With the dawning of the club’s 21st season, the Wildcats appeared to welcome the opportunity to celebrate their coming-of-age milestone with a face-off against bitter rivals Northumbria. But, with an influx of new players, there was new blood on the ice to share the occasion too.
The opening minutes offered the crowd a colourful resumption of varsity hostilities, reminding all gathered there that the summer break is seldom sufficient to thaw relations between the two. Neither team wasted the face-off, the Wildcats undercut the Kings’ early advantage but it was the aggression of the latter that brought that fateful day in May back into painfully sharp focus. A check in the centre levelled one Wildcat completely and the scoreboard had barely warmed up before a King was sent sulking to the sin bin. Sam Clarke capitalised with a retributory check while newcomer Brad Fernandes clinched his first goal less than three minutes in- the result of a plucky one-on-one with the Northumbria net minder that tucked a puck south of his reach.
"Neither team wasted the face-off, the Wildcats undercut the Kings’ early advantage but it was the aggression of the latter that brought that fateful day in May back into painfully sharp focus"
Scuffling at the Wildcat slot let the Kings in at the back door with an equaliser. They settled in with another moments later but their relief was premature. The period slipped from them to the sounds of thudding at the boards and home side cheers in the stands. Ultimately then, 2-2 seemed a fair judgement. Blood had been drawn on both sides and the varsity legacy hung heavy over old and new alike.
Entering the second period at an impasse meant the following twenty minutes were likely to be pivotal. Johnny Zajac’s first zipped in after a minute of pressure from Jeffrey Tai and Josef Davison, but a proactive Northumbrian defence denied a tearaway in the scores and their Newcastle counterparts were themselves stretched to maintain their razor-thin advantage. Had the Kings kept their heads they might have kept out the ‘Cats but a roughing penalty left them a man short and at the mercy of a revitalised Wildcat offence. Zajac bled a hat trick from the fumbles of the visitors, delivering a period that saw his team gain and extend a lead. Now at 5-3, the period once again petered out to tremors of impact on Perspex. For fans comfortable in the stands, the chorus of rumbling at the boards nicely captured the gathering frustration of the Kings.
"GOALIE NICK SMITH, WHO TURNED TWENTY ONE WHILE DIVING FOR PUCKS THAT NIGHT HAD NEVER MADE THE NET LOOK SMALLER"
Their royal woes met further despair from Davison, who after two assists was justly rewarded with a goal of his own before a minute of the last period had passed. Fernandes completed his hat trick within a breath of Zajac exceeding his and the tearaway promised since the second period manifested in the third. Goalie Nick Smith, who turned twenty one while diving for pucks that night had never made the net look smaller, and his record of saves to concessions (39-5) was a birthday present in and of itself. There was much for the entire team to be proud of. While Northumbria swapped focus for brute force, the Wildcats responded with tighter turns, considered passes and scoring that borrowed the calm and collected air of target practise. The last time King and Wildcat clashed, the crowd had hung on every second that the neon display counted down. This time around the clock paused and pondered, remembering its obligation and restarting with little attention from anyone else. The game ended 9-5 and the crowd rose from seats to applaud a good night of hockey- a fitting ovation for twenty one years of ice hockey at Newcastle University.