ROMFORD, UK – Another of the UK’s ice rinks closed its doors for the last time this evening as Rom Valley Way hosted the final game of ice hockey on a pad that has seen so many memories created since it first felt a puck slide across it in 1987.
The scene outside of Romford ice rink just fifteen minutes before face off was a calm one. No snaking queues, no colour or ceremony, just an empty doorway reflecting the bright afternoon sun.
Within two paces the scene changed to one that was filled with vibrant life, the Romford Raiders faithful had packed the building early to savour every last minute of the barn they call home.
It is often said when a rink closes that the building itself is not what is mourned, after all most UK rinks are hardly examples of fine architecture.
The atmosphere inside Rom Valley Way and the people who had come to pay their last respects to a facility that had brought each of them personal memories, was what most would mourn.
Greeted by a small army of volunteers selling 50/50 tickets, programmes and merchandise all decked in replica kit or suitable blue and gold was the first sign that the evening was set to be a special one.
Whilst the Romford Raiders and their opponents from the Isle of Wight warmed up for the second leg of the Play Off semi-final, current Raiders owner Ollie Oliver bustled backwards and forwards amongst the crowd as he had done for every game prior.
The air was filled with chatter, blue and gold balloons adorned the stands and fans wearing replica jerseys of their heroes down the years sat and stood waiting for the last sixty minutes of hockey they would witness in their spiritual home.
Wightlink entered the ice to a small cheer from their travelling support that was quickly drowned out by a home support living up to its partisan reputation. The visitor’s Player Coach Jeremy Cornish the object of most of the chanting, but this soon turned to cheers as Romford skated hard on to the ice looking as if this game meant the world to them.
Joined by a number of junior players for the opening sequences and anthems, it was an early reminder that those that were supposed to be the future of the club will have to play elsewhere next season if they wish to continue their development.
After a painful rendition of the national anthem by both sets of fans, the game faced off to a load roar from the home blocks but they were soon silenced as Wightlink’s Czech Jiri Hanzal broke free down the right wing and fired the puck past Shane Kemp to give his team a three goal cushion (Romford lost the previous evening’s first leg 4-2 on the island).
It was not long before Romford pulled one back as a lung bursting charge from Billy Phillips and subsequent slapshot rebounded off the tight netting behind the goal and fell into the slot where Matt Turner skilfully one timed it past Matt Colclough.
The home fans cheered loudly sensing some momentum and then the visitors were dealt a further blow when influential defenseman Dan Pye took a puck to the face and a lengthy stoppage took place whilst his blood was scraped from the ice.
The break did nothing to halt the Raiders charge and they scored again shortly afterwards as a speculative shot from Marshall on the point rebounded off Colclough’s leg pad directly to the person Wightlink least wanted it too, namely Juraj Huska.
The Slovak’s one timer slap shot flew straight into the top corner of the net to really put his team back in contention.
Huska was a man showing why he has been Romford’s best player in recent seasons and when Craig Tribe tangled with him behind the net, defenseman Ryan Giles wasted no time in stepping into protect his import.
The first period was almost over, however Romford scored again with a virtually identical goal to their second. This time it was AJ Smith taking a big shot on the power play that landed perfectly to Frankie Harvey and he levelled things up on aggregate at 5-5.
Wightlink needed to up their game in the second and they did straight away. Pressure from Richard Facey and James Smith tested Kemp early on and then a 5 on 3 power play gave them some added time on the puck.
The lack of cutting edge on the power play was nearly punished as Huska fired one off the crossbar from the point and then Grant Taylor went close to give the on looking Wightlink fans some genuine heart in mouth moments.
Both sides had chances at either end with Nathan Taylor being denied by Kemp from close range and then Romford having a goal disallowed to the ire of AJ Smith who had bundled the puck in from close range.
The third period was set up to be a classic and it did not disappoint. Wightlink cleared a puck off their own goal line just twenty seconds in, and then Cornish released James Smith down the left wing but he fired over the bar on his one on one with Kemp.
Four minutes into the period and the turning point came. Huska, a player so key to the Romford offense, reacted poorly to a challenge behind the play by Cornish and lashed out in retaliation with his stick.
Referee Matthews ejected the Slovak to the disgust of the home support (protesting that Huska was retaliating) and Wightlink managed to finally get their second of the night on the power play. A quick pass from Alex Murray on the point switching the puck across to Nick Compton whose first time slapshot went under Kemp and into the goal.
It was a key moment and a pressure release for the visitors whose fans celebrated with gusto in the corner of the rink.
Romford knew they needed a goal to stay in the game and Shaun Wallis missed a golden opportunity with four minutes remaining and then Phillips fluffed a great opportunity at the far post to score.
With thirty seconds remaining Romford called a time out and pulled Kemp for the extra skater. The crowd broke into full voice, echoes of ‘We love you Romford’ circulated in the air as the puck dropped and was pulled back to Harvey.
So long the golden hope of Romford’s future, a born and bred talent tipped for a higher level, the youngster dropped his shoulder whipped the blade of his stick onto the puck and then watched as it flew into the top corner of Colclough’s net.
The roof nearly came off the building as fans jumped up and down screaming at the top of their voices, the players mobbed their hero and the game was saved, at least until overtime.
It was a moment of joy that would long be remembered but it seemed to wind the home side during the overtime period of five minutes sudden death, in which Wightlink carved out the clearest of chances but could not beat Kemp.
Cornish again became the target of a vociferous x-rated chant from a block of Romford fans, as the tension ratcheted up a notch for the unavoidable penalty shots.
Taylor was first to take one for Wightlink, but Kemp was equal to it. Harvey could find no way past Colclough and then Hanzal fluffed his chance of glory straight after. The impressive Turner was denied but then Facey showed the composure needed in such situations as he roofed the puck past Kemp, dislodging the Romford stoppers water bottle for cinematic effect.
The stage was set for a hero and up stepped Mr Romford himself, Danny Marshall. The club’s all-time point scorer, a man who had played in blue and gold for all of his career and is quite rightly regarded as a legend.
The noise from the home fans was tinged with tension, as Marshall approached Colclough, made his move and then wrinkled his face in pain as the puck rebounded off the Wightlink goalie’s pads and to safety.
It was not the ending written in the story books, there was to be no sensational farewell and for a moment the rink that had given most present so many memories fell silent aside from the cheering Wightlink players mobbing their goalie in delight.
The handshakes over and victorious lap from Wightlink over, the Romford hockey family gathered on the ice one and all for one last time. The team, solemn faced posed with a banner that simply read ‘Goodbye RVW’, before fans and officials joined them for more photos and embraces that will live long in their memory.
A team and club disliked by many opponents but solid as a unit and proud of their blue and gold colours, the Romford Raiders may have lost their spiritual home, but they will surely return to a town that has hockey in its blood and will be poorer for their absence over the next couple of seasons at least.
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