BASINGSTOKE, UK – When Basingstoke Bison’s Michael Wales lifted the English Premier League Cup last week, it marked another chapter in a career that has been as eventful as it has been successful.
Every hockey player has a story to tell, especially after twenty five years in the game. However for Michael Wales his darkest secret was also related to his beginning in a sport that has shaped his life.
Known for his feisty and agitating style of hockey, life could have taken a very different turning had it not been for a freak injury whilst figure skating at the age of seven.
Some EPL fans may have to take a little time to digest that last sentence; however the truth is that one of British hockey’s fiercest and hard-working competitors started out wearing those white skates with the jagged edge at the front.
“While I was recovering from that injury at the Gillingham Ice Bowl I was approached by Medway Bears legend Kevin McNaught” explains Wales, who was born in the Kent town.
“I had started figure skating with my older sister and did so for three years before breaking my leg in two places on the ice”
“Kevin kept on telling me to give up the girly sport and play a man’s game… so I did”
Wales took to the new sport with unbridled enthusiasm and after a few years at junior level he got the call up to the Bears squad at the age of 15 making his debut against Peterborough Pirates in the English Premier League of 1996/97.
“There was only one thing on my mind as a junior, play professional Ice Hockey at the highest level I could” said Wales, who got man of the match on his debut at Bretton Way.
“There were kids on my team in juniors that used to laugh at me and they would ask ‘what do you want to do when you’re older’
“The same answer would come out of my mouth that I simply wanted to be a hockey player”
Wales’ determination to succeed did not go unnoticed and he was selected to play for Great Britain at junior level in sides featuring the likes of Jonathan Phillips, Danny Myers and David Clarke.
“We had some great teams during the years with Great Britain” said Wales, who made it as far as the Under 20 side but not the senior team.
“Unfortunately I was never on a medal winning side. One things is for sure though we had fun and some great memories”
“Playing for Great Britain is something I will never forget, to play for your country is the biggest honour and I managed to Captain the side in a couple of games too”
Wales went on to enjoy spells at Solihull Barons and Invicta Dynamos but it was at Milton Keynes Lightning when he finally cemented his roots and found a role as key player in the roster.
“I see myself as someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to help my team to succeed” admitted Wales when questioned about his agitating style of play.
“l always knew I was not the best or shall we say most skilled player growing up but what I lacked in skill I know I didn’t in passion and desire to win at all costs”
“I believe that if you don’t have that you can have all the talent in the world but you won’t make it anywhere without those qualities”
It was those qualities and work rate that caught the eye of some Elite League clubs and after a couple of two way deals with Basingstoke, Wales got the call he had been waiting for since the day he swapped sequins for a stick down in Medway.
“I always enjoyed playing in the Elite League with Basingstoke, I knew my role and I got plenty of ice time whenever I played” explained the 31 year old.
“The year that Paul Thompson called me and asked to play in Coventry Blaze was a different story”
“I felt like a kid who had just been asked to play for Man United, the Blaze were the best team in England and Thommo was signing another unbelievable team”
“I had just turned down Mark Bernard at Basingstoke because of work commitments and I also had a flat in MK at the time, but this was different. Myself and Gemma (my wife) rented out our flat, left our jobs and moved to Coventry in to a team house”
“Sadly this didn’t last for the season, after beating Manchester in the cup semi-finals the Sunday before Christmas I got the one phone call that every player hopes they never get”
“Thommo said over the phone he needed to make a change and couldn’t afford to keep me and the new guy coming in, from that day I had no interest in playing in the Elite League”
It was a turning point in the hockey career of a player who had given everything for his shot at the UK’s top league. Aside from Wales’s situation it highlights a general point the UK hockey community have debated ever since the import laden Superleague arrived in the mid-nineties and its hybrid offspring, namely the Elite League replaced it.
“I believe that if every team were to have a minimum amount of young Brits In their line-up it would help develop the talent in the UK but it has to be done in the right way” said Wales.
