and player coach Ollie Barron was able to hang up his skates on a high note as the Wild finished top of the Laidler Division table, 6 points clear of second place Telford Tigers II.

©Widnes Wild Ice Hockey Club
All Photos ©Gw-Images unless otherwise stated

AddressThe Hive, Earle Rd, Widnes WA8 0TA

©Widnes Wild 2020. All Rights Reserved.