Ice Hockey in Las Vegas (Another Gamble?)

If someone had mentioned to me about “Knights in Las Vegas” then I would have assumed it was about a show at the Excalibur Hotel. Now though it is reference to the “Las Vegas Golden Knights”. They are the 31st team in the National Hockey League (NHL). The Knights are now playing at the brand new T-Mobile arena. There have been rumours for many years regarding a major league side either starting or being moved to Las Vegas. To be perfectly honest though, I always thought it would be an NBA franchise not the NHL. There will also be another major league team, the Oakland Raiders (NFL), who will re-locate to Las Vegas in a few years time.

Unfortunately for me it is a 10-hour flight to visit Las Vegas. However, this has not stopped me making many trips there over the years. My latest venture was to see the ‘Knights” play against Dallas at the end of November.

Former Teams

Las Vegas Thunder

With the new team up and running in Vegas, I could not help but turn my thoughts back to previous ice hockey teams that played in the city. The Las Vegas Thunder (IHL) played there from 93-99. I watched them play on a few occasions at the Thomas & Mack Centre, which is about a mile away from the strip and built more for the university and concerts etc; the sight lines for ice hockey always seemed a little odd, similar to the America West Arena in Phoenix. Chris McSorley was the head coach 95-98; I have always considered him to be one of the game’s characters. He later joined the London Knights (ISL) and he certainly put an interesting roster together there. McSorley also coached the Great Britain National team. These days he is the general manager for the Swiss A league side, Genève Serviette. Unfortunately the Thunder folded in 1999, the lease at the T & M came to an end and the owners then failed to negotiate a new agreement. The IHL also folded a few years later.

 

Las Vegas Wranglers

In 2003 a new team surfaced, the Las Vegas Wranglers (ECHL), their new home would be the arena attached to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. I managed to get to a few games during their years of existence (03-14). It was quite a unique experience, prior to a game there would be happy hour at the hotel, this was followed by dinner, on to the ice hockey game and then gambling to conclude the evening, what more can you ask for.   The team actually played a midnight match on one occasion. The Wranglers fans always seemed most enthusiastic, although the standard was perhaps a little down compared to the IHL Thunder team. The Wranglers did have some success and managed to play many more years than the Thunder.   Unfortunately though the organisation would end up going the same way, out of business. The lease at the Orleans Arena was not extended beyond 2014. The owners failed in their attempt to secure alternative premises elsewhere and therefore, sadly, the Wranglers folded.

 

Las Vegas Golden Knights (3rd Time Lucky?)

Following the announcement by the NHL, I decided to ask via twitter what the local thoughts were on the expansion? Responses were more than positive, a wonderful new arena, season ticket sales were exceeding all expectations and this proved that there would be local support. I do not think the organisation could rely on just visitors and tourists.

It was obviously time for me to book a trip, so on to my first Knights home game, the Dallas Stars were the visitors on 28th November 2017. Actually the Knights had won in Dallas in their very first NHL game. In fact the team have really ‘burst on the scene’ even topping their division at one point. Coach Gerard Gallant deserves much credit for this, putting a team together from scratch.

My wife and I booked in at the Cosmopolitan Hotel at the City Centre; it is just a 10-minute walk to the T-Mobile arena. On the evening bands were playing, lights and decorations were everywhere and the bars were crowded with fans. What a great pre-game atmosphere. We indulged in a couple of wines in the Beerhaus, which is well recommended, we then moved on to enjoy some great food and service at the California Pizza Kitchen (CPK). We did eventually make it to the arena, which is a splendid building with great facilities. The entry was swift despite the usual security; merchandise was on sale at every corner, as it is all over Las Vegas.

Our tickets were up high in the arena, I normally like to sit a little closer to the action but the seats were just great. Now if you a like a good build up and intro to a game, well, nobody does it better than this Vegas organisation. I thought the fan experience for the whole evening was top class; from the announcer to the band of drummers they make you feel involved. I have visited every club in the NHL and I have to say the atmosphere generated in Las Vegas is one of the best. Just a word of caution though, if anyone is considering going to a game at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, be prepared for high prices on food and especially drink, our current exchange rate of course does not help with this.

Unfortunately on the night, we may have jinxed the Knights with our presence. The team was on a winning run however, the Stars proved too good for them. It was an even first period with both net minders (Subban and Bishop) making good stops, this would keep the scores level. It was a different story after that, strong forechecking by the Stars in the second period paid dividends, the Knights were hemmed in and could not clear their zone and the pressure told. It did not come from the usual Dallas firepower of Jason Spezza and Tyler Sequin, instead clinical finishing by 3rd liner Radek Faksa took the game away from Vegas, he completed a 7-minute hat trick, two of the goals were just 9 seconds apart, cue hats being thrown on to the ice from the visiting fans. Ken Hitchcock (Dallas Coach) had recently challenged his 3rd line to ‘step up’ and so they did. Effectively the game was over but the Knights and their fans never gave up. Ben Bishop though is a top net minder and the Knights did not get enough bodies in front of him, this resulted in a shut out for him and a 3-0 win for the visitors.

The evening had been most enjoyable; we thought the off-ice presentation was excellent. More than 17,000 fans were in attendance; several had Wrangler shirts on. Also, even though its 20 years on, there was still a fan wearing a Thunder shirt. We did have the opportunity to speak to some other fans, they were visiting from Vancouver and Chicago and are used to watching the NHL on a regular basis. They were just as impressed as we were with the whole set up.

I really do not think there is any question about the long-term stability with this organisation. We will most certainly be back.

 

Steve Flemming

Continental Cup 2017

Continental Cup 2017

The Final Chapter

Ritten, Italy would be the 10th Continental Cup that I have watched however, it is only the second time that I have managed to see the final. The only other occasion was back in January 2003 when I travelled to Lugano, Switzerland, this was to see the Belfast Giants (ISL). It was a top performance by the Northern Irish side; they beat the Swiss powerhouse Davos 4-2 in one of the games. The format was quite different then with eight teams involved in the final stages across two venues, Milan staging the other games. It all culminated in an actual final, Jokerit Helsinki v Lokomotiv Jaroslavl (Rus). Despite several 20-minute periods of overtime it still ended 0-0. It was during the early hours of Monday morning when the Finnish side finally won the cup on penalties.

