Wild take on the Billingham Stars in the deciding game of the 2015/16 NIHL North Cup competition. (Photo by Geoff White)
The Widnes Wild ice hockey team entered the NIHL North cup competition this season for the first time in 5 years – and it was quite a bold step, as the team was in a rebuilding phase following the retirement of former player coach Ollie Barron and a lot of player turnover during the summer months.
Incoming head coach Mike Clancy heralded the move as one of the first steps in his three year plan to build a team that would be capable of regularly competing at a higher level and it was to be quite a test, as the competition involved the Laidler Division Wild team taking on 4 teams from the higher Moralee Division – Blackburn Hawks, Solihull Barons, Sutton Sting and Nottingham Lions – on a home and away basis in the qualifying group.
With the widely acknowledged step up in playing standards between the two divisions, this was always only ever going to be a “toe in the water” exercise to assess relative team strengths but it did turn out to be a fascinating voyage of discovery.
In fact, the Wild did better than they had ever expected – holding the Blackburn Hawks to a 5-5 draw at the end of regulation playing time before narrowly losing out in sudden death over time – and then taking Nottingham Lions to a penalty shoot out decider, after having drawn 5-5 in normal time in the Lace City. This was the first time that the Wild had ever taken points off higher league opposition in a competitive fixture and as such, was cause for celebration.
Close games at home to the Lions (2-3) and Sutton Sting (1-3) also brought lots of positives and the Wild were only really outclassed in their two matches against the Solihull Barons, losing 3-9 at home and 13-2 away.
As a bit of background information, it is worth pointing out that unlike in, say, football where “the cup” has a particularly set of traditions and part of the fun is seeing who progresses to the next round and who they might be drawn against, running any sort of cup competition in ice hockey tends to be more difficult.
This comes from the fact that ice time for all the fixture dates has to be agreed at the start of the season – and to fit in with all the other teams that use the rink as well as the overall league fixture schedule – and this makes it difficult to accommodate a pure “knock out” cup competition. In fact, the last time the British ice hockey actually attempted to run a knock out cup – back in the 1990/91 season, it petered out after the first round of matches as nobody could work out how to play the latter rounds.
Therefore, in order to reduce fixture confusion the only manageable way to hold a cup competition is to have a qualifying group or groups with just the winners going to compete in the final stages
Despite having its own – relatively – long standing Challenge Cup, even British ice hockey’s Elite League doesn’t have a proper cup competition as such as they count the first league meetings between all respective teams towards the cup and arrive at the initial qualifying group from those results.
Thus, with many teams at NIHL level either having problems getting extra ice time at rinks or, indeed, operating as a purely “development only” team with little support to finance extra games, cup competitions tend to be organised on a season by season basis depending on which teams what to enter.
The only previous occasion that the Wild had entered the cup competition was in the 2015/16 season, when Scott McKenzie was head coach and the opposition were reigning Moralee Division champions Blackburn Hawks, Solway Sharks and Billingham Stars.
In a possibly slightly over-optimistic interview looking ahead to the cup games, McKenzie said;
“This will be a fantastic competition for the Wild to be a part of. Whilst we will be the underdogs it’s our intent to win the NIHL North Cup. It’s never been a secret that the Wild are looking to win promotion to the Moralee Conference at the end of the season and playing in the Cup will give the guys a taste of playing at that level in competitive games”.
“Pre-season we played the Solihull Barons and the Blackburn Hawks so we know the standard that is expected and we also showed we were able to compete with teams at that level.”
9th January 2016: Billingham Stars 7 – Widnes Wild 3
The Wild’s first cup game – and first ever visit to Billingham – saw an incredibly entertaining match with 7 goals being scored in the first period. Billingham took the lead after 3 minutes but Scott McKenzie equalised for the Wild 4 minutes later. Michal Fico then cancelled out a second Stars strike before Billingham edged 4-2 ahead. Chris Preston pulled the Wild back into contention with a great goal on 18 minutes but that was the best of the action as far as Widnes were concerned.
A 5th goal for Billingham straight after the restart edged them further ahead and further goals either side of the second period break handed them a 7-3 victory.
27th February 2016 Blackburn Hawks 12 – Widnes Wild 2
The visit to the home of the current Moralee Division league leaders and reigning champions always looked to be a somewhat daunting prospect, especially with Widnes having already lost there 9-0 in a pre-season challenge game.
