A weekend in Dumfries…..

It’s strange to think that this time two years ago I had never been to a hockey match in my life. I had lived in Nottingham for a year but hadn’t once taken up a match at either the Panthers or the Lions, but when I moved to Blackburn and saw that they had a hockey team, I decided to take an interest.

I was genuinely surprised that Blackburn had a hockey team, it was something that I had never associated the town with but for £6.50, you couldn’t go wrong. At the time I was very much still heavily into football and in October 2013 I surpassed the 425 straight games watching Lincoln City…..and then I missed one. As soon as I missed one I felt a great sense of relief and despite still going, I had lost all passion for it.

About 12 days after I had missed that first Lincoln game in more than 9 years, I attended my first ever game of hockey. The Blackburn Hawks, reigning Playoff champions at the time, were at home to Solway Sharks. I like to think that I have a good grasp on UK geography but my first thought was “where the hell is Solway?” I’d never heard of it.

The Hawks put in a spirited display but eventually went down 2-1 to the side that would eventually win the treble. That was in October 2013 and it is, to date, the only time I have ever seen the Hawks lose at home.

Soon afterwards I completely gave up going to Lincoln games and soon found myself regularly travelling the road with the merry band of Hawks fans. It was completely different to when I was attending Lincoln City games. There was no bitterness towards fans, the fans travelled with the team and there was a great atmosphere about the place. I was hooked. I soon even started working for the Hawks, recording the games and creating highlights out of them.

Skip forward to the end of this season and the Hawks win the title, the first in their 25 year history, but for me the season ends in a bitter sense as I had indicated that after moving back to Lincoln, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to, or will to continue to record the games and create highlights. It was then decided, without talking to me, to replace me with seeming immediate effect, with supposedly numerous volunteers to film the rest of the season…..except for the Playoffs.

But anyway, I digress. Skip forward to April 10th 2015 and it’s time for the trip up for this year’s Playoffs. For the second year running they were being held in Dumfries, home of Solway Sharks. A full 19 months after first going to a game, Solway were still the only team from our division that I had seen beat us. Solway were one of the other three teams taking part but the clubs could easily avoid each other.

Solway hadn’t enjoyed a good season by their standards. Most of their best players had left during the summer and they, at times, looked like they wouldn’t even make the Playoffs. Solway were however the only side from the NIHL to record a victory over the Hawks during the season, winning a cup encounter at the beginning of the season 6-4, but the Hawks had thoroughly beaten them in all other meetings.

They would face the Billingham Stars in the semi final. Billingham were nearly invincible at home, rarely even conceding, but that all changed at the beginning of this season when Billingham beat them 5-2 win in the cup, and despite largely being inconsistent throughout the season, Billingham finished second in the league. Billingham had lost all six encounters to the Hawks during the season.

Meanwhile, Blackburn’s semi final opponents would be the Sheffield Spartans. Despite being the lowest placed semi-finalists, Sheffield were probably the team I wanted to face least. Sheffield had caused the Hawks all sorts of problems with all of the games during the season, and on the final weekend of the regular season came exceptionally close to beating the Hawks, having a goal disallowed in a recent 4-4 draw with just 17 seconds remaining.

So anyway, after a near 5 hour journey to the north of the border, via Blackburn, I finally arrived in Dumfries at around 5pm on Friday evening. After checking into the hotel and a quick shower, I decided to explore the town. The one thing I learned about Dumfries that night was that there isn’t really a lot to do. The cinema only has one screen and I have no interest in watching Fast and Furious 7.

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The Odeon in Dumfries and their vast array of films

I wasn’t allowed into Gala Bingo because I couldn’t provide ID after losing my passport in London on Wednesday. They refused to believe that I was 18 or over and therefore refused me entry to a gambling establishment. To put how ridiculous this is into perspective, I turn 31 in September.

So after all of that I went back to the hotel and actually fell asleep at 9pm, the earliest I’ve fallen asleep in years.