The only other two British sides to come close in this competition were the London Knights (ISL) in 01/02. The Knights reached the finals also and were so close to winning the competition under Chris McSorley, they lost out by the finest of margins to the Zurich Lions, work prevented me attending in Zurich. Since then I believe only the Sheffield Steelers (EIHL) have reached the finals. I was present in 2009 at the semi-final stage; this was in Bolzano, Italy. The Steelers beat the Foxes on penalties in the last game. Guess what? Yet another late finish. In the final, despite winning the first game, the EIHL side could not lift the trophy, but did finish a credible third.

The Nottingham Panthers have appeared in the competition on several occasions. I travelled to Amiens (2004), Rouen (2006) and Asiago (2013); the latter followed an earlier round staged in Nottingham. The team never made it to the final, that is until this season. I did not make it to the second round in Jaca, Spain. However I was present in Odense, Denmark to see an excellent performance by the team to qualify for the Ritten final.

A January trip to the South Tyrol could not be missed however, it could not though be described as user friendly on the travel front.
My wife and I travelled from Birmingham to Milan; we used some air miles to keep the cost down. We had an excellent evening in the Italian city, a chance to explore followed by dinner next to the Cathedral, a really lovely area.

The following day was Milan to Verona and on to Bolzano by train. It was then up to the mountains by cable car, followed by another train, which eventually found us at our hotel. It seemed great to have your own train station at the hotel, but gaining access to the property was challenging, trying to walk uphill in snow with bags, oh dear! To be fair it was a top place with views to die for. Breakfast overlooking the Dolomites was something else. We spoke to many other fans at the games; all kinds of different routes were covered travelling to Ritten. Unfortunately some would miss the first game as a flight into Verona made two attempts to land, winds were too strong so they were diverted to Venice and finally to Milan.

On to the first game at the Ritten Ice Arena and riot police greeted us on arrival. This clearly upset quite a few of the fans. Segregated into one area with a line of police at the back seemed over the top and intimidating. This was after spending several nights at the Odense supporters club on the previous trip. Now though you could not mix with the Danish fans, they were also unhappy about this.

Actually I had experienced this before in 1994 in Bolzano, which was at the World Championship. It was a similar approach taken on that occasion by the Italian authorities. I recall a journalist receiving a welcome pack, which included a rather nice bottle of Chianti. However, on returning to a later game the police confiscated it, this despite his media accreditation. After a few days of this the German fans staged a demonstration, which seemed to calm things down somewhat.

The first game against Odense was a solid defensive display by the Panthers. Wiikman gave a quality performance in goal and Brad Moran came up with two goals to secure the 2-0 victory. It was a really good team performance with complete discipline. Odense are a good side and move the puck quickly with some crisp passing. They do, however, rely on their top line of Strandberg, Mitchell and Romano.

The evening game was a decent affair with the hosts edging out Beibarys Atyrau (Kaz) on penalties. Ritten had also beaten them in the last round, I always thought though that the Kazakhs had a good deal to offer and so it proved later in the tournament.

After breakfast on Saturday it was a short walk on one of the many trails. It is such a lovely area. Prior to the game (Panthers v Atyrau) a speed skating tournament was held outside. Getting close to this made me realise how quick and skillful this sport is. The game, well it seemed a little tense, Rob Farmer had a goal ruled out, I guess someone was in the crease. Atyrau then went in front with a power play goal scored from the right point area by Stepanov. Panthers reacted well and drew penalties, Williams fired home for a 5 on 3 equaliser, this was well worked. The 2nd period was scoreless. At this stage I thought Panthers were looking a little tired against their fast skating opponents, even so they took the lead with a class finish from McGrattan who showed great composure in front of goal. The lead lasted just over a minute though, Stepanov scored his second goal to level and send the game into overtime and then penalties. A tense shootout followed, until Chris Lawrence scored the winner and secured the extra point. The team deserved huge credit for digging deep and finding a way to win.

The evening game would see Odense prove too strong for the Italian hosts; their main men Strandberg (2) and Mitchell were among the goals in a 4-1 win. It was now set up nicely for the final day, Panthers needed one point to win the tournament, sounded simple enough but you could feel the nerves amongst the 300 or so travelling fans.

Sunday in Ritten, what a beautiful day with clear blue skies, it was crisp and cold, a proper walking day, we ventured down to Bolzano on the cable car, a three day Ritten card, free from the hotel, covered all local transport, a real bonus this turned out to be. Sitting in the sunshine in the main square brought back great memories of my previous visits. Lunch was called for and time to start preparing our game face, wine of course was required, actually a few but I had forgotten we needed to go back up on the cable car…

The first game was Atyrau v Odense, what a great game this was, two sides just going all out to win. Both sides had an outside chance of making it to the mini-group in the event of a 3-way tie; it’s all a little complicated to be honest. The Danes went into a 2-goal lead; Atyrau then reduced the arrears late in the 2nd period. Odense looked a tired side in the 3rd period, so it came as no surprise that in a dramatic finish Korobov leveled with just 14 seconds left. They then went on to win it 3-2 in overtime with a goal by Vishnyakov. I thought Atyrau had one of the best players in the tournament, he is actually from Israel, forward Eliezer Sherbatov, he is a real live wire, it seems he wants to play in the KHL. Anyway this result had the Italians cheering in the crowd because it meant their team could now still win the tournament.

So this was it, a chance for the Nottingham Panthers to make history. Actually and perhaps a little surprisingly I felt confident before the game. I always had the impression we were stronger than the Italians; the only thing was could we keep our discipline. We need not have been concerned, in fact it was Ritten who ran into penalty problems, this allowed Panthers to score 3 times on the power play, Carter and Lawrence with the first two. Spinell did put the Italians on the board to reduce the score to 2-1; also there was a slight concern when Panthers had to kill a 5 on 3 penalty for almost 2 minutes. In all honesty though the game was never in doubt, Rob Farmer made sure with 2 goals in the last 6 minutes including an empty net clincher, Panthers winning 4-1.

