Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hockey Night in Wight

It’s the most unlikely of places to find a hockey game, a rather isolated island in a country more fascinated in soccer than hockey. But as Grant Woolsey explains in his Toronto Star article, hockey is catching on over on the Isle of Wight.

Woolsey stopped in at the rink of the Wightlink Raiders, a Premier League hockey team in England which calls Ryde their home. It’s an interesting look at the game and how it’s impacted on the town, who cheer on their unusual heroes with much glee.

Playing in a rather petite rink, which features perhaps the smallest ice surface ever used for a hockey game, the Raiders are a struggling team this year, recording only three wins in their 43 league games this season.

The plight of Wight was also examined on Bob McCown’s Prime Time Sports on Tuesday as Steve Price, one of the team owners, shared some of the more interesting moments of hockey on the Isle.

You can look for the podcast of the broadcast on the Fan590 site, the segment was featured in the tail end of the final hour of the Tuesday, March 20th show.

132,000 people call the Isle of Wight home, a regular group of them faithful followers of the Raiders, who 700 strong attend every game of the local heroes. At times, the hockey following has a larger contingent than soccer, which is rather startling considering the lack of background to the game on the ice.

Woolsey takes us to a place where the hockey may not be particularly stellar at times, but it seems the passion is just as rabid as in any small town in North America where the local team defines the local identity.

Hockey unlike anywhere else
Small town, tiny arena and a terrible team are no deterrent to the rabid fans of the Wightlink Raiders
March 20, 2007
Garth Woolsey

Toronto Star

The rink is tiny and the team's win total minuscule, but the game – hockey – is big on the Isle of Wight, of all places.

Make that a most peculiar brand of hockey.

They love their Wightlink Raiders in Ryde, the main city on the island in the English Channel, despite their franchise in the 12-team English Premier League having won only three of 43 league games this season. Plus, they play in a 1,200-seat arena with one of the smallest ice surfaces in pro hockey, or anywhere for that matter.

With only six wins last season and the current one mercifully ended with a pair of ugly losses on the weekend (9-1 and 16-3), this is a team steeped in defeat. There's something wrong on Wight, right?

Forward and co-coach Dave Williams loves playing in one of our national sport's more extreme outposts. But he is also keenly aware of just how far he is from his hometown, the Toronto suburb of Thornhill, both in distance and standards of play.

Hockey as played by the Wightlink Raiders is different, to say the least. They play in a rink so tiny that virtually every shot is a scoring chance. Opponents often pepper the Raiders goalie with 80 shots a game and double-digit scores are commonplace. Mostly, overwhelmingly, the home team is on the losing side of the ledger – 12-2, 12-1, 11-0, 10-1, 13-3 ... oof, 15-0.
They are awful and Williams and his teammates know it.

So do their fans. Yet they continue to flock to the little, rather decrepit arena, in Ryde, the only one on the island of some 132,000 inhabitants, half of them 45 or older, few born with hockey in their blood. There are teams in the league with much better records that have much worse support. Not that the crowds are standing room only in Ryde (as in the Beatles' "She's Got A Ticket to ..."), but nearly 700 show up on average for the Wightlink games and those who do are avid, if not exactly sophisticated.

Hockey outdraws soccer and that's no mean feat.

The team is named after a sponsor, Wightlink Ferries, one of the services that links the island to the mainland. The franchise, born in the early `90s, had great success early on, winning four championships. But the competition has improved while the small-market Raiders' own funding, in a league without a salary cap, has left them less competitive.

Williams, 26, says the rink, measuring 165-by-65 feet is unique (compared to 200-by-85 for the NHL standard and 200-by-98.5 for the Olympics). "It's honestly something you've probably never, ever seen before. You can step out from behind your own net, take a shot and have a legitimate scoring chance. The game is so fast you can shoot from practically anywhere and have a chance to score.

"The building itself is in bad condition, it's falling apart and they're trying to get a new rink. But the fans just love it. It's a unique situation because the stands are right on top of you, the fans are looking down and you're looking up and it's packed nearly every home game."

There are stories from the early days of hockey in Britain of a rink surface in Blackpool shaped like a gigantic D, another in Glasgow 220 feet long and one in Durham that required players to skate around roof-support pillars. But most rinks used for hockey throughout the U.K. and Europe now have large, Olympic-sized surfaces.

Williams, who attended St. Michael's College School in Toronto and went on to play on scholarship for Lake Forest College near Chicago, landed a job in the Premier league with Hull last season. He started the current season with the Amarillo (Texas) Gorillas in the Central Hockey League, but was placed on waivers after four games and jumped at the chance to play on the Isle of Wight, one of the maximum of four imports on the team. He has modest stats, helps coach and is making about $400 a week. Life is good.

"The town is really old," he said. "I live with a great family, 30 seconds from the beach. It's totally separate, the lifestyle and culture. It's not as up-to-date as the mainland."

The Premier league is one down from the 10-team Elite league, which allows each team a maximum of 10 imports, many of them accomplished Eastern Europeans (ex-NHLer Theo Fleury made headlines last season when he had a whirl with the Belfast Giants). That league might be the equivalent of the Central or ECHL in North America, while the one Wightlink plays in, Williams said, is similar in calibre to Junior A or the low pros. The key to success, he added, is the quality of each team's British players, many of whom have jobs on the side.

Wightlink has been through ownership upheaval that has left it financially strapped and less competitive. But there are new owners and fresh money in the mix for next season.

"We're not great but we try hard," he said. "Yeah, it gets frustrating. As a competitive athlete you want to win every time you get on the ice. But here they think if you keep the score under 10, you've done a great job. I don't think I'd ever lost by 10 in my entire life before I got here. ... If you score a couple of goals, keep the other guys under 10 and beat somebody up, they just love you."

Dan Sweeney, Montreal raised and now settled in Oakville and out of hockey, was one of the Isle of Wight hockey pioneers, spending nine years there throughout the 1990s as both player and GM. His dream was to build a new, larger multi-purpose arena and establish links to a Canadian hockey school. But the plan stumbled on money and local government support.

"I talk to people," Sweeney said, "and they ask, `Did you play pro in North America?' No. `Did you play semi-pro in Europe.' No. I tell them I played quarter-pro on the Isle of Wight."
Better than nothing.

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