History of Whitley Warriors

Whitley Bay Ice Rink first opened its doors in 1955 and the first ice hockey match at the Hillheads rink was in December 1956.

Back then there were no local trained players, so with the rink being owned by the same family that ran Durham, the more established Durham Wasps played games north of the Tyne under the title of Whitley Wasps.

Streatham Royals were the first visitors and they were beaten 6-2 in front of more than 2000 fans, with Norman Young scoring the first two home goals.

Whitley Bees

The first local player to turn out for this side was forward Jimmy Thicke, but it wasn’t too long before there was plenty of others ready to join him and by the start of the 1957/58 campaign Whitley had its own side; and the Bees were born.

The opening night saw the Bees put out the following side: Jimmy Carlyle (NM), Bob Arnott, Derek Byrom, Phil Lumsden, Brian Taylor, David Organ, Bob Bergeron, Matt Docherty, Bill Smith, Jimmy Thicke, Terry Matthews, Eric Tapsell.

Of those, Carlyle and Bergeron were certainly Canadian, while Terry Matthews was beginning a Whitley career that would see his association with the club stretch into the 90’s and he would become arguably the greatest player we have ever produced.

It took a couple of years for the side to become established, but a first trophy came the way of the Bees in the 58/59 season when they secured the BIHA Trophy and that was retained the following year.

The hockey continued to grow and the Bees became quite successful, so much so that instead of the first few years when the Wasps won most encounters, it was now Whitley that was the dominant side in the north east.

However, by the start of the 1963 campaign the Bees were no more and it was back to the Wasps representing the region by playing games out of both rinks, with players that had represented the old Whitley side playing alongside their former derby rivals.

Whitley Warriors are born

But there was still a need to provide a team for the majority of the local players and in 1964, Whitley Warriors were born. They took to the ice for the first time at Hillheads against a team from the Oxford and Cambridge Universities and many of the players who would become a mainstay of the side in those early years were on show on opening night.

That first Warriors team was: Les Hamlin (NM),Eric Tapsell, Derek Byrom, Bob Arnott, Lance Potter, Dunstan Griffin, Bill Hewitt, Harry Pearson, Dave Scanlan, George Pearson, Fred Robinson, Fred Tulip, Collin Brown, Jim Pearson.

Not all would become regulars, as some players had to wait until the next game to make their first appearance for the Warriors, but of those on show that night Eric Tapsell was the player/coach and the Pearsons (George and Harry were brothers, Jim their cousin) would all go on to play many times for the GB national team.

Wasps hockey continued until 1965, but then following a dispute with rink management they folded and the only ice hockey for local enthusiasts was the North East League comprising of four teams playing out of Whitley (Backworth, North Shields, Wallsend and Whitley) and two out of Durham (Leopards and Hornets).

However, with ice hockey in Britain struggling, an attempt was made to set up a Northern League for teams either side of the England/Scotland border and that would eventually lead to Whitley Warriors becoming one of the leading teams in the country.

Northern League

Whitley Warriors in the mid 1960s

Back (L-R): Bob Arnott, Brian Ayre, Fred Robinson, Peter Draper (behind), George Pearson, Lance Potter, Dave Scanlon, Eric Tapsell, Dave Higgins, Collin Brown. Front (L-R): Ernie Clark, Harry Pearson, Bill Hewitt, Keith Havery, Jim Pearson. Photo supplied by Collin Brown.

The first season of the Northern League began in September 1966 when Whitley, and Durham Wasps, faced off with seven Scottish sides in what was now the premier ice hockey league in the country. The Hillheads club finished in a creditable fifth place and had leading forward Terry Matthews selected for the Great Britain side that took part in Pool B of the World Championships; the first Warriors player to be chosen for the senior national team.

Twelve months on and three sides (Ayr Bruins, Perth Blackhawks and Paisley Vikings had disappeared from the league; and the latter two would never again grace the ice), but new competitions had been introduced and the Warriors would make their first final.

Although finishing fourth in the Northern League, Whitley made it through to the play-off final only to lose 12-9 (drawing the home leg 7-7) to the all-conquering Paisley Mohawks, who would win all four competitions that season.

The last season of 60s ice hockey saw Whitley improve to third in the Northern League and the following year the club iced two sides in the competition.

Such was the depth of talent the Hillheads club was now beginning to produce, Whitley Bandits competed in the 1969/70 campaign as some of the younger players – aided by some older and wiser heads – managed a respectable four wins and three draws from their 18 games.

At the other end of the table, the Warriors finished level on points with the previously unbeatable Paisley Mohawks, only losing second place on goal difference; but it was Murrayfield Racers who took the title for the first time.