And there you have it. The Nottingham Panthers have won the Continental Cup. I never thought I would ever see a British side win a tournament in Europe. Over the years I have witnessed many teams including the GB national side fail; often we have not been good enough. European sides play a different style, puck retention, stick handling and their passing ability have always seemed a fraction better than ours, also fitness has played a part, most teams are quicker and they roll 4 lines. On top of this you have to cope with very different officials, soft calls are the norm and we have a bad reputation for indiscipline.

So, in summary, if you consider all of this, you have got to give massive credit to Corey Neilson and his coaching staff, the players and the whole Panthers organisation, this is a huge achievement. A word too for all the fans, terrific support, they were partying long into the night at the Bunkers pub (Italian version), joined by the players and coaching staff, it was a top celebration, and rightly so.

For us, it was an early start on the Monday to get back to Milan. After missing our flight back on the last trip to Odense, we were not taking any chances this time.

Steve Flemming

CONTINENTAL CUP – 3RD ROUND ODENSE, DENMARK 18TH TO 20TH NOVEMBER 2016 ROAD TO THE FINAL

This is the 20th year of the IIHF Continental Cup Tournament. Odense, Denmark was the venue for the 3rd round of the competition and it was the 9th time that I have watched this event.

If Denmark is your destination, then a night in Copenhagen is a must; actually we spent two nights there (more on that later). Odense is a 90-minute train ride from the capital, it is the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson and he is quite evident throughout the town. Construction greets you on arrival, a new tram network is being built, we made our way to the Radisson Hotel, chosen due to the in-house casino.

Unfortunately it is around 3 miles to the ice arena; not an issue you might think but public transport does not go directly there. We decided on a walk on the first afternoon, actually we missed the start of the Angers (Fr) v Donbass (Ukr) game. It was probably a bit of a surprise, but deserved, scoreline with the French side winning 3-2. Maxime Lacroix (former Steeler) scored and was named man of the match in a very entertaining encounter.

In between games there was an invite from the Odense fans to visit their supporters ‘house’. It was down a poorly lit muddy track, but many fans from Odense, Nottingham, Angers and even Hamburg gathered there for drinks, chat and music and it was a really good atmosphere. Unfortunately there was no wine at the club, I therefore had to drink the Christmas Ale, which I found out later was 5.6 abv; Panthers were bound to look better after this! We were all made very welcome during the weekend at the club and in the arena, a big thank you to the fans of Odense; this is what makes Ice Hockey fans who they are.

Panthers opening game loomed against the hosts and around 150 fans had travelled to support the team. It did not start well when a lady was, unfortunately, hit by the puck during the warm up. On the ice the team started quite well and were clearly looking to attack. Betteridge put the Panthers ahead only to be pegged back to 1-1. Then the move of the weekend for me by Macmillan allowed Moran a tap in for 2-1. Pressure then mounted on the Danish side with Carter and Kalus adding more goals. In the final period Panthers suffered a blow when goalkeeper Wiikman collided with an Odense forward and was unable to continue; in fact it finished his tournament, so enter the excitable Pacl. Another super move this time by Farmer who crossed for McGrattan who made no mistake to net Panthers 5th goal. Even so the Bulldogs hit back with 2 late goals but Panthers finally won 5-4.

After the match it would be another walk, until we spotted a taxi. We managed a few drinks in the local bars; it is a very pleasant town to walk around with some amazing (if perhaps strange) buildings. Now the casino…. roulette was the order of the day, Ice Hockey numbers had to be where the chips were placed and I have to thank Paul Adey as 22 was the main number that netted me around £200 clear, it had been a top day.

Saturday was market day in Odense and some of the produce on show was quite incredible – broccoli like you have never seen and people were buying up a storm then trying to transport it all while riding their bikes. You had to see it and we actually had to sway out of the way. Anyway back to hockey. Panther’s second game was an afternoon face-off. We tried the local bus service but still ended up with quite a walk. Angers Ducs were the opponents and, unlike the first game, penalties would cause the team some problems – quite simply this is European hockey. The French side scored 2 power play goals in the first period. However, a blatant interference call on Lachowicz was missed, and this led to one of the goals, credit though to the team who kept their discipline for the most part. Pressure was created and the goals followed through Brown and Moran to level the scores at 2-2. The middle period belonged to Kudroc. The Panthers defenceman took charge at the blue line and with some heads up play created a tip in for Moran’s equaliser and from the same position he blasted Panthers in front with a slapshot. In the final period an identical goal as scored against Odense came from Farmer’s strength down the wing with McGrattan finishing the cross (4-2). A late goal by Angers made it close but this win would all but seal Panthers place in the final. Actually this was confirmed with Odense beating Donbass 2-1 in the evening game.

Another walk, another taxi, back into Odense for a meal and more drinks. It came as a bit of a surprise that smoking is allowed in some bars (no food) when of a certain size. I had quite forgotten the smell, which is evident when you walk in; also of course it stays on your clothes. I really would not want to go back to those days here. Anyway later that evening I gave the casino a swerve, as knowing me the winnings would all have disappeared.

Final day and it would be a dead rubber for the Panthers, who would have thought that? We decided on a taxi all the way for a noon start. I managed to have a very interesting chat with a very nice gentleman at the game. He was the chairman of the Odense Ice Hockey Club. He thanked us for coming and in turn I thanked him on behalf of the fans for making us feel so welcome. I did not let the opportunity slip though and mentioned the lack of transport for the fans during the tournament. I mean surely a dedicated bus from the town would have paid for itself. The chairman also commented that Odense would love to host the final, although he admitted staging the 3rd round of the tournament had come at a financial loss to the club.

The early game was against Donbass. I had thought, actually, that the Ukraine’s would be favourites to advance from the group. It seems though that the former KHL team has suffered of late, losing some players mainly due to having to play away from their city because of the political unrest. Panthers would obviously be fatigued going into the game, they had already been short benched with injuries. Carter was now added to the list and I think I noticed Lawrence only briefly on the ice in the opening period. Panthers still had plenty of effort but would eventually go down 3-1 with an empty net decider late in the game. Brad Moran scored the Panthers goal and I thought he played well throughout the weekend. I would not pick out individuals though as it was a team effort and very well done to all involved. Later Odense sealed their place in the final with a very late winner from top scorer Tony Romano.