As it turned out, the Wild defended doggedly and it took until the 12th minute for Blackburn to open the scoring. They went 2-0 up on 15 minutes but Scott McKenzie pulled a goal back for Widnes making the most of a mix up in the Hawks defence. The hosts scored again for 3-1 at the end of the first period but there was still hope for the Wild.
Any hopes of remaining in the game were dashed as Blackburn scored just 51 seconds from the restart and then raced to an 8-1 lead by the mid-point of the game. Wild’s Shaun Dippnall scored an excellent breakaway goal to pull the score back to 8-2 but 4 more unanswered goals in the third period rounded off an easy win for the Hawks.
6th March 2016: Widnes Wild 1 – Blackburn Hawks 7
The return game against the Hawks ran pretty much to script with the Wild battling well but having trouble making any sort of headway against the league leaders.
The visitors opened the scoring on 7 minutes and 5 more goals in the ensuing 10 minutes – including two within 25 seconds of each other and a Penalty Shot – saw the game pretty much over as a contest by the first period break.
In a much closer second period – which the Wild actually “won” 1-0 – Danny Bullock scored the only Widnes goal of the game on 28 minutes. This was followed by a spate of fighting that saw three Blackburn players – including former Widnes captain Ben Simister – handed 10 minute major penalties, along with the Wild’s Tom Jackson and Chris Preston.
The only goal in the third period came for Blackburn on 50 minutes to give them a 1-7 lead and, while a defeat is still a defeat, the Wild were able to take solace from the fact that this had been their closest result to date against the Hawks first team.
27th March 2016: Widnes Wild 2 – Solway Sharks 8
The visit of Solway Sharks saw the first ever England v Scotland encounter at the Silver Blades rink and Widnes put in a very good performance against the former Moralee Division champions. The score was a ver narrow 0-1 to Solway at the end of the first period but early two goals for the visitors in the second edged them further ahead. A great goal from Michal Fico on 31 minutes finally got the Wild on the score-sheet but two more goals followed for Solway and saw them leading 1-6 at the second period break.
Two further goals came for the Sharks in the third period before Thomas Ratcliffe fired in the second Wild goal of the night after 50 minutes to round off the scoring for the evening.
2nd April 2016: Solway Sharks 5 – Widnes Wild 1
The Wild’s first and – to date – only ever trip to Scotland saw them travel to Dumfries to take on the Solway Sharks and, with no league netminder available for the trip, Widnes Wildcats recreational keeper Ian “Budgie” Thirkettle was called into action for the game.
The match started at a frantic pace with the Wild looking very good against the Moralee Conference 4th placed Sharks. They actually took the lead with a well-worked solo goal by George Crawshaw and the score remained 0-1 to Widnes at the first period break.
Two quick goals early in the second period put Solway in the lead and although the Wild outshot the hosts in that middle third, the score remained 2-1 at the second break. Ian Thirkettle put in a superb display in goal, facing 44 shots overall and only seeing 5 go past him and the Sharks finished off the scoring with a 2-0 third period for a final score of 5-1.
3rd April 2016: Widnes Wild 1 – Billingham Stars 7
The Wild’s last game in the 2015/16 NIHL North Cup competition was always going to be a bit special as, with the way the fixtures had turned out, the Billingham Stars would move to the top of the group and win the cup if they won the final game at Widnes.
A defeat, however, for the Stars would mean that Blackburn Hawks would remain top of the group and would win the cup instead, having already completed all their group games. While it always looked likely that the Stars would pull this off, there was still a job to be done and the game attracted quite a lot of interest from across the ice hockey world – and had live match commentary broadcast by NIHL Radio.
Despite the eventual scoreline, this was a very closely balanced game for a lot of the time. Tom McDonald performed heroics in the Wild net to keep the Stars attack at bay and it took until the 16th minute for them to score their first goal. Although Billingham then scored again just two minutes later for a 2-0 scoreline at the end of the first period, Widnes could be pleased with their efforts. Two more goals followed for the Stars in the second period and then, with two more early in the third, it looked as if they already had one hand on the cup.
Widnes finally managed a consolation goal with a great effort from Thomas Ratcliffe in the 55th minute and Billingham rounded off the scoring with a late strike with just 90 seconds left on the clock.
A delighted Billingham team – backed up with a sizeable travelling support – were presented with the NIHL North Cup – their first trophy since the won the league title in 2012 – and Widnes were able to look back on an interesting first foray into the cup competition.