Flashback:  Widnes Wild – League Title Winners

The Widnes Wild team celebrate winning the 2018/19 Laidler Division league title.  (Photo by Geoff White)

 

The YKK sponsored Widnes Wild’s league title ambitions were finally realised in the 2018/19 season after having been thwarted so many times before. Having finished as runners up in the Laidler Division for the three previous seasons, everything finally fell into place at the right time for player coach Ollie Barron and his team.

The announcement of a new main sponsor for the season in the shape of world renowned manufacturing company YKK provided a huge boost to the club and the good news just went on from there.

Most of the previous year’s squad were back for another go at the title – apart from popular import defenceman Pavel Vales and Sheffield-based forward Nick Manning, who had both given up playing.

The squad was boosted by some exciting new faces. The most notable was Czech import Jakub Hajek, who had played the previous season for Altrincham Aces. He had scored 26+19 in 30 games for the Aces team that had finished 5th in the league table and promised much.

The Wild opted for the first time to go with a second import forward in Michal Novak. Novak had never played in this country before and had not played competitively anywhere since 2012 so was pretty much an unknown quantity in NIHL terms. However, he had come with a very good pedigree having learnt his junior hockey in his native Czech Republic – a Pool A World Championship nation – and played some 230 junior games and over 200 senior games in the Czech minor leagues.

Another newcomer to the Wild team was 18 year old Daniel Fay, a graduate of the excellent Bracknell junior system with experience of playing for the Bracknell Bees and Hornets teams in NIHL South. Fay was starting at university in Liverpool and had been offered the chance to join the Wild after impressing in summer training sessions.

The Wild defence was further strengthened with the arrival of two players with a lot of higher league experience. Scott Cooper joined from Solway Sharks, with over 100 games behind him at Moralee Division level, having also had spells with Billingham and Whitley and with Slough Jets in NIHL South.

Ross Jordan also moved south across the border, having spent the previous seasons playing for the Edinburgh Capitals and Paisley Pirates in the Scottish National League. Prior to that he had been an old teammate of Ollie Barron for a number seasons, having played for the Sheffield Spartans in the Moralee Division.

The season actually started in a rather low-key fashion with a 2-9 home defeat to Sutton Sting in a challenge game. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, however, as the Sting had been gearing up for higher league hockey and it was their fourth game of their pre-season programme while, for Widnes, it was the first run out with all these new players on board.

The league season began with an exciting close 4-3 home win over regular bogey side Sheffield Senators and then a 3-7 victory in the return game at iceSheffield a week later. Another narrow home win over early season league leaders Bradford Bulldogs saw Widnes move up to second place in the league table and things were beginning to look promising.

The wheels came off the hoped for title challenge with a 2-0 defeat away to Telford Tigers and then a 4-2 defeat away to Hull the week after. The ship was steadied with a record equalling 22-2 win over the Blackburn Hawks development team at Planet Ice Widnes and then the Wild finally moved to the top of the league table with a narrow 3-5 win away at Bradford that saw them leapfrog the Bulldogs.

These back to back victories helped kick-start a 100% run that would see the Wild win 17 games in a row – a club record – and set them well on the way to securing their first ever league title.

This run included a morale boosting 2-1 win over main title threat Telford Tigers, an incredibly narrow 0-1 win away in Hull and then back to back wins over Bradford to well and truly scupper their own title ambitions.

By the turn of the year, the Wild had built up a commanding lead at the top of the Laidler Division, 9 points ahead of, by then, second place Sheffield Senators.

Jakub Hajek was flying in the goal scoring stakes and was the Division’s top goal scorer with 25 goals from 19 games. However, the Wild were far from being a one-man team and player coach Ollie Barron had weighed in with 19 goals from 19 games and Mikey Gilbert and Michal Novak (both 14 goals) and Danny Bullock (9 goals) had also made a huge contribution to the offensive unit.

In terms of playmaking, Barron had the highest number of “assists” in the season to that point with 25, Gilbert and Hajek have 20 each and team captain Simon Offord – a great steadying influence in defence – had 15.

The winning run continued until the end of January when the Wild were caught out once again at Telford – losing 4-3 – to keep the Tigers in with a slim chance of still being able to catch up on points.

Three more victories put the Wild back on track, only for the pre-championship party to be spoiled once again by Telford who won 2-5 in Widnes in mid February – the first home defeat since the friendly game against Sutton back in August and the only other home defeat overall in the season.

Further wins followed over Hull and Altrincham and, while it had looked fairly clear cut for much of the latter part of the season, the Wild picked up the points that would finally make them un-catchable in the league standings with a 4-1 home win over the Aces on 17th March.

Local pride was guaranteed with a 5-9 win away to Deeside and then a 16-5 home win over the same opposition in the last league game of the season. That meant that the Wild had managed a clean sweep of 4 victories in all 4 league games over both the Dragons and the Aces for the first time ever.

The Laidler Division trophy was presented to team captain Simon Offord in a special ceremony after the game and fans were able to join the players on the ice afterwards to take photos and get involved in the celebrations.

The Wild finished top of the Laidler Division table with 56 points from 32 games. That represented 27 wins, 1 overtime win and 4 defeats. The four defeats came at the hands of Hull Jets (once) and Telford Tigers (three times), meaning that the Tigers actually held sway over the Wild in terms of meetings between the teams, if not in league table placings.

The Tigers ended up in second place in the table, 6 points behind Widnes, with 5 defeats and 4 overtime losses (1 point awarded for drawing at the end of the regular 60 minutes playing time) to their record. Hull were a distant third with 45 points and Bradford fourth with 41.

Player coach Ollie Barron was the Wild’s top points scorer for the season with 33 goals and 44 assists from the 32 games. He actually finished third overall in the Laidler Division scoring standings behind Sheffield Senators’ Thomas Humphries – who finished with 36+52 – and Telford’s Callum Bowley with 30+49.

Jakub Hajek was the overall top goal scorer in the division with 38 strikes – level with Deeside’s James Parsons – and 35 assists, significantly improving on his previous season with Altrincham where he had only managed 45 points albeit playing with an arguably weaker team. Michal Novak had a good first season in British ice hockey with 26+30 while Mikey Gilbert had his best season to date in terms of points with 52 overall, beating his previous year’s tally by one.

Wild first choice netminder Matt Croyle was the division’s top netminder for the second season in a row – ending the campaign with a 92.02% save percentage. Across the 28 league games that he played in, he conceded just 55 goals from 689 shots – ahead of Bradford Bulldogs Phil Pearson who finished in second place with 91.57% (878 shots / 74 goals).

Winning the NIHL North Division2 title meant that Widnes were pitched up against the South Division 2 champions Slough Jets in a one off game to decided an overall national Division 2 champion. The game was played at Coventry on 14th April as part of the “Final Four” weekend that also included the national play offs for the Division1 North and South teams as well. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bit of a day to forget for the Wild fans who travelled down to the Midlands as Widnes lost 1-7 to an impressive Slough team.

Luckily the fans had something to cheer about the following weekend as the Laidler Play Offs were staged at Planet Ice Widnes for the second year in a row. Widnes beat Bradford Bulldogs 9-3 in the first semi final and then saw off Hull Jets 6-3 in the final to their third Play Off crown in a row and notch up an historic league and play off double triumph.

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