Blackburn Eagles are aiming to sign off in style at Sheffield this weekend at the NIHL North Laidler D2 play-offs.
The Eagles clinched the regular season title, but subsequently announced they would fold at the end of the campaign after being forced out of their home rink.
Despite the controversy, captain Wayne Slater says the Eagles are delighted to be taking part in the league’s end-of-season showcase event.
“I believe this weekend is a great way to celebrate and exhibit what these two great leagues are all about and to bring hockey families together from up and down the country,” said Slater.
“Let’s not forget that the majority of players in both divisions play this game for the love of the sport, with many in Laidler including the Eagles paying to play.
“Despite the ongoing uncertainty around our future, we’re all excited for this weekend. I think there is probably more of a buzz around the team than there would have been, as this could be the last time we lace them up on the same team.
“Personally, this weekend is a very bitter-sweet feeling as it could possibly be the last time I play competitive hockey.
“I was willing to play for another year with the Eagles, however due to the unnecessary ongoing issues and politics that has littered Blackburn for years it seems very unlikely I’ll have the opportunity to do it.
“No matter the results I’m honoured to have been part of the Eagles family and to have been able to lift the champions trophy with them this year.
“Hopefully something can be resolved post this weekend that will allow the Eagles to continue to prove their worth in the Moralee next year.
“Let’s not forget there are two Blackburn teams at this weekend’s play-offs for the second year running – that truly shows the strength of the sport in Blackburn. To coin a phrase from one of the biggest hockey fans in Blackburn I know – #onetowntwoteams.”
Sheffield Senators stand in the way of the Eagles in Saturday’s semi-final and their forward Nathan Britton believes home advantage could help his team.
“We’d set our expectations much higher than finishing fourth, but the Eagles have performed well all season and haven’t had those lapses that have cost us some places in the table,” said Britton.
“We’re all excited about getting to play in the play-offs – it should be a great weekend for both leagues. The quality of both has risen so much in the last few years.
“I think getting to showcase the best four teams from each league in front of a crowd at Sheffield will be amazing and should provide some really good games.
“We’ll focus solely on Saturday before even starting to think about the possibility of a Sunday game. The Eagles have some good players and are a hard-working team, so it’ll be a really difficult game but one we’re looking forward to.
“We know the ice so this helps us and we’ve just got to make sure we have our best game of the season and then hopefully get the chance to repeat that on Sunday.”
Widnes Wild head into the event looking to put last week’s defeat in the promotion/relegation game against Deeside Dragons firmly behind them.
Defender Simon Offord admits the team were disappointed to miss out on a place in D1, but believes Wild can still finish with some silverware.
“I’m really looking forward to this weekend – to end the season like this is a great event for both players and fans,” said Offord.
“After narrowly missing out the last few years with Sutton in D1 and not even expecting to play this year I can’t wait to get going.
“Looking at the four teams in our division, I think if you beat Blackburn Eagles you’ll win it.
“They’ve been the best team this year and I fully expect them to be in the final to play the winner from our semi-final. When you get into a final though it will be about wants it more.
“Last weekend was a great game and we were all gutted to lose in such a way. I’ve never been involved in an overtime game where a penalty was called and that made the difference.
“For Deeside to stay up is a great achievement given what they needed two weeks ago. That said, if they’d scored even-strength or won the shootout it would’ve been a little easier to swallow.
“After that disappointment I hope we use that positively to push on and try and win this one. We know what we have to do and I’m sure the Widnes fans will be out in force.
“They can be sure that we’ll give everything to get them the cup.”
Altrincham Aces will fancy their chances of adding to Widnes’ woes when they meet in their last four tie.
The Aces picked up a win and a draw in their four regular season meetings with their rivals, while the other two games were close run affairs.
Forward Brian Worrall is confident his team can progress to Sunday’s final.
“To think we were in a similar position to the Eagles money wise at the start of the year we’ve had a good season, both on and off the ice,” said Worrall.
“Everything within and around the club has been positive and productive – we’ve had some slip ups along the way, but in the past these would have really affected us.
“This year we’ve had the right mentality to learn and stick together. Outside influences being removed from certain areas has worked wonders for us and is positive for the future of the club.
“There wasn’t a time When I didn’t believe we’d reach the play-offs. I had all the confidence in this group and they’ve shown they’re worth the time and effort the behind-the-scenes team put in to make sure we had a team this year.
“This weekend is going to be tough – all three teams we can potentially face are very good sides. We’ve had better games against some than others, but we have belief that on our day we can get results.
“Our focus first and foremost is Widnes. Ollie Barron has put a good side together and they’ve been consistent through the year so we’ll need to be on our game.
“That being said the respect ends there and I’m confident we can get the job done – we know it’s all-or-nothing and we’re prepared to give it everything we have.”
Blackburn Eagles v Sheffield Senators
Widnes Wild v Altrincham Aces
Blackburn/Sheffield v Widnes/Altrincham
(Image permission: Rob Hutchinson)