So the end of a great trip; we just needed to get back, actually we had decided to leave after Panthers final game. Now you know the part when things start to go wrong and then continue, well for the three of us on the trip this was the start of the road downhill. Firstly we had booked a taxi to pick us up after the game, which ended up a no show so we walked (again). It’s not so easy to flag a taxi down with a football game just starting (Odense v Brondby). We did find one eventually and got to the train station on time. The 15.58 would put us in Copenhagen in plenty of time to get to the airport but… it was late leaving, then it stopped within a mile or two and did not move for 45 minutes, rumours of a broken down train ahead. At Nyborg it failed to move again for some time and it eventually crawled into Copenhagen. It was chaos there and the airport train was even later. Result, on arrival at the Airport desk, we were told we had no chance of making the gate.

Back to Copenhagen and a need to re-group, hotel first then book another flight for Monday afternoon, inform the car parking company etc, etc. Best laid plans and all that… as you might imagine drinks were called for. In fact at 1.30am drinks were still called for, not bad for a Sunday evening, actually I remember playing table tennis at 2am, we were quite good and even managed a 3-shot rally, honestly you sometimes have to laugh these things off. It had been a great trip!

Last word on the Panthers… Congratulations to Corey and his coaching staff. Plotting a way into the final is not easy, actually with all the injuries it is extremely hard but they found a way by playing some very good hockey, outwitting their opponents and sheer effort. We look forward to the final.

Steve Flemming

Continental Cup – Preview

Odense, Denmark

3rd Round 18-20th November 2016

This is the 20th Year of the Continental Cup.  It is mostly contested by European club sides that qualify by winning their domestic league or play-offs.

This week I will attend my 9th tournament; I have always travelled to see British teams in the competition.  The format has changed somewhat over the years but it still remains very tough to even make the final weekend.  I would suggest the best performances over the years, have come from the London Knights (ISL) in Zurich in 2001.  The Knights under Chris McSorley came so close to winning the Cup.  The Belfast Giants (ISL) in Lugano/Milan in 2003, played really well against some big name European sides like Davos and Lugano.  The Nottingham Panthers (EIHL) were edged out in Amiens in 2004, after a spirited performance with an injury hit team (sounds familiar).  Finally the Sheffield Steelers (EIHL) did make the finals by topping the group in Bolzano in 2009, this was a really ‘backs to the wall’ effort by Matsos’s team who were also short of bodies.  A young Robert Farmer was excellent for the Steelers.

These days you will not find the very top teams in the Continental Cup; this is of course mainly due to the Champions Hockey League (CHL) now operating.  This must not lead anyone into thinking the CC will be easier to win. The last round in Jaca may well have put this thought into the minds of some fans, do not be fooled!

So, what are Nottingham Panthers chances in Denmark?

I would look at this in three ways, firstly the current make up of the Panthers side, form and injuries.  Next would be the opposition, then finally asking if our coaching staff can compete against their counterparts.

1) Jon Wright wrote an excellent article which is on my website to view, titled ‘Summer Recruitment’. You could not argue with what he wrote pre-season and now it feels even more relevant.  Goal scorers in any sport are like gold dust, every team needs the best they can get, not replacing Kolnik left the question who would get the 30 goals he is capable of scoring? The club waited far too long for his decision.  Corey seemed to feel that goals would come throughout the team but statistically that did not add up.  Others players departed and their replacements have left the team weaker overall. The defence was supposedly going to be one of the strongest in the league.  However, in one of the recent Belfast games I lost count of how many odd man rushes the Giants had.  This then asked the question about players not fulfilling their role effectively or is it the system/set up? I guess only Corey can answer this but my view is he simply does not have the right personnel to execute his plans.  On the other side of the coin, yet again, injuries have hit hard, in particular losing Lawrence and Shultz.  The problems mount when playing short with fewer lines and more ice time, which then leads to fatigue and even more injuries.  In addition players end up playing out of position and that’s when even the best laid plans start to go south.

2) The opposition in Denmark. First up will be a tough start against the hosts, the Odense Bulldogs.  Their crowd will create a hostile atmosphere in a small barn. This will add to Panthers frailties.  The Bulldogs are in good form and are currently second in their league, scoring 49 goals in the 16 games played.  The team is mainly Danish with 4 or 5 imports.  I would expect them to be highly skilled and quick, they will also be good defensively and usually backed up well in goal.  Danish hockey is not at the same level as fellow Scandinavian countries like Finland and Sweden. Even so their national side has been cemented in Pool A for many years.

Angers Ducs will represent the French league and are currently sitting 6th in that league. Again, you will see many local players in their side. France is also in Pool A and has many fine players.  Panthers have done well at times against French sides.  However, I have seen Panthers defeated in Rouen and also witnessed a Coventry demise in Grenoble. Taking these sides lightly will post your downfall.

Donbass Donetsk, the Ukraine side, will surely start as favourites. Former winners in 2013, they will be more than difficult.  Panthers will play them in the 3rd match at midday on Sunday but will the players have anything left at that point?

3) Coaching. Corey will need to be at his very best to pave the way for the Panthers to finish in the top two. Their opponents will play the usual European style, often retaining the puck, crisp passing and quick movement and will also roll out four lines.  We then get to the main problem, ‘officiating’.  They do not like our North American style of Hockey, they clamp down on it with soft calls, we then lose our discipline and end up short handed on many occasions during the games.  Unfortunately the opposition coaches know this and instruct their players to use it to their advantage.  Who can forget that game in Asiago a few years ago.

To conclude it seems I have painted a bleak picture. Panthers have no chance with all these odds stacked against them, do they? Well, yes that may well be the case, the facts are clearly there and we have all witnessed the performances to date.  I would not write off the team just yet.  Lets give Corey a chance. We need to find a new spirit in the camp and come out fighting.  This is an opportunity for the Nottingham Panthers to reach the Continental Cup final.  Lets keep the faith!

