Despite winning the Northern Cup Billingham Stars didn’t quite enjoy the season they were hoping for in NIHL North, but their future prospects look extremely bright if their U20 team is anything to go by.
Stars struggled to make an impact in Moralee D1 during the 2015/16, eventually finishing fifth in the table, but their youngsters have qualified for the first-ever Ice Hockey UK U20 National Finals weekend in Dumfries.
Their 9-7 victory over Guildford Flames U20 at the EPL play-off finals weekend in Coventry was just reward for an impressive campaign where they lost just one game all season.
Head Coach Ian Weedall believes the league provides a valuable stepping stone for players to develop their skills before making their way into the senior game.
“For too long we’ve been losing unfulfilled talent from the game, as the gap between juniors and seniors was too great for lots of kids to make the leap,” said Weedall.
“This league will only add to the rosters of senior teams all over the country. It helps kids who have yet to fulfil their potential have an extra two years playing ice hockey at a progressive level, and hopefully realise their dreams of playing at a senior level.
“Over time this league will only get better and better, and hopefully lift the standard of British Ice Hockey, while helping feed as much talent into the Great Britain set up as possible.”
Many players from Weedall’s squad enjoyed successful personal seasons, with the club boasting five of the league’s top 10 point scorers and both their netminders finishing in the top five in the standings. Stars also recorded the least penalty minutes.
The club’s success in the new league has also benefited the senior team, with two of their U18 players making their NIHL North debuts this season.
The win against Guildford gives Weedall’s team the opportunity to crown their season with some silverware, but whatever the outcome he says he’s proud of the progress they’ve made.
“Everyone around the rink (in Coventry) was very impressed with the skill, sportsmanship, teamwork and most importantly, the quality of the players on the ice.
“As a coach, I was very happy that Billingham came out on top but credit where credit’s due, Guildford did themselves, their fans and their club proud.
“Although our regular season is over, we have one last hurdle to jump – the U20 Nationals at Dumfries.
“We will of course try our best, as always, and give 100%. There will be some great talent on show at this event, with the two best teams from Scotland and England competing to be crowned the British U20 champions.
“Whatever happens it’s been a fantastic season.”