The YKK-sponsored Widnes Wild were crowned Division 1 National Champions after their Play Off win in Sheffield in June 2021 (Photo by Geoff White)
WIDNES WILD ICE HOCKEY CLUB
Widnes Wild were established to enter Division 2 North (now Laidler Conference) of the National Ice Hockey League during the summer months of 2013. Original team manager Mick Caunce had run the Fylde Flyers club in Cleveleys for the two previous seasons and, after that club folded, he and coach Mark Gillingham, along with a core of former Flyers players, moved to set up the new team in Widnes.
The team name of Widnes Wild was chosen with a distinctive ‘big cat’ logo and a white, black and gold playing uniform.
Despite some inconsistent results during this debut season, public support for the team grew, with crowds often topping 400. Crowd interest was encouraged by huge double page photo spreads in the local press.
After a credible fifth place finish, the Wild found themselves in the end-of-season play off weekend at Solihull where, despite a good performance, they were eliminated in the semi final by eventual double winning Barons.
The 2014-15 season saw four league victories over neighbours and close rivals, Deeside but, once again the formidable Solihull Barons were the major obstacle with Telford Tigers NIHL taking the runners up slot in the league.
The Wild improved on the previous season by finishing 4th in the league and once again qualifying for playoffs.
They also took part in the promotion/relegation play-off double header against Whitley Warriors. Once one of the biggest clubs in the country, Whitley proved far too strong, despite the Wild being cheered on by a big travelling support in the North East.
The summer of 2015 saw Mick Caunce and some of the players and officials from the previous two seasons leaving the club, and Mark Gillingham stepping down as the Wild’s Head Coach due to work commitments. Former Telford EPL star Scott McKenzie was appointed as player-coach in a full time professional role and Jon Anderson took over as General Manager
Despite huge hopes of winning the league title, the Wild were pipped in the league by Deeside and had to make do with second place. The two teams met in the play off final at iceSheffield where the Dragons completed the league and play off double.
The Wild met Sheffield Spartans in their second end of season promotion/relegation play off in two seasons, but the Yorkshiremen proved too strong in the game staged at Blackburn Arena.
Season 2016-17 started with controversy with the unexpected departure of player coach Scott McKenzie to local rivals Deeside Dragons just weeks before pre season training.
His replacement was Oliver Barron, a hugely experienced player who was keen to take on a player coaching role following a long playing career in the senior ranks with various Sheffield teams. The sad demise of the Sheffield Spartans led to his availability along with fellow Spartans, brother Will, Andrew Turner, Stuart Brittle, Mike Mawer, Nick Manning and Matt Croyle, who all signed for the Wild.
Despite the summer upheavals the Wild enjoyed their best ever season up to then, finishing runners up again in the league but this time just 2 points behind an unexpectedly strong Blackburn Eagles team. Widnes met archrivals Deeside Dragons in one-off promotion game at the neutral Blackburn Arena but lost out in overtime after drawing the match 3-3.
The Wild once again featured in the Play Off weekend – this time at iceSheffield. They beat Altrincham Aces 2 –0 in the semi-final and then beat the Sheffield Senators 2-1 in the final to secure the first silverware in the club’s short but eventful history.
The 2017/18 season saw the Wild finish as runners-up for the third year in a row – this time behind Sutton Sting, who had dropped into the Laidler Division for a season of rebuilding.
Interestingly enough, Widnes had a superior “head to head” record against all the top teams in the league – Sutton, Telford, Hull and Altrincham – and it was surprise defeats at the hands of Bradford and Sheffield, who both finished in the lower half of the table, that cost them the title.
The Laidler Play Off weekend was held at Planet Ice Widnes for the first time in April 2018 and, after a highly dramatic semi final against Hull Jets that went to overtime and sudden death penalty shoot out, the Wild beat Sutton in the final to collect their second play off title in a row.
In summer of 2018, the Wild secured a sponsorship deal with world renowned company YKK and went on to have best ever season of their 6 year history, finally winning the elusive Laidler Division title after having finished in second place in the league for the past three years.
Ollie Barron set out his stall in the summer by signing players with considerable Moralee Division experience such as Scott Cooper and Ross Jordan, and also Daniel Fay – who had previously been playing for Bracknell Bees in S1.
Top scoring Czech import Jakub Hajek was lured away from local rivals Altrincham Aces and the second import berth was filled by Michal Novak – another Czech-born player with considerable lower league experience in his native land but unknown in this country.
After early season defeats away to Telford Tigers and Hull Jets, Widnes bounced back and embarked on a club record 17-game winning run that saw them establish themselves the top of the league table and build up a significant lead over the chasing pack.
That impressive run came to an end away at Telford and then a home defeat to the Tigers as well left the Wild players and fans sweating over the mathematical permutations for the title for a little longer than might otherwise had been the case.
Widnes finally secured the necessary points for their first league championship with a win over local rivals Altrincham Aces on 17th March with two games left to play.
The title win led to a first ever appearance in the Division 2 National Championship final at the Coventry weekend but this ended in a 7-1 defeat by the South 2 Champions Slough Jets.
The Wild bounced back to win their third play off title in a row in the tournament that was once again staged at Widnes, beating Hull Jets in a highly entertaining final after having overcome Bradford Bulldogs in the semi.
Following on from this double winning triumph, Ollie Barron decided to step down as coach and retire from the game. Several other senior players also left the club, either following Barron into retirement or switching to other teams.
The 2019/20 season saw Mike Clancy appointed as head coach but the team struggled with injuries and the season was cut short in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Wild finished in fourth place in the Laidler Division table after the EIHA decided to write off the remaining unplayed games as 0-0 draws with no points awarded. This denied Widnes to opportunity of an exciting potential title showdown with eventual champions Hulls Jets as a winner takes all encounter had been scheduled as the last match of the season.
After a 12 month shut down of competitive ice hockey, the Wild successfully applied for “elite status” and were able to take part in the NIHL North Cup streaming series, which was played behind closed doors due to Covid restrictions. Former player coach Ollie Barron returned to the club and put together a strong squad which went on to win the cup competition.
Richard Haggar took over as player coach for the subsequent NIHL North Three Rivers Cup tournament, which saw the Wild finish in second place behind cup winners Sheffield Scimitars.
Widnes qualified for the Division 1 National Championship Play Offs where they beat Slough Jets 5-3 in the semi final and then Sheffield 7-4 in the final to be crowned Division 1 National Champions for the first time.
During the summer of 2021, Richard Haggar was confirmed as player coach for the 2021/22 season where the Wild are planning to set up a league and play in the Moralee Division for the first time. The club also has a new General Manager in Wez Spurrett who is overseeing day to day affairs.