The experiment of icing two teams at Hillheads was abandoned at the start of the 1970/71 season, while the other Edinburgh side (Royals) and Paisley Mohawks also dropped out of the league and the Warriors once again finished in third place.

Great Britain also returned to the World Championship scene at the end of this season and for the first time there were three Warriors players (Terry Matthews, Kenny Matthews and George Emmonds) in the squad.

However, success was about to come to Whitley and they took their first title early in the 1971/72 campaign when they scooped the Autumn Cup. Played on a league basis, the Warriors emerged in first place just ahead of defending champions Murrayfield and while they finished third yet again in the Northern League, this was the start of what would be one of the most successful era’s in the history of the club.

With Paisley Mohawks now back in the league and Dundee Rockets icing for the first time, there were more games for Whitley the following year and also another trophy.

Although they could only finish runners-up in the Autumn Cup and third in the Northern League for a fifth consecutive season, the Icy Smith Cup was, at the time, an ice hockey equivalent of the FA Cup with the winners crowned British champions and the Warriors would claim the trophy for the first of two consecutive seasons by beating defending Murrayfield Racers in both legs of the final for a 21-9 aggregate win.

Terry Matthews

Whitley legend Terry Matthews

Meanwhile on the international front, the club was being widely recognised and while the England squad  – as it would be throughout much of the 70’s – was dominated by the Warriors and they often supplied virtually the whole team, but the GB side of 1973 contained no less than six Whitley players (Harry Pearson, Dave Cassidy, Terry Matthews (C), Jim Pearson, George Pearson and Kenny Matthews) when it travelled to Holland.

The 1973/74 success was perhaps more notable in that they were truly the British champions after defeating Streatham Redskins in the final, the first time the Southern League winners had been considered good enough to challenge their Northern counterparts.

Having lost the first leg 7-2 in London, the Warriors stormed to victory in the second game, beating the Redskins 11-3 at Hillheads to claim their trophy for a second season.

However, that was not the only success that season as Whitley finally managed to better a third place finish in the Northern League and stormed to the title with only one defeat in the 12 games played; and win the league by six points from Dundee.

And that title too was retained 12 months later as they again lost just one game to be crowned the 1974/75 Northern League winners four points ahead of Murrayfield. The Racers had got the better of Whitley in the Autumn Cup however, as the Warriors had to settle for runners-up slot; and did edge the Hillheads outfit in the semi-final of the British Championships (Icy Smith Cup).

It was back to third place in the Northern League when the 1975/76 season had ended for Whitley, the best they did in any of the competitions, but four Warriors (Keith Havery, Alfie Miller, George Pearson and Jim Pearson) made it to the GB squad that season as the national team once again took part in the World Championships; while former Warriors Kenny and Terry Matthews (now playing for Durham Wasps) were also included.

In any other campaign, the 1976/77 season might have been classed as the greatest ever for the Warriors, but unfortunately Fife Flyers were at their very best. Whitley had to settle for being runners up in all competitions other than the Icy Smith Cup when they had the misfortune to be drawn away to the Kirkcaldy outfit in the first round, but did give them their toughest game on route to the victory.

In the Northern League, Northern League play-off final (where they did inflict a rare defeat in the Hillheads leg) and the Autumn Cup, the Warriors just could not get the better of Fife.

Perhaps a measure of those two sides dominance came when the GB squad was announced, with eight of the 17 players coming from those two clubs; Keith Havery, Alfie Miler and Jim Pearson being the Whitley representatives.

Whitley had to settle for runners-up in the Northern League once more in the 1977/78 campaign  and that was to be the nearest the club would get to a trophy for some time.

It was back to third in the Northern League the following season, but it was World Championship year and once again the club were well represented as Martin White, Kevin Hull, Paul Whitehouse, Alfie Miller and David Taylor all pulled on the GB jersey; Harry Pearson also made the squad but by now was playing for Billingham Bombers.

There was a wind of change in British ice hockey and although the Warriors would not be in contention for honours over the next few seasons, Alfie Miller kept the international flag flying at Hillheads by appearing in the 1981 GB squad – the last time we would compete at the World Championships until 1989.

The Heineken Era

That wind of change culminated in the formation of the Heineken British League at the start of 1984/85 season and what would be dubbed the ‘modern era’ of British ice hockey had begun.

The leading nine sides were invited to join the Heineken Premier League for that season and the Warriors found themselves lining up with old Northern League foes Durham Wasps, Billingham Bombers, Ayr Bruins, Dundee Rockets, Murrayfield Racers and Fife Flyers; along with the southern duo of Nottingham Panthers and Streatham Redskins in what was the first truly ‘national’ British league since the 1950’s.