Steve Flemming

Continental Cup 2016/17 – Second Round, Jaca, Spain

When Panthers’ participation in the second round of the Continental Cup in Jaca was confirmed, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one reaching for the atlas to find out exactly where our European adventures were due to begin. Situated in the Northeastern Spanish region of Aragon in the foothills of the Pyrenees, it wasn’t necessarily the most obvious destination for a hockey tournament or, at first glance, the easiest to reach. Upon closer inspection however, there were actually several fairly simple travel options and throughout the weekend, we spoke to fans that had used Bilbao, Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid as their gateway to Jaca. We decided to travel from Stansted to Zaragoza the day before the tournament began and spent the evening there before travelling by bus to Jaca (a beautiful two hour drive) on the Friday morning. After three nights in the Pyrenean town, we returned to Zaragoza for a final night before flying back to London.

In addition to the perceived transport difficulties, I think another reason that the trip was perhaps not deemed a particularly attractive venture for many fans, was the expected inferior quality of the opposition. On this, it is hard to argue. The standard of CH Jaca and Zeytinburnu Istanbul in the first two games was poor to say the least, and there was simply no prospect of any other outcome than a one sided drubbing for the Spanish and Turkish teams. Speaking to fellow fans, Panthers’ players and management, we were all in agreement that, from a purely hockey point of view, the games were largely a waste of time. Despite this, the team was professional and did what they had to, chalking up two big wins, and scoring 25 goals in the process. HK Liepaja, Panthers’ opposition for the final game had had a similarly trouble free progression through their first two games and it was widely accepted that the final game between the British and Latvian teams would decide the winner of the tournament. Having watched the first two days of the competition, although it was clear that they were a level above both Jaca and Istanbul, in my opinion, Panthers still had plenty in hand to be able to deal comfortably with the Latvian side and, in all honesty, I expected a greater margin of victory in that final game. As it was, I don’t think Panthers played particularly well on the Sunday afternoon and seemed to find it difficult to match the speed and desire of their opposition. Nevertheless, three smartly taken goals and some sharp netminding from Mikka Wiikman – much improved from his 30 minute showing on the opening day of the competition – were enough for a 3-1 victory and progression to the next round. In terms of individual performances, it’s difficult to heap any great praise on the Panthers’ players, again with the strength of the opposition in mind, however Lindhagen and Kalus stood out for me, their speed and strength proving too hot to handle for the majority of the three games.

As a tournament, in my view, the IIHF need to have a long look at what is being achieved by the grouping of teams with such differing skill sets and abilities. In the preceding round, Istanbul chalked up three big wins, racking up plenty of goals in the process, only to then be given a pasting themselves in round 2. I understand that the IIHF are keen for hockey to reach less traditional hockey backwaters, however I fail to see the benefits for any team of playing opposition that is of a much inferior or superior standard. It is certainly not what the fans want to see and those in charge should think seriously about how they are going to address this issue, particularly in the early rounds.

The next round is where the competition really begins and it will be interesting to see how the Panthers fare against higher quality European competition in the shape of HC Donbass, Angers Ducs and Odense Bulldogs. If we are able to get Schultz and Lawrence back in the lineup and can avoid injuries to others over the coming weeks, with some solid net-minding I think we have every chance of progressing to the final four.

Despite my reservations about the viability of such a trip from a hockey perspective, it was nevertheless hugely enjoyable and I’m glad we were able to attend. As with any hockey road trip, it’s not all about what takes place on the ice and we were fortunate to meet some great people, not only from the Panthers fan base.

Following Saturday’s evening game, whilst enjoying a beer outside a bar close to the cathedral in Jaca, we were approached by a group of players from Zeytinburnu Istanbul who noticed us wearing our Panthers jerseys. Speaking at length to their captain and their lone American import defenceman, they were as interested to learn about hockey in the UK, as we were to learn about their playing experiences and specifically how they had ended up playing hockey in Istanbul. When we enquired about their names and numbers so that we could keep an eye out for them in the next day’s game, Brian Dunford, the American, advised us that he was wearing 44 but that it wasn’t his own name on the shirt…. he went on to explain that upon arriving in Istanbul, the management had prepared his shirt – number 99 – and that he, quite rightly, had refused to wear it!

On another occasion, we bumped into an extremely excited Jaca fan who was over the moon to have acquired a Nottingham Panthers cap. We battled through the obvious language barrier to establish that none other than Brian McGrattan had signed it for his little boy and had also spent time having a knock about with the youngster in the corridors of the rink. Similarly, whilst having a drink close to the arena between games, the president of CH Jaca, took the time to greet all of the Panthers’ fans situated around the bar, handing out club badges as a gesture of thanks for visiting his town in support of our team. The hockey world really is one big community.

A final word for the host city of Jaca and nearby Zaragoza. Although perhaps not the first places that spring to mind when planning a weekend break, both are well worth a visit, with the citadel (Jaca) and Basilica and cathedral (Zaragoza) the main attractions. Scattered around the plazas and along the tight streets, there are plenty of quaint, little bars bustling with friendly locals, decent Rioja and mounds of delicious tapas. I could definitely get used to Spanish life!

Jon Wright

Breaking Up with PK Subban

In our house hockey is a religion and a point of contention. We live in a house divided. I bleed bleu, blanc et rouge courtesy of the Montreal Canadiens, while my boyfriend chooses to fly with the Detroit Red Wings. I’m just as baffled as you are about that choice.

I don’t generally have a hard time speaking highly of a team who has won 24 Stanley Cups in their time as a Franchise (*cough* Red Wings only have 11 *cough*) but this past season as a Habs fan, I struggled. Some of their moments on the ice were downright heartbreaking and that segued the Montreal Canadiens into a season worthy of folding up the old jersey early and packing it away until next year.

I crossed the border to Buffalo in February to see the Habs play live. In recent years, Buffalo hasn’t been that hard to beat so I was feeling pretty good about our chances, despite a rough season without our beloved Carey Price. The Buffalo fans in our section were fairly obnoxious, made worse by their nicknaming me “the ice queen” early in the game and chastising every Montreal fan within 10 rows of them. My boys HAD to win this.

For the next three hours, I rode the Montreal roller coaster. There were moments I wanted to stick my tongue out at those Buffalo fans and taunt obnoxiously back “Ha my team is better than yours!” but I kept quiet at the risk of jeopardizing my ice queen street cred. Then, I watched Buffalo score three goals early in the second period and I thought the end was near. Montreal answered back quickly bringing the score to 4-3. A real nail-biter.

