The Widnes Wild women’s team had their first home game of the 2018/19 Women’s Premier League season just before Christmas and, while they may have lost 1-9 to a very strong and highly experienced Whitley Bay Squaws side – their fifth defeat in five starts this season – nobody on the Wild camp is panicking and they are, in fact, pretty happy with the current situation as whole.
Having run a wide-reaching recruitment campaign for new players over the course of the summer, the Wild women have been able to take on a lot of new faces this season and they have taken the bold step of plunging them all right in at the deep end – and putting them straight into the team for the WPL season.
This means that, while being built around a core of long term experienced players, a large percentage of the new-look team had never played any competitive league ice hockey before this season and, in some cases, never even played any ice hockey at all!
So when you look at things in that context, “only” losing 1-3 away to a Sheffield Shadows team who were playing in the higher Elite League last season, isn’t really a bad achievement. Women’s team player coach Amanda Williams explained how the whole thing came about: “Like most Women’s teams in the UK, each year we’d tend to have a squad of around 12-14 players. With every season that’s gone by, it has become increasingly difficult to both fulfil the EIHA league rules for minimum bench sizes (or forfeit matches); and also to afford the cost of ice rental, referees etc – all of which is funded from the players’ monthly subscription fees.”
“This is an all too familiar situation in the Women’s game and, unfortunately, it has resulted in the loss of several teams and talented players over the past couple of seasons. As things are now, there just isn’t the luxury of a large number of female players in the UK. So the Summer just gone, a lot of our free time was spent on recruitment to bring more females into the game and ensure we could continue operating the team and still give women in the North West a place to play ice hockey.”
“We managed to secure a more sociable training slot and were lucky that the Learn To Play sessions held at Widnes had already interested a number of potential players. The decision to ice every new player regularly in the WPL is where we may differ to some other teams in our league, but to us it is a no brainer.”
“All players need ice time in games to learn, improve and enjoy their hockey – factors that are all crucial to the survival and success of our team.”
And five games down the line, albeit climbing a rather steep learning curve in a lot of cases, the new players are definitely showing signs of progress:
“I’ve been really impressed with how quickly they are developing and that’s largely due to their effort and enthusiasm. Leen (de Decker – Belgian international player) and I have taken training back to basics to bring everybody onto the same page as well as doing some work on individual skills, but we’ve also massively upped the intensity compared to the past couple of seasons and that has benefited everybody.”
“We have yet to win a game, but you’ve just got to keep in mind the bigger picture and focus on other victories – and there have been many of those. The dressing room is really positive and fun to be a part of. Everyone is supportive of one another – it’s definitely the best atmosphere we’ve had in the 5 years I’ve been with the club.”
In contrast to most of the new players, summer signings Jemma Brown and Philippa Wheeler both had previous league experience, having played with Kingston Diamonds and Nottingham Vipers respectively. Speaking of those two new arrivals, Williams said:
“Jemma made the move to get regular ice time, so we will see her improve with confidence as the season goes on. Philippa has proved to be a versatile player, having been played in defence and forward positions for games. Vickie Venables (nee Foster) had also played previously before taking a lengthy break from hockey when her team folded, so she has been a great addition to our team and was deservedly appointed one of our Alternate Captains.”
Having lost their first five games of the season, the emphasis for the Wild women’s team this season is – obviously – firmly upon player development rather than challenging for trophies. They do still, however, have goals to try and achieve for the season and beyond:
“ We hope to finish the season with all the players we have recruited still with us and thinking that taking up ice hockey was the best decision they’ve ever made! Joking aside, we’ll carry on taking it one game at a time and continue to head in the right direction. It would be nice to retain our place in the WPL, but our longer-term goal of building a sustainable future for the team is far more important.”
Despite the WPL season starting back in September, the Wild women only played their first game at home at Planet Ice Widnes in December. Having played away games in Milton Keynes, Sheffield, Nottingham and Hull, finally being able to play a league game at home was a great experience – particularly for all the new players, Amanda explained:
“It was great for them to finally play in front of family and friends. We had really good support at that game. The initial run of away games was probably nerve-wracking for the new players, but the long road trips meant that we got to spend more time getting to know each other and it really helped with regards to team building to have that so early on in the season.”
“Now we have more home games left than away so that will be a huge boost. The team will continue to improve game upon game, but the support we get at home games gives everybody an extra lift.”
For anybody who hasn’t seen a women’s game before – or may even be interested in taking up this exciting team sport, Amanda explains as follows:
“We don’t have body checking in the women’s game, but it is not without contact and, at our level (WPL), there is quite a mix of player ability throughout each team. The games are still competitive like in the men’s league, but play tends to be slower which allows spectators to follow it better. There is a growing number of female players in the UK who are now playing in ‘men’s leagues’, whilst others go abroad to pursue women’s hockey at a higher level.”
The Wild women’s next game is away to Bracknell Firebees on Sunday 6th January and, following that, they are at home to current league leaders Nottingham Vipers on Sunday 20th January at Planet Ice Widnes – 5.30pm face off.