At about 7:30am I wake up as a freight train passes the nearby train station and I make my way to the arena, arriving at roughly 9am. Now, you may be reading that asking why I arrived at 9am and the reason is that Solway’s arena is the smallest in the division, so it’s a bit of a surprise that the Playoffs are held there. Then again, when you’re the only team that puts in a bid then it is a little more predictable. Anyway, with it being a small arena, it means that if you don’t get there early enough then you’re not going to get a good seat, or a seat at all.

11045410_10153343768247259_2121786398707509235_nDumfries Ice Bowl, comfortably the smallest arena in the division

 

I managed to get what was near enough my usual seat at Solway, right in the middle of the Solway fans. The Solway fans are strange in the sense that they are friendly enough before the match, but once that match starts they completely change. To put it into perspective, earlier in the season they beat us 6-4 in the cup at their arena and their fans were hanging about, making the most of the victory. Skip forward a few weeks and the teams meet again in Dumfries, but this time it’s the Hawks that win 6-4 and the Solway fans are gone as soon as the game is over, there’s no hanging about at all. I’m not sure what sums them up more, being sore losers or exceptionally bad winners.

But anyway, the Hawks are out first to face the Spartans.

Blackburn Hawks vs Sheffield Spartans

The first period goes as expected with the Hawks dominating but Sheffield being excellent defensively. Sheffield were exceptionally difficult to break down throughout the season, and whilst they might not score many, they won’t concede many either and that’s why the games against them are often.

I realise one thing during the first period and that is there is no such thing as a neutral with a Blackburn Hawks game. Everyone who wasn’t a Hawks fan was definitely against the Hawks, without any shadow of a doubt. Personally it doesn’t bother me at all, I’ve heard far worse following Lincoln City around the country in football, but some Blackburn fans didn’t react well to it.

Anyway, I digress again. The second period starts in a pretty similar fashion to the first, the Hawks dominating without really going anywhere, that is until Adam Brittle scores what turned out to be a very controversial goal. I didn’t notice anything at the time but I’ve seen numerous “neutrals” (in inverted commas due to what I mentioned earlier) that although it went over the line, the goal had been moved before it had crossed the line, therefore not a goal. It was given though and that’s all that matters.

Luke Brittle makes it 2-0 shortly into the third period and the result seemed like a forgone conclusion at that point, but then came something that few people expected, a Sheffield comeback. It started with what could best be described as a Ricky Ravey own goal, but there’s no such things as own goals in hockey…apparently.

After this the Billingham fans that were located behind the goal kept trying to wind Daniel Brittle (Blackburn goalkeeper) up and it seemed to work as soon afterwards Sheffield levelled through a good move. The Solway and Billingham fans are thrilled now that the Hawks aren’t winning, but their cheers don’t last too long as Aaron Davies re-establishes the lead with just over 3 minutes to go and Luke Brittle hits into an empty net with just five seconds left.

The game ends 4-2 to the Hawks, securing a spot in the final for fourth year in a row.

Final Score – Blackburn Hawks 4 Sheffield Spartans 2

It was probably the most stressful game I have watched since I have started going to the Hawks. In many ways it is strange because when I was recording games, I never felt stressed about the games, but whenever I’ve sat watching the matches, they have often been hard to enjoy simply because of how nerve wracking they are.

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After the game I see Ryan and Liam, two stewards from Billingham that I had been speaking to on a regular basis whenever the Hawks had played them and we got on really well. I decide to sit with them for their semi final against Solway, but before I do I have to collect my belongings. I had placed my bag under the media gantry to allow as many people to get into the seated area as possible (that’s how nice I am). As I am collecting it I end up hitting my head quite hard on the edge of the pipe, I don’t think anything of it and go and join Liam and Ryan.

It was a strange atmosphere when I walked into the Billingham end with my Hawks jersey on. I must admit that I was nervous going in as all I had ever heard of Billingham fans was negative things. I had rarely heard a positive comment about them and I had gotten some odd looks going to sit down.  Fortunately I wasn’t on my own for long as Oz Phillips, a fellow Hawks fan, shows up in the Billingham end.