From there though, things fell apart- a lot like Montreal’s season.

P.K. Subban- who I’ve felt has been unfairly scrutinized and demonized by the media- threw what I can only describe as a temper tantrum just left of center ice. He had possession of the puck and was skating confidently towards Buffalo’s end, when he stopped, slapped the ice a bunch of times and started screaming at the referees. The game was still live. A Buffalo player skated up while he continued to yell and throw a fit, grabbed the puck, took it to Montreal’s end and scored. Montreal lost momentum after that. As the red light was glowing and crowd was cheering, the team was deflating. Buffalo ended up winning 6-4.

I felt personally slighted. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. When you’re paid millions and millions of dollars (in PK’s case, 72 million to be exact) to know your sport and play it well, I expect to see that when I pay an unbelievable amount of money and travel through a snowstorm to watch. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pegging the whole of Montreal’s poor performance last season on PK, but in that game it became abundantly clear that he and his giant ego were some large contributing factors. He brought attitude to the ice and as I watched him struggle with the frustration of loss, I think he brought a divide to the team as well.

I wanted to believe it was because he wanted to succeed so badly but after his emotionally charged fit, I started to come to terms with the cold hard truth that it might be time for Montreal to break up with PK Subban. Pure speculation of course, but whatever the reason, his display on the ice indicated there was a crack slicing through the cool composure of a team highly anticipated to blow away the competition with ease.

As rumours of trouble in the locker room followed Montreal from city to city, their fall from first became everyone’s favourite topic. Was it Carey Price’s absence? Michel Therrien’s coaching style? PK’s attitude? Pacioretty’s leadership? How did a team that started out the season with a nine game winning streak not make it to the playoffs?

By season’s end in 2016, there were no definitive answers.

Video footage surfaced of Carey Price skating around an arena, barely able to set down his foot for the pain after promising to return all season. Max Pacioretty continued to wear the captain title with no sign that any change would be made to the position. P.K. Subban continued his campaign with the hospital in Quebec, donating 10 million dollars over seven years to the cause and no plans in sight to go anywhere either. Michel Therrien continued his post as coach despite rumours that he would be fired and fans packed away their jerseys early, disappointed by the outcome of a promising season.

Then, when it appeared there would be no major moves, the P.K. Subban/ Shea Weber trade was announced. Canadiens fandom went wild. As it happens, I went wild too but not in the same way every other fan did. I was excited.

The Nashville Predators sent Shea Weber back to his native Canada, and would take on Subban in his place. Most Montreal fans felt pretty unfavourably about the whole thing because Weber is older than Subban and Montreal will be paying him out until he’s 40 (ancient in hockey years) while Subban’s payout would have ended when he was 33.

One article I read coined the trade “the worst trade in NHL history”. Seems harsh. Subban’s overall stats are stronger than Weber’s, true, but Weber is a stronger goal scorer and his shot is arguably the hardest in the league. Not only that, perhaps most importantly of all, Weber is the team player and leader I believe Montreal has been looking for. He has impressed with his gold medal Olympic performance with Team Canada (twice!) as well as his most recent appearance on the victorious Canadian World Cup team, next to Carey Price and a full roster of other impressive big names.

From my perspective, Montreal hardly got the raw end of the deal. I don’t want to jinx it by proclaiming just days before the season is set to begin that the Habs are in good position, but I think what’s most encouraging to me is that they’ve decided to put their money where their mouth is and look at building a more cohesive team by stacking it with more than just player stats. You can have a team of the most skilled players in the world and without that cohesion, leadership and collective team spirit, you’ve got nothing.

In Shea Weber we get a leader (he’s already been named alternate captain), a giant at 6 ft 3 inches tall or 191cm, a massively explosive slapshot, a hard hitter and a truly professional guy.

Mike Babcock recently coached the 2016 Canadian world cup team and he said of Weber “What I like about him best is when he walks in the dressing room you know its business. And so he’s a culture-type person. He makes your franchise better when he walks in the door. Bar none”.

So, as loyal as I am to the Habs and as much as I appreciate the effort and accountability of every member of the team, I can’t help but think something much bigger is happening here. This is a team maturing and evolving past the boundaries of large salaries and big egos and on to something that’s much more about the sport and well-being of the team and franchise. Sorry PK- best of luck with the Preds! Montreal is ready for the Weber effect.

-Rhianna Cote

Source: http://www.torontosun.com/2016/09/06/canadas-babcock-gushes-over-canadiens-shea-weber

Source 2: http://nesn.com/2016/06/p-k-subban-for-shea-weber-trade-disastrous-for-montreal-canadiens/

Source 3: http://www.hockeyinsideout.com/news/p-k-subban-i-never-envisioned-myself-playing-for-any-other-team-other-than-the-montreal-canadiens

 

 

The National Ice Centre

My name is Elizabeth Hindson [age 12]; my blog is about my experiences at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham [NIC]. I have been to several concerts at the arena; also for the past 2 years I have been a season ticket holder for the Nottingham Panthers. In addition I have been skating at the arena including on the main ice rink.

The former Nottingham Ice Stadium opened in 1939. It was in operation for approximately 61 years before a decision was made to build a new arena. The old arena was demolished to make way for the new facility; this was built on roughly the same site. Other buildings were also knocked down including an ‘Art Deco Warehouse’ and the ‘Old Cricket Players’, which was a pub next to the old arena. There was a delay on construction, this was because there was a 19th century graveyard found underneath the old car park.

Jayne Torvill [Olympic gold medalist] officially opened the new arena on the 1st April 2000. The NIC was the first twin Olympic sized ice rink in the UK. The total cost of the project was £43 million. Unfortunately the organisation lost £1millon during the first year of operation.

My first experience of the new arena was attending a Nottingham Panthers ice hockey game. I have now been watching the Panthers for 3 years and I am a season ticket holder. What I really love best about attending the games is the atmosphere. The introduction video to welcome the players on to the ice is excellent and I particularly enjoy the music, which is played during a break in play. My favourites are the ‘Chelsea Dagger’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. I also like the players’ individual songs i.e. ‘Mr Boombastic’ (Andy Bombach) and ‘Give It Up’ (David Ling). Unfortunately those two players have now left, so I look forward to some new songs, which will fit individual players for the coming season. At the end of the first period an opportunity is given to local figure skaters to perform, which is a great platform for them. I know how hard these skaters work; some have to practice at 6am in the morning.

