The YKK sponsored Widnes Wild have reached the half way point of their 2022/23 NIHL season and sit comfortably in the middle of the Moralee Division table, occupying 5th place out of 9 teams.
In their 16 league games to date they have won 8, lost 7 and picked up a point for an “overtime loss” (drawn at the end of normal time and decided by a sudden death golden goal), and that gives them a grand total of 17 points. They are two points behind fourth place Solihull Barons – who have played one game fewer – and three ahead of Blackburn Hawks who have played two games more.
Add to that the fact that they won their first silverware of the season a couple of weeks ago with a two- legged victory in the North West Cup at the expense of fierce rivals Blackburn Hawks, there is a lot to be pleased about in the Wild camp at present.
Although, with the best will in the world, the Moralee Division title is probably beyond their reach for this season – with top two teams Solway Sharks and Whitley Warriors enjoying a healthy lead at the head of the table – Widnes are still very much in the running to defend the Moralee Cup that they won last season and also have the opportunity to do well in the end of season play offs.
The quarter final pairings for the play offs will be decided by the final league standings - with the higher finishing teams theoretically getting an easier route to the latter stages - and this means that every point and every game is vitally important right up to the last day of the regular season - and there is much still to play for.
The achievements this season so far are all the greater in view of the various upheavals behind the scenes that took place during the summer. Long term chairman and club founder Matt Lloyd stood down after 9 years and was replaced at the helm by Danny Davies and Georgia Weekes. The club also parted company with General Manager Wez Spurrett, who had helped guide the Wild team through the Covid lockdown period and oversaw their North 21 and National Division 1 Championship wins in 2021 and the Moralee Cup in 2022.
The usual merry-go-ound of player arrivals and departures that always accompanies British ice hockey every summer saw the loss of last season’s Moralee Division top goalscorer Vlads Vulcanovs and top netminder Harrison Walker who moved upwards to National Division teams Sheffield Steeldogs and Leeds Knights respectively – and also influential defencemen Tom Stubley and Chris Wilcox, who both went back to their native Hull ND team that hadn’t operated last season.
But a sense of stability was assured with the welcome return of Richard Haggar as head coach as well as a trusty core of long term Wild players like Ken Armstrong, Bez Hughes, Tom Jackson and Lee Kemp.
Former Hull Jets sharpshooter Haggar had joined the Wild as a player for the behind closed doors North 21 Cup and then took over as player coach for the 3 Rivers Cup and National Championship. Last season, he guided the Wild to an impressive 3rd place finish in the Moralee Division and the Moralee Cup win, and also ended up with the highest number of assists in the league standings, putting him in 3rd place in terms of overall points scored.
Haggar set about the task of building a squad that would be competitive in the Moralee Division and he attracted two players with National Division experience in forward Joey Coulter and netminder Miles Finney.
Altrincham Aces Laidler Division pairing Andrew Hopkins and Jonathan Williamson stepped up a division to join the Wild and a handful of promising youngsters were also signed on 2-way arrangements with other clubs.
In terms of league results so far, the Wild games have gone pretty much to form – losing home and away to Solway Sharks and Whitley Warriors, beating bottom team Sheffield twice and having mixed results against fellow mid-tablers Solihull and Blackburn.
The surprise package so far has been the impressive form of Billingham Stars who only finished in 6th place in the Moralee Division last season but this year are enjoying a much better campaign and are sitting in a lofty 3rd place with 12 wins from 19 games.
Widnes lost to Billingham both home and away in their first two meetings of this season and will be looking to improve on that performance in the second round of games.
Other opponents who the Wild will have clearly in their sights are local rivals Deeside Dragons who are playing catch-up after their league fixtures were put on hold due to their home venue not being ready after a refit.
Widnes still have all four league games to play against their M56 rivals – two at home and two away – and games between those two sides are always keenly anticipated and robustly contested.
Deeside have actually played once in Widnes this season – winning a challenge cup game 4-6 back in October – and, if dates and ice time allow, there are hopes that the return game might be scheduled in North Wales before the end of the season to offer the Wild a chance of winning yet another trophy.