Widnes Wild’s Jakub Hajek celebrates his “go ahead goal” against the Blackburn Hawks in the NIHL Midlands Cup game last season. (Photo by Geoff White)
The YKK sponsored Widnes Wild look set to take on the Blackburn Hawks team in the league for the first time in the new season after it was announced that the East Lancashire team are to drop down a division for a period of rebuilding under new owners.
The Hawks have always previously played in the higher Moralee Division so meetings with the main Hawks team – as opposed to second string Blackburn sides – have been relatively rare occurrences
Despite being a little further away than the Deeside and Altrincham ice rinks, Blackburn Arena at some 45 miles from Widnes is still within very easy commuting distances in ice hockey terms and there have been plenty of player movements in both directions up and down the M66 over the years, bringing with it a good deal of local rivalry.
When the Wild team first started in the summer of 2013, Ken Armstrong and Chris Preston signed from the then Blackburn Eagles Laidler Division team and, of the Widnes roster that iced in that first season, Bobby Caunce, Greg Ruxton, Antony Melbourne, Andrew Clark, Troy Evans, Dan Bracegirdle, Dan Etherington, Bradley Valentine, Kurtis Hall, Joe Charlton, Jordan Owen, Marc Etherington, Chad Briggs and, indeed, head coach Mark Gillingham had all trained or played at Blackburn in the past.
With the main Blackburn Hawks team always having played in a higher division than the Wild, meetings between the two have only ever been limited to pre-season challenge games or NIHL Cup encounters, with most games being rather one-sided in favour of the Moralee team.
However, despite having had a mediocre season in the league last year, the Wild actually achieved their best ever results against their lofty neighbours, picking up a win in the preseason games and a competitive point in the cup for the first time ever.
Having played 3 and lost 3 in terms of pre-season games with the Hawks in the past (goals scored 25 to 1…) and lost home and away to the reigning Moralee Division champions and league leaders in the 2015/16 cup (12-2 away and 1-7 at home), it was very difficult to foresee much of a change when it was announced that the Wild would play Blackburn 4 times in the 2019/20 season.
Although the Hawks were no longer the force that they had previously been – and most of their “double double” winning team had either retired from playing or departed for pastures new, the widely acknowledged step up in playing standards between the Moralee and Laidler Divisions suggested that even a “lower half of the table” side should still beat a leading N2 team quite easily.
However, on 7th September 2019, Mike Clancy’s new look Widnes squad did the almost unthinkable by beating the Hawks 2-3 on their own ice at the Blackburn Arena in the first pre-season challenge game.
In fairness to the Hawks, it was their first run-out of the season whereas the Wild had already beaten Altrincham Aces home and away the previous weekend but, despite out-shooting the visitors by 51 to 34, the Hawks team – including former Widnes players Joe Greaves, Geoff Wigglesworth, Tom Revesz and Lee Pollitt – were ultimately unable to make the most of their home advantage and their higher standing.
The Wild – with former Blackburn Eagle Ken Armstrong and one-time Hawks player Chris Gee on their bench – kept the score down to a very respectable 1-0 at the first break and then equalised with a goal from new signing Ryan Kemp on 23 minutes. The home crowd were shocked into silence when Widnes took the lead in the 29th minute with a powerplay goal by Michal Novak and the same player went on to edge the Wild further ahead just 32 seconds into the third period.
Blackburn upped their game considerably and peppered Phil Pearson’s net with 23 shots in the third period (compared to Wild’s 9 on Niks Trapans at the other end), however, the only breakthrough came in the 54th minute when their new import Petr Valusiak finally breached the Widnes defences and that wasn’t enough to salvage anything from the game.
The return friendly game the night after at Planet Ice Widnes saw a regrouped and refreshed Blackburn team put in a much improved performance. Widnes won the “shots on goal” contest by 36 to 31 over the sixty minutes but a 1-4 first period for the Hawks left little doubt as to how the game was going to end up. A 3-3 second period kept the game interesting but 3 more goals for the Hawks in the third – compare to the Wild’s single strike – handed Blackburn a convincing 5-10 win overall.
When the two teams met in Blackburn in the NIHL Midland Cup a fortnight later, the Hawks once again held sway with a 6-1 victory, with Shaun Dippnall scoring the only Wild goal of the night.
The return game in the Cup came on 24th November and, with Widnes having lost all of their other cup games at home to Solihull, Sutton and Nottingham – and now struggling with terrible injury problems – not much was particularly expected from this encounter.
However, the brave Wild team battled away and produced what is widely considered to have been their best performance of the whole season, only losing out in the most dramatic fashion in ‘sudden-death’ overtime having led the game going into the last minute.
Despite only being able to muster 14 players for this game (including two netminders) and the players having to cope with reshuffled and unfamiliar lines, Widnes actually took the lead in the 4th minute with a power play goal from Tom Jackson.
The Hawks equalised 3 minutes later and, following a strike from former Wild player Lee Pollitt, were able to take a 1 – 2 lead into the first break but that was still pretty good from a Widnes point of view, considering the circumstances.