I have now been watching ice hockey for a few years, so I am building up some knowledge of the game. It is the speed of the game that I like the most, also it is very physical and this often leads to penalties. I think I can spot most of the penalty calls as they happen. Actually this all helps with my schoolwork as I sometimes write about parts of the game. I want to mention some of the players that I notice the most when they are on the ice, Miika Wiikman who is the Panthers netminder, Robert Farmer and Stephen Schultz; also now former players Evan Mosey and Cam Janssen. I also look out for opposing players Leigh Salters (now retired) and Andrew Lord also Brian Stewart (who makes me laugh).

I always look forward to the Play-off weekend at the NIC. It is really great when all the fans get together; it is just the best atmosphere. Each year before the first game there is a large group of us that meet up and last season we had 13 family and friends all having breakfast together. This is a great start to the weekend programme.

I would like to say how lucky we are in Nottinghamshire to have a facility like the National Ice Centre and I look forward to going every week to see the Panthers. I have also very much enjoyed the concerts that are held there. I have been to see Little Mix twice and Olly Murs; these were excellent shows with great sounds, also you have a great view from all the seats.

Thank you for reading my blog about all things associated with the NIC, I hope you enjoyed it.

Lizzie Hindson

Napoleon Cup – 2016 (Amiens)

This would be my third visit to Amiens in France. Back in 2004 I followed the Nottingham Panthers there in the Continental Cup. In 2006 it was to see GB play in Pool B of the World Championships, (I cover both these tournaments in my book).

My wife did not accompany me on my previous visits, so this would be an opportunity for her to join me on this occasion. To be perfectly honest though, I was unsure about attending this tournament as Panthers have long since had a reputation for playing with a short roster in pre-season games. Unfortunately, yet again, this proved to be the case. The club was 3 imports short for the trip. In addition, 3 other imports arrived shortly before the Coventry game and then had to face 4 games in 5 days, that’s a recipe for injuries if you like! The lack of preparation is unprofessional and paints the organisation in a poor light. I am most certainly not alone with my thoughts on this.

An early morning flight to Paris from Birmingham was easy and pain free, getting through the border control at Charles de Gaulle airport was just the opposite, chaotic scenes with people everywhere and with little idea of which queue to join, actually in our confusion I’m quite sure we jumped in somewhere. It took a little under 2 hours to get through. Now I am all for security being tightened however, on getting to the front we found 4-6 operating booths open out of 18, lack of staff being the issue.

We took the metro into Paris and caught the train to Amiens, it worked out cheaper to buy the tickets in first class? Friday and Saturday in Amiens was like being in an oven with temperatures at times being close to 100 degrees. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express near to the station, the very same place that I had stayed in 2004. I will always remember having breakfast there whilst the Milan Vipers were having a team talk, it was all about who would take out John Craighead, Matt Smith stepped forward, claiming it was his job, this was exactly what happened when the two of them got in to a fight during the game, both were ejected.

Back in real time and on to the opening game of the 2016 tournament. Problems had arisen though as the heat had taken its toll on the main arena ice; fortunately there was a second smaller ice pad to move to which was thankfully much cooler. We sat behind the Panthers bench; actually we were so close it felt like we were on it. I’m sure at one point Corey gave me the nod but it was just too hot for me out there. As always there was terrific vocal backing for the Panthers and credit also to a small band of fans from Kassel in Germany. The Huskies had won last seasons DEL 2 play off championship, the team though only iced 2 imports, in truth Panthers were too strong and only goalkeeper Keller kept them at bay. Shultz broke the deadlock in the second period with a fine individual goal, taking a pass through the middle and forcing the puck home, Macmillan and Brown completed the scoring. I did lose count on how many one on one opportunities we had. There was an amusing moment during the game, this came as Corey called 77 out to his players (his old number of course), we assume this was a set play, well, just lets say it needs some work…

The main arena was used for the evening game Amiens v Quebec 3 Rivers University, I have to say some of their players looked like mature students, this team could play though and shocked the hosts skating to a 6-1 victory.
The following day, which seemed even hotter, would see the early game played again in the small arena, the Canadian side followed up their first win by over powering Kassel 5-1, the Germans did put up a good fight and stayed in the game until the last period.

Before this game I managed to speak at length with Rico Rossi, head coach of the Kassel Huskies. What a lovely chap he is, the enthusiasm he has for Ice Hockey came bounding across, the joy on his face was plain to see when he told me about the teams play-off success last season, in particular beating their rivals Frankfurt along the way. He was more than interested about the EIHL and was well aware on how the league is making progress. He was very honest in admitting his players had been a little nervous about facing the Panthers in the smaller rink, this would suit our North American style much more than his team, he did say though ‘I am proud of how my boys stood up’ he did also comment on how amazed he was with the level of support the Panthers had in France. It had been a pleasure to chat with the coach who addressed me as Sir; I failed to put him right on that one.

Thank goodness the evening game, Amiens v Nottingham, was in the main arena, otherwise it would have been a problem fitting everyone in. This game had actually been the final game in 2004 with Craighead (2) and Kalmikov ensuring that Paul Adey’s team would triumph that night 3-1. Unfortunately they missed out on progressing in that tournament due to goal difference. Back to 2016 and this time Amiens did not look a strong side, in fact this seemed a routine win (5-3) to the Panthers and to be honest it was not that close, new players Sertich and Carter were on the score sheet.

Panthers would have just 12 hours rest before stepping back on the ice for their final game. This would be the decider for the Napoleon Cup, with Three Rivers University having 22 players lining up against the Panthers. In contrast, being short of players had now caught up with the British side; Shultz was sidelined through injury, Carter and Clarke had taken knocks but did ice. The Canadian side went in front on the power play but Geoff Waugh equalised. It then all went south for the Panthers; Dan Spang took a bad hit which sparked a melee. At this stage the officials lost it and started guessing on calls, at one stage Farmer, Brown and Waugh were all serving 10 minute misconduct penalties. UQTR added 2 more goals before Wiikman was led from the ice, with what seemed like a leg/groin problem. That was it really, tiredness set in and eventually Panthers went down 7-3, and the Quebec side rightly claimed the trophy.

