In the space of little over three years, Keith Whitton has helped take Sheffield Wildcats Rink Hockey and Roller Skating Club from one that few people had heard of to an award-winning pillar of its local community.
For Keith, the club’s chairman, has devoted his time to rebuild a club that is now home to nearly 100 aspiring kids who have found a place where they can be part of a team.
He plays down his own role in the club’s rejuvenation, but is keen to give me a little history lesson.
“This sport goes back easily 100 years. If you go back to around the time of the First World War and up to the Second, most local towns had at least one roller skate rink. It was a cultural thing. Instead of going to bingo or going to pubs, a lot of people used to go roller skating.”
The sport of roller/rink hockey grew on the back of this, gaining popularity, even among the famous. “There’s a picture of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel playing hockey on roller skates,” says Keith.
It’s viewed as a British invention. “Between the wars England used to be world champions but after the Second World War, roller skating rinks started closing down and it migrated onto the continent and became popular in countries like Italy and Spain and in South America.”
So what about Sheffield Wildcats’ story? The club was founded in 1981 and Keith joined a year later.
As he points out, it was ahead of its time. “It was a council initiative to get young people to be more active and ended up with a roller skating team and a rink hockey team.”
He helped lead the Wildcats to league victory in 1982 and the club went on to play in competitive leagues and European cups, before the popularity of the sport waned.
Keith became involved with the Wildcats again in 2016 when he helped relaunch the club as a way of introducing rink hockey and roller skating to youngsters. “We got some Lottery funding and we started the Wildcats Get Active campaign for local kids and it’s been very successful.”
But it hasn’t been easy, with the club relying on grants and donations, which help pay for equipment and the hire of the rink.
Keith’s sterling efforts have led to him making it onto the UK’s first Movers List, compiled by Lucozade Sport, which recognises 50 individuals whose volunteering, charity work or dedication to sport and exercise has inspired local communities to be more active.
In November, further recognition came when the BBC’s Blue Peter team came to do some filming. “The youngsters enjoyed it and they were doing all the talking, it was fantastic,” says Keith. All of which helps raise the club’s profile and rink hockey in general.
“It’s really important for us and what we’ve been trying to do because we’re a minority sport, we’re not like football.”
However, he’s keen to stress that the club’s success is not just down to him. “We have to rely on our hard-working parents to organise and take part in fundraisers, to run the tuck shop at the club and support us with everything else we do.”
The club is based at the SIV Concord Sports Centre, in the Shiregreen area of the city, and Keith says it helps having a proper home. “Having the right indoor venue makes a big difference and it’s meant we’ve been able to grow.”
With other clubs springing up across the North, it’s allowed the Wildcats to play in a league with teams in places like Halifax, Grimsby, Middlesbrough and Manchester.
The club wrote a vision statement in 2016 where it stated its ambition to have around 80 roller skaters, which has now been surpassed. “We’re not just trying to produce a club with a hockey team, we’re trying to produce a family-style roller skating club, because some of the children have grown up with us.”
The club is setting up a women’s team with a former England player and also has teams for under 15s, under 11s and under 9s.
Keith says rink hockey has growing appeal among younger generations, both boys and girls, which they are tapping into.
“It’s a non-contact sport, so it’s not like ice hockey, and you don’t have to wear body armour. But there’s a lot of skill involved because you’re trying to control a ball while roller skating.” And because it’s non-contact it means younger children can take part, with a growing number of seven to 10 year-olds getting involved.
The club has run training sessions with local schools, something it wants to expand. “We want to encourage other schools to get involved and to try and make it more accessible to more kids.”
Keith believes the benefits the club brings to children go beyond sport. “There’s a great family atmosphere and they learn new skills. We’re not just teaching children how to roller skate, we’re also teaching them soft skills such as being part of a family and a team too,” he says. “This can have a positive knock-on effect on their school work, too – their whole attitude improves.”
As well as all his work behind the scenes, Keith still plays with the seniors and trains the younger teams. “I’m retired but I’ve been roller skating for 60 years and I’ve been playing this sport since I was 18 and this is a chance for me to pass on my skills to a new generation and at the same time it keeps me fit and active.
“I jokingly talk about being a pseudo-grandad and having 40-odd grandchildren. I’m very lucky really.”
For more information visit www.sheffieldwildcatsrhc.co.uk