Whitley would finish 6th in the fledgling competition, although a notable Hillheads success that season was the performance of Whitley Braves who would win Division Two and in doing so would be the only reserve side to ever lift a senior national title.

While the Warriors British players were on a par with the majority of what other clubs could muster, it was the choice of import that often decided who would win the trophies and in that respect it would not be until the 1987/88 season that Whitley could really compete.

Luc Chabot, Mike Babcock, Scott Morrison

Luc Chabot, Mike Babcock and Scott Morrison

They did make the Norwich Union Autumn Cup semi-final the season before, losing out to eventual winners Nottingham Panthers, but when Whitley signed the trio of Scott Morrison, Luc Chabot and Mike Babcock for that 87/88 campaign they became a side that could take on the best.

Defenceman Babcock was like nothing the Warriors had seen before and also had a tactical brain to go with his ability; that he has now gone on to become possibly the best coach in the world, led Detroit Red Wings to consecutive Stanley Cup finals (winning in 2008), and led Team Canada to consecutive Winter Olympic Gold Medals has surprised nobody at Hillheads.

And in Morrison and Chabot, the club possessed two of the most deadly marksmen around at the time. Local youngster John Iredale was paired with them and they scored goals in abundance for Whitley as they missed out on landing the Premier League title by just two points from Murrayfield Racers.

The club also made their first appearance at the Heineken Championship weekend at Wembley that season, but old foes Fife Flyers proved too strong in the semi-final, before going on to lose to Durham in the showpiece game.

With former NHL defender Mike Rowe replacing Babcock and Hilton Ruggles in the side instead of Chabot, the Warriors were back at Wembley twelve months later. This time they faced Nottingham and, in a controversial end to the game, they saw several players take late penalties and lost 8-6.

It would be a couple of seasons before Whitley again had the squad to challenge for any honours as the game continued to move at a quick pace and the clubs who could afford it were beginning to bring a better quality of imports over from North America.

Great Britain did return to the international stage in 1989 and with former Warriors skipper Terry Matthews in charge (assisted by Alfie Miller). Terry Ord, Stephen Smith and John Iredale were the Hillheads representatives in the team; former Whitley players David Graham and Peter Smith also joining them.

Hilton Ruggles

Hilton Ruggles

For the next couple of years Iredale was the only Whitley player to be selected for the national side, but to the Warriors’ credit they continued to stay loyal to the locally produced talent and that got some reward in 1992 when they were invited to take part in the Scottish Cup, as there were by now only three (Ayr, Fife and Murrayfield) senior sides left north of the border.

Paired with holders Murrayfield in the opening semi-final, it was not expected that Whitley would be a serious challenge; but when John Iredale netted the overtime winner it was the English side that were through to the final.

Warriors fans travelled to Scotland in their hundreds for the game against Ayr Raiders the next day and they saw Whitley skate to a 7-4 success to capture their first title since 1978.

A couple of weeks later the Warriors would make their last Wembley appearance, taking on fellow north east outfit Durham Wasps, but once again they could not make it through to the final

However, Whitley battled through to the Norwich Union (Autumn) Cup final late in 1992, having gained revenge for the Wembley defeat when they downed  arch-rivals Durham Wasps home and away in the semi-final, but came up against Cardiff Devils, on their way to a grand slam, too tough a nut to crack in the final; former Whitley forward Hilton Ruggles being the inspiration behind the Welsh side’s success.

Defending the Scottish Cup in March 1993, Whitley again reached the final but Murrayfield gained revenge and edged through on a 15 goal thriller to reclaim the trophy.

David Longstaff, Simon Leach

David Longstaff and Simon Leach

At the end of that season Great Britain were promoted to Pool A of the World Championships for the first time in almost 4o years, with Warriors forwards John Iredale and Scott Morrison part of the squad. Morrison, a Canadian by birth, scored eight times in the 14-0 last day success over China that secured the gold.

The face of British ice hockey was now changing completely and whereas most sides were from the north east upwards when the Heineken era started, when it ended only five of the original nine (Durham, Fife, Murrayfield, Nottingham and Whitley) remained in the top flight, all the new clubs being from Yorkshire down-over.

By the 1994-95 season Whitley were forced to secure their Premier League place via the play-offs, but inspired by two young talents in David Longstaff (who in 1995 would become the last player to represent GB at senior level while playing for Whitley) and Simon Leach, the Warriors made sure of staying amongst the elite of British ice hockey with five wins from the six games they played.

Newcastle Warriors

A season later the Warriors had a new name and a new venue as the club moved into the newly-built Newcastle Arena to play out what would prove to be their last season as a top-flight club.

