Widnes Wild assistant coach Richard Charles has been with the club on and off since the very first game – and originally joined the club as a player, having successfully negotiated the open player trials back in the summer of 2013.
It’s quite an achievement to be selected for any competitive team in the first place but, if you bear in mind that Richard was actually 40 years old at the time – that makes the achievement all the more remarkable – or does it..?
A quick look at his ice hockey CV tells you all you need to know about his excellent pedigree – as he is able to boast a background that would have been pretty much unmatched in the NIHL either then or since.
Richard Charles began playing hockey at the age of 11 in Dundee as part of the Dundee Rockets junior development. The Dundee club were the trailblazers in British ice hockey in the 1980s, winning two British League titles, three British Championship Play Off titles and one Autumn Cup and their junior system was held in very high regard.
During this period, Charles captained the Dundee U16 team to the U16 Scottish league title and the Junior British Championships at Wembley, also gaining international honours on a number of occasions for Scotland and Great Britain at U16 level.
He went on to play for the Dundee-based Tayside Tigers from 1989/90 to 1995/96 in the Scottish National League and, again during this period, gained a number of international honours with the Great Britain U19 squad, including a bronze medal at the 1991 European Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria.
He spent the 1996/97 with the Blackburn Hawks in the Northern Premier League, before returning to Scotland for the 1997/98 with the Fife Flyers in the British National League.
Unfortunately – from an ice hockey point of view – the world of work kicked in at that point and Richard was unable to commit to all the training and travelling and had to give up playing the game he loved.
So – fast forward some 15 years and Richard was now living in St Helens – just up the road from where the new Widnes rink had just opened. He attended the player trials was invited to join the team and, from there, found himself lining up for the very first game against Sheffield Spartans on 11th August 2013.
Here Richard takes up the story:
“What do I remember about the Wild’s first ever game? – firstly, the crowd. I have very vivid memories of the atmosphere in the ice rink. Widnes Vikings rugby league team had played earlier that day and there were many in the crowd who had come along afterwards to see what this ice hockey was all about. They had obviously been partaking in a few beers during and after the rugby and were definitely in good ‘spirit’ for the game. At one point there was a pyramid of beer cans stacked up against the plexi-glass and a group of bare-chested guys were singing and shouting their support, clearly enjoying themselves.”
“I remember being at centre ice with one of the Sheffield lads and he turned to me and said “where have you got these fans from, this is fantastic?” From that day on it hasn’t really changed. To hear that from someone from such an established club as Sheffield said a lot. The club has always been blessed with a lot of very supportive and committed fans and everyone at the club is truly appreciative and thankful for that. They have come on this journey with the players and officials and are most definitely a huge part of the club.”
“As I got into the game, it was clear that the style had changed since I had last played. I was always a hard working, physical player throughout my career. Back then you followed through on your check, the player on the receiving end took the hit and then you then both got on with the game. You did everything you could to get hold of that puck and put it in the opponents’ ‘onion bag’, but when the whistle went you got back to the bench or into the next face-off and started again. Not now.”
“Whenever I followed through on my check I’d get a whack with a stick, or an offer to fight in return. The officials also weren’t keen on this style of play and I recall getting a few penalties in the game. At this level now, not many players seem to be able to give and take a hit and the officials are very keen to penalise what I would class as fair physical play in a fast and physical sport.”
“There was about 10 minutes to go in the 3rd and I went down heavily to the ice, sliding pretty hard into the boards underneath the clock. As a result of the impact I had clearly damaged my ribs and was struggling to breathe. I had to sit out a few shifts in an attempt to recover. I then had one more shift but then had to sit out the rest of the game after I got checked by a young kid and I landed on my coccyx.”
“I also think that more damage had been initiated going into the boards that day. In the first league game against Deeside a few weeks later, in a very innocuous challenge, I really hurt my shoulder. The injury turned out to be a torn supraspinatus tendon. I eventually ended up on the surgeon’s table and my playing career had come to an abrupt end way sooner than I, Mick, Mark and Matt had planned.”
“It had been fifteen years since I had played a competitive game of hockey, back with Fife Flyers in the 1997/98 season. I was now 40 years of age. I felt at the start like I was 18 years old again, back playing the game that had given me so many pleasures and experiences over the years, with my wife Amanda and son Finlay watching me finally play the game I’d talked so much about.”
“The next day I felt every day of that 40 years of age, but I had enjoyed that game so, so much, even with all the pain.”
“Anyway, it turned out that I was awarded ‘Man of the Match’, which, of course, was a great honour for me. I assumed Craig Williams would have got it for scoring the first ever Widnes Wild goal – a great memory.”
“Mick Caunce, Mark Gillingham and Matt Lloyd had pulled together a very good group of lads in a very short time to get this team off the ground and I will be forever grateful for them giving an old timer like me the opportunity to be involved back then. I still take great pride from my involvement with the club.”