A year ago, the Newcastle Wildcats Women emerged as the first female-only side in university ice hockey outside of Oxbridge. Untested and with limited experience together, the girls nevertheless grew comfortably into their underdog mantle and provided onlookers with a tour de force of all that student sportswomen could achieve within a game that overwhelmingly represents males.
"Face-off separated the bark from the bite though, as the ladies in white snatched the break and spun the puck into play"
Their inaugural season opened with a pair of fixtures that saw the ladies settle old scores with perennial rivals the Northumbria Kings. With their home front secure, the ice queens set out to conquer new foes in an offensive that saw them criss-crossing the ice of the Northern league, mounting bears and skinning lions along the way. They came within a paw’s swipe of the title spot, but met their match in the icy embrace of the Bradford Sabres. Now, with coaching duo Steph Towns and Amy Campbell plus team captain Kirsty “the Mallard” Ballard leading the way, the Wildcats have returned to write a new chapter in their historic journey.
The familiar chorus of “Wildcats!” followed a boisterous roar from the Lions to announce the beginning of the game. Face-off separated the bark from the bite though, as the ladies in white snatched the break and spun the puck into play. Wasting no time, Ballard notched up the first goal 47 seconds in with an assist for Emma Painter. Birmingham were still collecting themselves as the second zipped past 12 minutes later from the stick of Sacha Riley-Smith. Their defensive woes were particularly acute outside of the slot, where, faced with lithe incursions by Wildcat forwards, their rear line proved porous, rigid and sluggish to react.
It left an insurmountable task for their net minder, who rarely stayed still as the period wore on, often falling to his knees to meet the pucks that came like hail. Their initial confidence deserting them, the Lions succumbed to clumsiness and failed to gather the momentum for a counterattack; their breakaways easily scooped up by the Newcastle defence. It would be all to the Wildcats’ advantage. Coach Towns and captain Ballard closed the period leading by example by doubling their opponent’s score deficit.
"Their defensive woes were particularly acute outside of the slot, where, faced with lithe incursions by Wildcat forwards, their rear line proved porous, rigid and sluggish to react"
There was another goal before the clock had counted one minute in the next period and to add insult to injury less than 20 seconds later Riley-Smith scored another. Before long, Ballard had secured a hat trick and propelled her squad to a 7-0 lead. Play continued to swarm around the Birmingham slot but his efforts delayed any further stings as the Wildcat offensive temporarily eased off.
The ensuing lull saw some of the most serious attempts at scoring from the Lions, including an audacious goalward lunge that gave net minder Sarah Jayne Boulton cause for alarm. A series of comfortable saves brought Birmingham crashing back to reality. Alongside the reliable back checking of Lauren Bilby and Olivia Wilson, plus Beth Harris and newbies Amy Musson and Michelle Prout in the third line, the mid-period scoring hiatus lingered long enough for the Lions to exhaust themselves. Campbell capitalised, signing off on a progressively predictable period with a swipe into the left corner of the netting.
"birthday girl Melissa Gough kicked off her three point period with a well-aimed strike beyond the Lions’ reach"
A tentative resumption of Birmingham’s offensive efforts at the start of period three were soundly crushed by a wave of clinical finishing from the home side a few minutes in. Prout was justly rewarded for her earlier tenacity with an assist to Towns’ period opening goal, and a double figure goal difference soon emerged after a triangulated effort by Campbell, Victoria “Scuddaz” Scudamore and Jessica Ward. It stretched to 11 as birthday girl Melissa Gough kicked off her three point period with a well-aimed strike beyond the Lions’ reach, before supporting her captain as Ballard bagged her fourth and fifth goals of the game. Opposition from Birmingham dissolved with the sealing of Riley-Smith’s hat trick at the 57th minute, eliciting a desperate time-out from the opposing coach. From the stands the situation seemed cruel and drawn out, and so it fell to Towns to move in for the kill and splash a 15-0 conclusion on the neon scoreboard.
Once the rink had cleared, team captain Ballard was available to reflect on her team’s performance. “It always helps to be on home ice but I think our win at Sheffield last week helped our confidence. We’ve got a good team behind us this year too, with a good mix of new and old.”
On her new role as captain, Kirsty praised the contribution of the season’s new additions. “I’m proud to be leading the North’s first women’s team, but I’m especially proud of our third line who had their first ever game tonight.”