It was certainly not a good move on the ice – and the loss of identity did not please many of the fans – but the club did manage to finish in a play-off place with a home victory over Slough Jets on the final weekend of the season; long-serving import forward Scott Morrison that night becoming the fifth player to reach 1000 points for the club to join Terry Matthews, Alfie Miller, Paul Whitehouse and John Iredale in a very exclusive list.

It was somewhat ironic that the last game the Warriors played that season was against old foes Durham Wasps, as they would be the new tenants of the Newcastle Arena – under the name of Newcastle Cobras – come the start of the 1996/97 season when the Superleague came into being.

That was the brainchild of then Wasps owner Sir John Hall, so it came as no surprise when his side were granted the sole north east franchise for the new league and the Warriors for the first time in their long history were relegated to the second tier of British ice hockey; however it had taken off-ice events to achieve that!

Back to Hillheads

Whitley Bay Ice Rink

Whitley Bay Ice Rink pictured in the 1990s

Undaunted, the club moved back to their spiritual Hillheads pad and in an emotional homecoming the full house signs were up as over 3000 people saw them beat Dumfries Vikings in a Northern Premier League encounter.

However, they were to play in that competition for just one season as the clubs excluded from the Superleague eventually formed themselves into the British National League. When it was decided each side could have up to ten foreign players each, the Whitley owners declined to enter.

That meant a further fall down the ladder for Whitley and a place the English National League when the 1997/98 campaign got underway. Although it was far from the heady days of the Heineken Premier League, the Warriors set about establishing themselves in the new competition and success has been forthcoming.

They were runners up to Solihull Barons in the first year and although the competition was then split into north and south, Whitley continued to be one of the leading teams.

Runners-up again in 1999/2000, that led to a play-off place and the side romped through that competition to take the title with a victory over north east rivals Billingham Bombers; and repeated the success 12 months later as the Teesside outfit were again defeated. Meanwhile the Anglo/Scottish Cup was also put into the Whitley trophy cabinet after a victory over Dundee Tigers.

Warriors dominate

By now the Warriors were the dominant force in the division and the 2001/02 campaign proved to be particularly successful as the club achieved a grand slam for the first time in its almost 50 year history.

The league title was wrapped up with just one defeat, English Cup success was achieved after recovering from being 5-2 down after the first leg to Telford Wildfoxes – and going a further two goals in arrears in the second game at Hillheads – before eventually winning 9-8 on aggregate.

That left the English National League Championship to be claimed for a third consecutive season and that came when Basingstoke Buffalo were beaten 6-1 at Hillheads in front of 1800 fans, after drawing the away game 5-5.

Such was the success of that team, more than a few of the side found themselves playing for higher league sides the following season, leaving Whitley to rebuild a team.

By now the club had re-entered the Northern League and, along with Fife and Paisley, were the only sides to remain from that original competition back in 1966, although the Glasgow side were now called Pirates instead of Mohawks.

Whitley claimed the runners-up slot for the third time – and first since 1977/78 – in the 2006/07 campaign, but followed that up with a very first play-off title; they beat Dundee Stars 5-4 in a pulsating game that was played as part of a finals weekend in Dundee.

Twelve months on they became the most successful side in the history of the English National League when they claimed a fourth Championship title at the expense of Peterborough Islanders, beating the Midland outfit 7-3 in a final played at the Coventry Skydome.

Simon Leach took the job as head coach for the 2008/09 season and led Warriors to second place in the English National League, narrowly missing out to Newcastle ENL Vipers. The following season, Leach’s Warriors were virtually unstoppable in the ENL, and Hillheads became a fortress. Warriors did not lose a single ENL game on home ice that season, and this, coupled with a good away form, contributed to Warriors winning not only the English National League North but the play-offs too. Warriors repeated this feat in 2010/11 before Leach took a coaching role at Solway the following season.

Former Billingham stalwart Garry Dowd, who had iced for Warriors in 2010/11, took over as head coach for 2011/12 and remained in the job for two seasons. Unfortunately Warriors were unable to replicate the success of the previous two seasons and Leach retook the reins for 2013/14, staying for two seasons.

Up to date

After avoiding relegation in the 2014/15 season with comfortable wins over Division 2 promotion hopefuls Widnes Wild, it was all change for the Warriors. Leach resigned as head coach, taking an off-ice role within the club, and fellow Whitley legend David Longstaff left Guildford Flames of the English Premier League to become Warriors’ new player/coach. Longstaff promptly enlisted his Canadian former Newcastle Vipers team mate and Sheffield Steeldogs player/coach Andre Payette, Whitley seeing a non-UK-trained player in its roster for the first time in many years.

Warriors finished second in the league in Longstaff’s first season as head coach, but were knocked out of the playoffs in the semi final by Solihull Barons.