During the game I found Billingham fans to be the complete opposite of what I had always heard and they were a good laugh.

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Billingham Stars vs Solway Sharks

Solway Sharks dominate the early stages of the match, spending the majority of it near the Stars goal and it’s only some inspired goalkeeping from James Flavell that keeps them at bay. It doesn’t last long though as Solway take the lead after six minutes through Duncan Speirs.

The Sharks have several opportunities to extent their lead before Chris Sykes scores his first of the evening and it sends the Billingham fans wild.

A fairly even first period is completely countered by one of the most exciting second periods I’ve ever seen. There is only fourteen game seconds between Billingham establishing a two goal lead as Sykes scores his second before a James Moss effort gives Billingham a 3-1 advantage. Whilst not quite as fast, Solway score twice in 95 game seconds to equalise, the goals coming from Fowley and Melichercik.

Parity doesn’t last long though as Billingham launch an all out assault on the Solway goal score five more before the end of the period through Elder (two), Davison, Moss and Sykes completing his hatrick. The Sharks do get a fourth during that spell, although Duncan Speirs’ second of the night looked nothing more than a consolation as the period ends 8-4 to the Stars.

It’s obvious at this stage why Solway didn’t launch any sort of realistic challenge to retain either of the two trophies that they won last season that were still available for them. Solway are still a very good attacking team, but they can’t defend to save their lives and whilst Russell is an excellent goalkeeper, there is only so much you can do in front of a defence that is so easily cut open.

Whilst they will need to re-assess their defensive options for next season, going forward they have an exciting prospect in Speirs, who in my opinion is the best young player in the division (the Solway fans were gobsmacked the next morning when I told them that he wasn’t the winner of the Young Player of the Year), as he scores twice at the beginning of the third period, making it four for the night, and bring Solway back to within 2 goals.

The atmosphere in the Billingham end has completely changed and there is a sense that they will throw away the lead, but Solway can’t break them down going into the very late stages and they subsequently pull their goalkeeper. Much like the Blackburn vs Spartans game, this backfires on Solway as James Moss completes his hatrick and the game ends 9-6.

Final Score : Billingham Stars 9 Solway Sharks 6

Unsurprisingly none of the Solway fans stayed to applaud their team or the Man of the Match. They don’t even stick around to watch the end of season awards, but it is still a good evening had there with the Hawks winning most of the awards, including Coach of the Year (Jared Owen), Player of the Year (Adam Brittle) and Fans Favourite (Chris Arnone), as well as Chris Arnone, Adam Brittle and Luke Brittle featuring in the Team of the Year. Each announcement of a Hawks winner was met with a pantomime style reaction from the Billingham fans, obviously meant in a joking way.

After the presentation evening is finished Liam and Ryan invite me on their night and I thought “why not” so I end up going back to the hotel they are sharing with most of the other Billingham fans. After spending a while getting ready, they all go and grab something to eat, although I leave before their food arrives as I am exhausted.

UntitledRyan (left) and Liam made the evening interesting

I get back to the hotel and I decide to have a shower. Whilst showering I notice that the water hitting the bottom is red. I feel around the top of my head and it turns out that I had badly cut my head open when I had hit my head on the pipes earlier in the day. Although it appears to have stopped bleeding, I decided to go to A&E anyway just to get it checked out.

Fortunately, despite the amount of blood that was running down my head and the back my neck, they state that stitches and staples aren’t needed and I am allowed to leave after they clean it up.

I eventually make it back to the hotel and am out like a light.

I wake up to the sound of the rain on Sunday morning and after a very quick check out from the hotel, I make my way to the arena, soon joined by Oz and Graham. They leave soon thereafter to go to Wetherspoons but I stay behind as I had promised I would save seats for two girls who had sat next to me during the Spartans game and sure enough, they came early.

Despite being a more high pressured game than the semi final, I don’t feel as stressed about the final. As I mentioned earlier, the Hawks faced the Stars this season and won all six meetings, infact, I had seen the Hawks face the Stars about nine times and the closest that Billingham had come to winning was in last season’s Playoffs when they took the Hawks to a penalty shoot out. The Hawks won that day as well.

