Goodnight and Good Luck – Wightlink Raiders

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

When I returned to Britain in 2005 after living in Germany and I started watching British hockey, the first big event of any impact was the folding of the London Racers. I never got to even watch the Racers live before the issues with Lee Valley and a bunch of other stuff caused the organisation to fold. One of those on the Racers’ last ride was Jeremy Cornish.

So here we are again with one of the characters of British hockey, this time as coach having retired and to come back one last time to see out the final game of one of a club so obscure in its existence that it could only be part of British hockey.

I’ve stopped and started writing this piece a few times because I get a mixture of angry and fearful about things.

I’m quite fearful because, and it’s a point I’ve been making a fair bit recently, it could all be us tomorrow. If we’re honest with ourselves British ice hockey always lives on a bit of a knife edge at the best of times and the demise of the Raiders is a rather concise bit of evidence towards that. A financially stable organisation disappears because of a situation beyond their control with their rink with nothing the governing body could have done and with the rink owners seemingly convinced that only their course of action was the right one.

There are clubs across the country that are in a decent place but there are many where hockey is a secondary concern of the rink owners, some where facilities are old and in a state of needing serious repair and some playing wherever they can get the ice time as they have no ice of their own…and that’s just the senior teams. Junior clubs and conference sides are training at insane times at night because it’s all they can get. With another facility gone for the time being, that’s added pressure on the ones elsewhere that are old and in need of repair. It’s a cycle that doesn’t look like it will end soon that the natural worrier in me can’t help but be concerned about it.

I get angry because this entire situation could have been avoided, it really does feel that way. People will tell me that I and others are getting overly emotional about the situation. As someone who is generally quite logical in his thinking, really process driven, I respectfully tell you to take a very long walk off of the already very long Ryde Pier. The time for emotionless examination of this will come but it is not today. Ice hockey inspires emotion and that anger at a lot of people and potential future internationals having the sport that they pour their emotion into being taken away makes me angry and I make no apologies for that.

I’m angry because, as I made clear in our open letter to AEW Europe, we see the short-sighted nature of the world that we live in. I won’t go into the full details of my arguments to them in this piece, you can read that here but even if you accept the need for AEW to lock everyone out of the rink, if negotiations are ongoing regarding the venue then why has the ice been ripped out of the venue with a digger this weekend? I asked the question in the other piece but I do need to ask it again here; was it so past the point of return that this was necessary?

People newer to this organised screaming into the vacuum of the internet that we call Banners On The Wall may wonder why I care so much about a team that I don’t actually support but as much as it has become respected by some for its coverage of the Basingstoke Bison and whilst taking the above into account there are two truths that permeate how this place works; writing is the way I best articulate my thoughts about stuff so doing all this is cathartic for me and as a result, I mean what I say.

I can’t remember my first Wightlink Raiders game at Ryde 100% but one of the early ones was watching a Raiders side that featured popular and free scoring Slovak forward Robert Franc and a goalie called Slavomir Sojak who was mad as a box of frogs, had a GAA over 5 and a save percentage over 90. It was everything from the ferry ride across the Solent to the train or walking down the pier to getting through the door into the cramped rink to be greeted by my friend (now friend of over a decade) Heather Jepson to chat through the day and then chat through the game we were watching; how the Raiders would be their own worst enemy, how the DJ would mention it was a family sport then always play the version of Green Day’s American Idiot with all the swearing left in, wondering if I would need to run up the pier to the ferry, all the plates of cheesy chips, it all made for part of the experience.

The Raiders took a bit of time to adjust when they dropped out of the EPL into the NIHL but eventually they turned into one of the league’s power houses. Raiders hockey was always about trying to do it with skill and if they couldn’t do it with skill then they’d just try to mow you down with brute force. They were a fun team to watch and yes, the surroundings weren’t exactly the Bell Centre in Montreal but I don’t know anyone who left without something of a smile on their face unless their team got thumped.

That’s the reason that I care; I’ve been lucky to go to rinks around the world but Ryde was unique, the Raiders were a unique club and the people were one of a kind.

And for now they’re gone from the hockey landscape.

Yes, those players may well find other clubs and yes thankfully it seems the Buccaneers will find a way to keep going for the time being but with respect to the newer side, it’s not them I watched.

I have stared at the page trying to think of a way to end this and I’ve struggled. Then again as this story doesn’t have the most definite of conclusions, maybe that’s somewhat fitting but I suppose I need to try.

So to all of you connected with the Raiders, I send you my commiserations as well as my thoughts and my hopes. I’ve been using #NeverGoQuietly in my tweets because I felt it was important that if this day did come that you didn’t go off into the night with a whimper but a bang. The hockey we saw from the club over the decades was never like that so you shouldn’t be either. The time has come to make your voices heard and get ice sports back onto the Isle of Wight where we all know they belong. You are always welcome in Basingstoke and anywhere you choose to watch your hockey. When that happy day comes that this enforced break ends, we’ll be ready with open arms for the Raiders to come marauding back across the Solent once more.

Goodbye Raiders, thanks for everything, we’ll be seeing you soon.

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