The Wild team and fans celebrate winning the 2018 Play Off final against Sutton Sting. (Photo by Geoff White – www.gw-images.com)
The Widnes Wild ice hockey team have a superb record when it comes to the end of season play off competitions. They hold the record for number of wins and are the only team in the division to have qualified in each of the 7 years that they have been held.
They have won the last three consecutive titles, but sadly missed out on the chance of adding a fourth this year when the playing season was finished early due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Summer of 2016 saw a bit of turmoil at Widnes after player coach Scott McKenzie decided to de-camp and join near neighbours Deeside Dragons, leaving the Wild approaching the next league season with no coach and an incomplete playing roster.
In came Ollie Barron who had been long term captain of the Sheffield Spartans team in the Moralee Division and who had been left without a position after his team had been unceremoniously excluded from the ice time agreement due to political in-fighting at the iceSheffield rink.
Despite having no prior experience of coaching a team, Barron was appointed player coach and arrived with several other former Spartans who were keen to carry on playing. The newcomers – with such experienced players as Stuart Brittle, Andrew Turner, Nick Manning and – later on – Simon Offord and with the outstanding young netminding talent in Matt Croyle blended very well with the existing Wild players and an exciting new team was born.
As with the previous season, there was an unexpected challenge from a hitherto unfashionable team as the Blackburn Eagles began icing imports for the first time, enticed such players as “double double” winning captain Chris Arnone away from the Moralee Division Hawks and put together a surprisingly competitive team. They won 3 out of the 4 games against Widnes and went on to win the league title by a two point margin.
Laidler Division Play Offs 2017 (at iceSheffield) – 8th/9th April 2017
Semi Final 1: Widnes Wild 2 – Altrincham Aces 0
Semi Final 2: Blackburn Eagles 1 – Sheffield Senators 3
Final: Widnes Wild 2 – Sheffield Senators 1
The 2017 Laidler Division play offs were once again played at iceSheffield as part of a bumper weekend that also featured the Moralee Division semis and final as well. The line up saw Laidler champions Blackburn Eagles take on fourth place Sheffield Senators in one semi final and Widnes pair up against local rivals Altrincham Aces in the other.
All three of the Laidler Division games were very close. The first period in the Wild’s game against the Aces finished goal-less and it took until the 35th minute for Ollie Barron to edge Widnes in front.
The game opened up a bit after the goal and both sides started playing with a bit more freedom but the score remained 1-0 to Widnes at the second break.
Once they had scored, Widnes began to look the better side and were able to stamp their authority on the game. The Aces started taking more penalties and, during a powerplay for a holding call, Ollie Barron deflected a Simon Offord rocket shot past Aces netminder Declan Ryan to give the Wild a 2 goal advantage with 9 minutes left to play.
The remaining minutes were very scrappy with both sides picking up penalties and the Wild had to do without the services of Berwyn Hughes and Stuart Brittle who both picked up 2+10 minute penalties for checking.
The Wild’s game had followed the form book as they beat third place finishers Altrincham Aces 2-0 in the early morning game but the second semi-final was a different story.
The Eagles had finished a massive 10 points ahead of fourth place Senators in the final Laidler table and had a 2-1-1 record against the Senators. They would normally have been expected to be firm favourites to reach the final but the Eagles’ preparations for the play offs had been overshadowed by a dispute with their home rink over ice time arrangements and sponsorship for the new season and this may have taken its toll on the players.
As it was, the Sheffield Senators – playing on their home ice – raced into a 0-3 lead by the first break and the game was effectively over after just 20 minutes. Although the Eagles outshot the Senators by 41 to 31, their finishing was certainly below par and Mark Hartley played a blinder in the Sheffield goal.
A goal for the Eagles just after the mid-point of the game did little to change their fortunes and ended up being little more than a consolation.
In the final on the Sunday, the Wild were quickest out of the blocks and put Sheffield under pressure right from the first drop of the puck. The Senators looked sluggish and had probably used up a lot of energy reserves in their game the day before and it was no great surprise when Widnes took the lead through team captain Shaun Dippnall after 11 minutes.
What was more of a surprise was that the score remained 1-0 at the first break and it was not until 23.12 on the clock that the Wild scored again – with player coach Ollie Barron picking up a rebound and firing the puck into the Sheffield net to double the Widnes advantage.
Widnes were by far the better team at this point – looking likely to score again at any moment – and it was only due to the shot-stopping heroics of Mark Hartley in the Sheffield goal that the score was kept down.
Sheffield finally managed to drag themselves back into the game with a goal by Elliott Knell after 45 minutes and the rest of the match was played on a knife edge. The Senators looked much better going forward by now and Widnes had to work hard to protect their single goal lead.
The clock ticked down without further incident and Widnes were able to celebrate the perfect end to their best ever season so far in which they had achieved their best ever league position, finishing just 2 points behind league champions Blackburn Eagles, and brought Ollie Barron a piece of silverware in his first season as a player coach.
Laidler Division Play Offs 2018 (at Widnes) – 14th/15th April 2018
Semi Final 1: Sutton Sting 4 – Telford Tigers 3
Semi Final 2: Widnes Wild 6 – Hull Jets 5 (PS)
Final: Sutton Sting 3 – Widnes Wild 6
The 2017/18 season saw the Barron-led team ready for another challenge for the Laidler Division title and this time around they were undone by the decision of Sutton Sting to drop down from the Moralee Division for the season. As it happened, Widnes actually won three of the four league meetings between the two sides but were eventually undone by poor results against lower table teams and ended up in second place in the table once again, 7 points behind champions Sutton.