The second period was even closer than the first, with both teams having lots of chances, but it took until 11 minutes in for the next breakthrough. Shaun Dippnall fired in a well-taken equaliser for the Wild and the rink erupted. However, while closely matching their lofty opponents in terms of puck possession and shots on goal, the Wild were unable to build upon this breakthrough and Blackburn re-established their lead on 36 minutes.
Before the game, most Widnes fans would have been over the moon at the thought of “only” trailing the Hawks Moralee Division team by a single goal at the end of the 2nd period but the truth of the matter is the Wild were putting in a superb performance and well and truly deserved to still be in contention at that point.
If the first two periods hadn’t been tense enough, the third period was surely a test for the strongest of nerves. Wild’s Jakub Hajek pulled Widnes level again, with a goal on 43 minutes but Blackburn struck back again just 60 seconds later, to edge 3 – 4 ahead.
However, Widnes heads did not drop at this setback and they pushed forward again. A second goal of the game for Shaun Dippnall on 47 minutes levelled the scores once again and then an incredible solo break-away goal from Jakub Hajek in the 50th minute put the Wild back into the lead.
A nerve-jangling 10 minutes ensued with Hajek causing the Blackburn defence all kinds of problems and it only looking a matter of time before he scored again.
Both teams had chances but neither was able to find the back of the net. The Wild called a time out with 1 minute 15 seconds left on the clock to discuss defensive contingencies and, with the score still 5 – 4 to Widnes as the game entered its last minute, Blackburn then also called a time out with just 37 seconds left to play.
The atmosphere around the rink was electric and the Hawks pulled their netminder off in favour of an extra attacking player. They piled pressure on the Widnes goal and, unfortunately, the plucky Wild defence were not able to hold out and the Hawks scored a dramatic equalising goal with just 18 seconds left on the clock.
The 5 – 5 draw after the regulation 60 minutes playing time meant that the game went into an extra period of ‘sudden death’ overtime. Here again, both teams had chances with Hajek clipping the crossbar for the Wild, before the game was finally settled with a goal from Blackburn’s Czech import Petr Valusiak after 1 minute 48 seconds of the overtime period.
While a defeat is always a disappointment, the Wild players were really able to hold their heads up high after such a superb display. It is practically unheard of for a Laidler Division team to beat a Moralee Division team in a competitive game and to have come to within 18 seconds of doing just that was a great achievement for the Widnes team.
While the Wild certainly had a roller-coaster experience in their encounters with the main Blackburn Hawks team last season, their league games in the Laidler Division against the second string “Hawks 2” side were also widely contrasting.
The Blackburn Hawks 2 team were a development side that had been set up to give younger players the chance of getting more ice time and valuable match experience than they would otherwise get if they had to wait on the sidelines in the hope of getting the occasional shift with the main Hawks team. As such, most of their games tended to be rather one-sided affairs and, in the previous two seasons since the Hawks 2 had started, Widnes had beaten them in all 8 of their Laidler Division encounters – with a goals total of 104 to 12.
It came as a bit of a surprise, therefore, that the first meeting between the two teams of the 2019/20 season ran to a completely different script. Due to various fixture reshuffles, the first game with the Hawks 2 didn’t take place until 29th December and, even with a severely depleted team, Widnes were expected to win quite easily.
Having had the usual winless season to date, being shut out 9 times and conceding double figures in 11 of their 15 league games, the Hawks had taken advantage of an EIHA rule that allow for under21 players to play for other teams and they arrived with a contingent of Solihull Barons junior players that significantly strengthened their team for the game at Widnes.
Blackburn took a surprising lead on 16 minutes and were still 0-1 ahead at the first break. A straight hat trick from the Wild’s Shaun Dippnall eventually put Widnes in the driving seat in the second period but another Blackburn goal on 44 minutes kept things uncomfortably tight.
A Charles Ratcliffe goal on 48 minutes edged Widnes further ahead and blushes were spared when the final buzzer sounded with the Wild still managing to be leading 4-2.
It was all change for the return game at Blackburn three weeks later as the Wild notched up their highest ever league score with a 0-23 shut out. They outshot the Hawks2 by 134 to 8 and Chris Gee scored 5 goals, with Dippnall contributing 4+5 and Hajek 2+5 and MJ Clancy bagging a hat trick.
In a bizarre twist, Widnes Wild women’s team captain Emma Pearson – who had played in the Wild’s home game against the Hawks 2 to boost the player strength – actually played for the Blackburn team that night and was named their “Man of the Match”.
Pearson signed on for the Hawks 2 for the rest of the season – to help her maintain game sharpness as the Wild women battled for their own league title – and was joined at Blackburn by Riverside Raiders recreational player and Wild women coach Mike Parkin who was immediately named team captain.
The Wild’s second league visit to Blackburn on 29th February ended in a predictable – although less dramatic – 1-9 victory in which Mikey Gilbert scored 3+2 and Peter Toth 2+3.
The fourth meeting between the two teams – which had been scheduled for 22nd March – never took place as the league was suspended the week before due to the coronavirus pandemic. The EIHA eventually decided to record all remaining unplayed games as 0-0 draws, meaning that, on paper at least, it turned out be the Hawks 2’s best ever result against the Wild.