It was the fourth year in a row that the Hawks would face the Stars in the Playoffs, and the third time in that time that the teams had met in the final.

Playoff Final – Blackburn Hawks vs Billingham Stars

The Hawks start considerably stronger than their opponents but can’t make the breakthrough and they are punished for wasting a few opportunities just after the eight minute mark. Michael Elder isn’t closed down by the Hawks defence as he scampers around the back and the goal and slots in at the near post.

Parity doesn’t last long through as the Hawks burst forward three on two. An Arnone shot is deflected into the path of Luke Brittle and he has a simple task of slotting into an empty net to bring the Hawks level after less than a minute of being behind.

The final is far more evenly matched than either of the semi finals. Both teams attack in waves and look like scoring on a regular basis. The only surprise about the first period is that it ended 1-1. The second period isn’t goal filled either, although the Hawks do take the lead when Aaron Davies slots in from a Jake Nurse assist.

Billingham offered very little during the second period and they must have been given a hell of a bashing from their coach during the interval after the second period as they came out all guns blazing and two goals in a thirty second spell from Windridge and Elder turned it around for the Stars. They could have extended their lead a few times in the few minutes that followed as the Hawks seemed shell shocked by what had just happened.

At this point a Solway fan that was sat near me was going crazy on his drum. He was supporting the Stars but strangely kept on playing songs that wouldn’t fit with the words Billingham or Stars, and yet he kept playing and moaning that no-one was joining in. It was quite bizarre.

Back to the game, let’s not forget that the Hawks are Champions and are so for a good reason. There are always goals in the Hawks, afterall, in more than 30 games during the season they only failed to score against one team (Manchester Phoenix in the cup) and with more than 18 minutes left, you wouldn’t have bet against them, and if you did, you’d have been disappointed.

On 45:15, the Hawks were 3-2 down, by 46:31, precisely 76 seconds later, they held a 5-3 lead. Aaron Davies started the onslaught when he slotted home an Adam Brittle assist, before Luke Brittle doubled his tally for the afternoon less than 40 seconds later, giving the Hawks the lead for the second time in the afternoon.

A further 37 seconds later and Tom King rounded off the blitz. All of a sudden the atmosphere in the arena had changed. Every single Billingham head was down and after Jordan Bannon made it 6-3 just after the 50 minute mark, they never looked like pulling one back and they sort of whimpered out.

The final buzzer went and it was met with jubilation from the Hawks fans. I got my phone out to record the final few seconds and celebrations, but realised after two minutes of having my phone out and well into the celebrations that I hadn’t pressed record. Whoops.

Final Score – Blackburn Hawks 6 Billingham Stars 3

Soon after all of the Hawks were presented with their medals and the trophy. This was followed by a half an hour on ice celebration.

So that was it, the Playoff weekend was over and there was just the small matter of a 4 hour drive home, which wasn’t at fun as I’ve just made it sound….

Either way, next season starts in September and much like Solway, the Hawks face being the team to beat. Jared Owen has already confirmed he is leaving and Luke Brittle is moving to Madrid apparently, but if the Hawks can keep the majority of the rest of the squad then I am confident that they can at least challenge again next season. I certain think that we’ll put up a better fight than Solway did anyway.

Next season will be trickier in many ways though due to the division expanding to nine teams, including the Solihull Barons, a team who won the Laidler division this season with a perfect 32 wins from 32 games. Even the Hawks can’t boast a 100% record this season, however, as Widnes found out in their Playoff with Whitley, there is a big gulf in class between the divisions.

I have personally yet to decide how many games I will be attending next season. As I now get weekends off I could easily go to every game if I wanted to, but I have to think about it properly due to the money and time it takes to get over there. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to go to every game but I have a few big financial commitments coming up this year and need to save money as much as possible.

For now though, I can say that at least one of my teams is actually competent at the sport that they take part in.

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