The other two play off places went to Hull Jets – who finished in third place, level on points with the Wild – and Telford Tigers who finished one point behind.
There was a new format for the play offs this season with the Moralee competition having quarter finals, semis and final played as home and away ties but the Laidler teams opted to keep with the single weekend arrangement. The Planet Ice rink at Widnes was selected as the venue with the two semi finals being played on the Saturday and the final on the Sunday.
The Wild had to come from behind in their semi-final game against the Hull Jets, trailing 2-5 at the mid-way point of the game before fighting back to draw 5-5 at the end of the third period and forcing the game into overtime.
The extra 5 minutes of play produced no “golden goal” winner so the tie went to a penalty shoot-out – the first one ever seen at Planet Ice Widnes. The score was tied at two penalties each after three attempts and it actually took 4 more rounds of “sudden death” shots – due to the inspired shot-stopping skills of both Wild’s Matt Croyle and Hull’s Dean Bowater – before the two teams could be separated, with the Wild’s Shaun Dippnall firing in the winning penalty much to the delight and relief of team-mates and fans alike.
The other semi-final saw Sutton Sting beat Telford Tigers 4-3 to set up a champions v runners up battle for the coveted play off title.
In the final on the Sunday, the Wild got off to a good start – after a very tense opening phase – with goals from Danny Bullock and Nick Manning to take a 0-2 lead into the first break. However, they were pegged back with two quick strikes by Sutton early in the second period – on 22 and 25 minutes – but a well-taken second goal of the game for Manning re-established the Widnes lead some 90 seconds later.
There was no more scoring in the second period but Sutton looked increasingly threatening and, had they not incurred penalties at crucial moments, might have made more of their chances.
A 4th goal for Widnes just 90 seconds into the third period, courtesy of Andrew Turner, gave the Wild a bit of breathing space – but the Sutton attack continued and they scored on 52 minutes to narrow the gap once again to a single goal and set up a fascinating last few minutes.
The Wild defended furiously in this closing phase and managed to keep the Sutton offence at bay. A goal by Stuart Brittle with just 3 minutes left to play pretty much settled the game and the win was made certain, after the Sting had pulled their netminder in favour of an extra attacking player, with an “empty net goal” by hat-trick man Nick Manning in the dying seconds.
The Play Off title win saw the Wild take silverware for the second year in a row and end the season on a high note, having also finished runners up in the Laidler Division for the third year in succession.
Laidler Division Play Offs 2019 (at Widnes) – 20th /21st April 2019
Semi Final 1 (4.30pm) : YKK Widnes Wild 9 – Bradford Bulldogs 3
Semi Final 2 (7.30pm) : Telford Tigers2 1 – Hull Jets 4
Final: Widnes Wild 6 – Hull Jets 3
The 2018/19 season was case of “third time lucky” for Ollie Barron and his men as they finally secured the Laidler Division title that had previously eluded them.
The Wild finished top of the league 6 points ahead of runners-up Telford Tigers, with the other play off places going to third place Hull Jets and Bradford Bulldogs – who had qualified for the first ever time.
The Laidler Division Play Off weekend was staged at the Planet Ice rink in Widnes for the second year running – with two semi finals on Saturday and the final on Easter Sunday.
The first semi final saw Widnes beat Bradford Bulldogs in a high-octane encounter which, despite being very close for much of the game, eventually finished 9-3.
Bradford actually scored first in the game and, while Widnes fought back, the game remained on a knife-edge with the score finely balanced at 3-3 at the half way stage.
Two goals late in the second period finally gave the Wild a bit of breathing space and then 4 unanswered goals in the third ensured the win for Widnes, albeit with a scoreline that was probably a little harsh on the battling Bradford side.
The second semi final saw league runners up Telford Tigers2 take on third place finishers Hull Jets in an incredibly tense game between two very closely matched teams. Hull scored the only goal in the first period and then made it 0-2 by the end of the second. The Tigers pulled a goal back early in the third period and looked as if they might stage a late rally but they got caught out at the back while pushing forward and Hull scored twice more in the closing stages to win the game 1-4.
In the final on Sunday between Widnes and Hull, Wild player coach Ollie Barron helped settle any early nerves by firing the Wild into the lead after just 5 minutes of play. A second goal followed from Danny Bullock with just 60 seconds left in the period and the Wild took a 2-0 lead into the first break.
Widnes scored three more goals – from Tom Jackson, Jakub Hajek and Ross Jordan – to build up a healthy 5-0 lead before Hull finally managed to find the back of the net in the 37th minute.
The Humbersiders noticeably upped their game after this breakthrough and two more strikes for the Jets in the third period set up a nerve-jangling finale.
The last 5 minutes were all Hull as they laid siege to the Widnes goal, with netminder Matt Croyle and the dogged Wild defence performing wonders to keep the puck out of the net.
The Jets removed their netminder for the last 60 seconds of the game to allow for an extra attacking player and, but with just 20 seconds left on the clock, the Wild’s Jakub Hajek broke out of defence and skated the length of the ice to fire in an empty net goal, which finally put the result beyond all doubt.
The Wild’s third play off win in a row, added to the Laidler Division championship title, represented an impressive haul of trophies from player coach Ollie Barron’s three seasons in charge at the club – even more so as he had no coaching experience before taking over the reins at Widnes in the summer of 2016.
Following this success, Barron decided to step down from his position as player coach and retire from the game on high note.
He was replaced by Mike Clancy who began a rebuilding process to put together a new look Widnes team based around youth and development. Unfortunately, the season was one to forget and the Wild only finished fourth in the Laidler Division table. Although they did qualify for the Play Offs for the seventh season in a row, they did not get the chance to defend their title as the event had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.