“They need to be paid enough money to not worry about working and concentrate 100% on hockey, be able to go to the gym with the rest of the team and make the best of the opportunity”
“There are many players in the EPL that could play a big part in an Elite League team but I just don’t think that the support is always there for the young guys to progress”
The argument will undoubtedly rage on as to what the best options are for the young British talent looking to emerge from the junior systems in the UK, however on a simple and practical level, Wales has his own advice for kids starting out in the game at present.
“When you look at what hockey was like when I was a junior, we would only play 10-15 games every season, train once a week on a Monday and no one would even talk about the gym”
“My advice to any young player now is take advantage of every minute you can on the ice, train with as many age groups that you can and make sure when you do train you train with a purpose”
“The development in training programmes on and off the ice is improving every year, for a young British player today there are some real opportunities to make the most of their talent”
“There are millions of kids playing many sports around the world but the ones who excel have something different, a desire to succeed and a desire to be the best they can be”
The Elite league experience at Coventry aside, Wales has been highly successful at EPL level, lifting numerous league and play-off championships with Milton Keynes and of course the most recent cup victory with Basingstoke Bison.
The Hampshire club ended a drought lasting over a decade without a trophy thanks to their cup win, ironically over his old club Milton Keynes Lightning. It was a special moment for Wales who had enjoyed a celebration on the ice earlier this year after making his 500th appearance in the English Premier League.
“It was a strange few weeks because everyone was trying to work out exactly what game it would be because the different websites had conflicting figures” said Wales, who faced his old club Milton Keynes again, this time in a league match.
“Once we had realised that the game would not only be a home game but it would be against MK that’s when the nerves kicked in”
“I wanted to make sure that we did everything the same and the teams preparation didn’t get affected so I wasn’t making too much of a big deal about it”
“Only when I skated out to warm up and saw that someone had made a big banner for me did it start kicking in, then the team lined up for me to skate out and John Neville presented me with a beautiful trophy on behalf of the Bison”
“I can’t thank the organisation enough for doing what they did that night, it’s something that I will always remember and I am very proud to have played in so many games”
Whilst the trophies and achievements have been highlights of his career, Wales is as much a character off the ice as he is on it. Never far from practical jokes or locker room banter, the experienced forward has plenty of tales, but is not willing to tell all of them.
“As every player will tell you, it would be very easy to write many books with all the stories over the years but most will forever stay in the dressing room” admitted 6’ 1” forward.
“I do however remember playing a game in the Isle Of Wight one year and as our warm up we decided to have a 3 on 3 scrimmage”
“As you can imagine putting the goal one side and two gloves down the other it didn’t leave us much space, two things I remember most was Jason Coles was not impressed one bit and I got 1+1 in the scrimmage”
“One year at the Coventry finals playing for Milton Keynes we were put in the Blaze dressing room because we had won the league that year”
“As we unpacked our kit Chris McEwen found the late Wade Belak’s sweats under one of the stalls. As you do, we decided to try them on”
“Looking at the size of them we realised quickly that you could probably fit two people in there, so that is exactly what we did”
“It was official, myself and Macca both fitted into the sweats of one man, the man mountain Wade Belak, plus they were still baggy”
So after twenty five years of lacing up the skates, how long does Michael Wales intend to skate for and what is the forecast for the future.
“This is one question the wife keeps asking” laughs Wales.
“It’s so hard to think about one day not playing hockey, for so many years I have been going to the rink lacing up the skates and playing hockey”
“I know I won’t play for many more years, I want to have a family one day with my wife Gemma and that is something I couldn’t do while playing”
“Where will I end up, is a very good question. I have enjoyed every minute playing for the Bison this season and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be part of a trophy winning team again”
“I always speak to the team I play for about the following season, out of respect for both parties I think it’s only right that this happens before any other negotiations take place”
“What I can say is I want to win more trophies and that starts with the playoffs this year, we have had a great season so far in Basingstoke and to top it off with a second trophy from the last game of the year would be a great achievement”
Whether the Bison can achieve a Cup and Play-Off double remains to be seen, however what is not in doubt is that their number 6 will be working harder than anyone to try and make it happen.
Photos thanks to 5 Hole Photography.. more EPL pics can be seen HERE
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