The final game was Amiens v Kassel; credit to both sides for providing an entertaining match in what was now a dead rubber. Amiens came from 4-1 down to level and then win on penalties, credit also to all the fans that supported their teams well throughout the weekend. A big thank you must also be passed on to the event organisers. Each time I have been to Amiens it has been most enjoyable, made so by those behind the scenes.

I wanted to finish on evaluating the new players, but in all honesty with 3 games in as many days, playing short and tiredness setting in during the final game, it would be totally unfair. The one thing you could not fault any player for this weekend was effort. The team seemed reasonably strong in the first two games; however, when tiredness sets in mistakes become more frequent. In the final game this was more than evident. At the end of the day it is all about preparation for the season ahead.

So, if it was passport control that caused an issue on the way out, well it was a little more serious on the way back. An aircraft burst its tyre on take off in Amsterdam and had to be diverted for an emergency landing in Birmingham. This plane was ahead of ours so we had to circle Birmingham for more than 30 minutes. Thankfully it all went smoothly and everyone was safe. When this kind of thing happens it makes you tell yourself to be more patient in queues, after all it was only the time lost that we had to be concerned about.

Steve Flemming

Summer Recruitment – A Long Season Ahead?

As the lengthy summer recruitment process draws to a close, I can’t help but feel somewhat underwhelmed by the Panthers roster that has been tasked with mounting a league title challenge in 2016/17. Having fallen far short in the league standings last year, it was interesting that Corey wasted no time in re-signing many of last season’s roster. Some will say that our relatively lowly finish – 5th, 10 points behind champions Sheffield – was exaggerated by injuries to key players along with the management’s failure to bring in timely replacements. All teams experience injuries/suspensions at one time or another however, and if we’re being honest, we were never close, consistently losing games in the final run in, even with an inflated roster at that time.

With 7 of last season’s imports signed up for the new campaign, it could be argued that it is many of those that have departed that actually made more of an impression in black and gold and I’m sure if Corey had had his way, they’d have been snapped up too. Mosey was outstanding throughout the year and his turn of pace and ability to create chances out of nothing will be a huge loss. Obviously, however he was presented with an opportunity too good to refuse and we all hope that he is able to do the EIHL proud as he tries to break into the big American leagues. Fellow forwards Kolnik and Bombach, both class acts – although the former showed greater consistency throughout the year – have also decided to move on, along with defencemen Schmidt and late arrivals Macdonald and Quick, all of whom performed admirably at the back end. The fans reaction on social media to the loss of Cam Janssen says it all.

Of those that remain, numerous question marks surround them. Schultz never quite looked as dangerous following his dreadful early season injury, Dimmen struggled for fitness despite proving solid when on the ice and the sheer volume of games expected from Miika Wiikman proved too much of a strain on his body last time out. In my opinion, Miika was the league’s number one goalie when fit but can he last the course without his body breaking down? Waugh, was disappointing last season despite improving in the playoffs. I like my defencemen in the Mike Rees/Eric Charron mould and for all his size I don’t think he was the dominant force that I’d hoped for. Perhaps he may have been one that Corey would have offloaded this summer if it weren’t for the restrictions caused by his uni course. Similarly Moran, although undoubtedly a quality player with an excellent understanding of the game, didn’t really have the game changing impact that I’d anticipated from a player of his calibre and I expect more from him next season. Logan MacMillan performs his role brilliantly but can’t be expected to put up big numbers.

The one import returnee not yet mentioned is the man that Corey, surprisingly, seems to have built much of the forward recruitment around – the mercurial Chris Lawrence. Larry, as he is affectionately known by the Panthers’ faithful, eventually found a home in Nottingham having been relieved of his services by both Coventry and Sheffield in 2015/16 and it was a different Chris Lawrence to the player that led team scoring for the Panthers in the previous year. More gritty and hard working, I was actually more impressed with Larry v.2, although this change in role unsurprisingly led to a marked decrease in points scoring. The first of his buddies to put pen to paper, Jeff Brown, posted a fairly average 0.5 ppg in two seasons in the East Coast and is likely to be relied upon for his energy and tenacity rather than his points scoring. To use a university place on what, in my opinion, seems to be a fairly run of the mill signing is strange to say the least. The third member of the clan, Matt Carter, put up good numbers in an average French league over the last two seasons but didn’t set the world alight in the East Coast in the preceding years. Late summer signing, Alex Nikiforuk looks to be a top player having scored highly – particularly in the assist’s column – for the majority of his career. Much will be expected, and required from him if Panthers are to challenge next season.

On D, Corey certainly seems to have more adequately replaced the summer departures with some real quality. Spang, Sertich and Lindhagen have some top clubs on their resumes and should perform well in this league, although it remains unclear in which position the latter will actually play. My main concern here is a lack of balance. Following the positive impact made at the end of last season by mobile defencemen Quick and Macdonald, Corey seems to have over compensated in his attempts to replicate this model; the three newcomers, Dimmen and arguably Lee – he assisted on 23 goals last season – all have offensive tendencies. Given our potential lack of firepower up front, on the one hand it’s pleasing that the D seem capable of lending a hand, but where are the big, mean blue-liners that will have the opposition’s skilled guys watching their backs? The ‘get out of my goalie’s crease or I’ll take your head off’ type defencemen? This, I feel, is a glaring oversight in terms of our recruitment and has created a clear weakness from the off.

Such roster concerns aren’t only consigned to the imports. Panthers undoubtedly possess one of the most impressive Brit packs in the league, however it is high time that certain members of the crop started performing as such. Last season, Lachowicz scored 41 points less than in 2013/14 and 24 points less than in 2014/15 and at times, it was unclear how he warranted the ice time that he was awarded. Secondary scoring from the likes of Lacho will be more important than ever next season and Corey must find a way to get the best out of him. Similarly, Farmer’s role on the checking line last season, whilst effective, saw his points tally more than halve from that of the previous season. Is this the best use of his offensive talent? I would suggest that with MacMillan, Brown, Betteridge and a possible 4th line fighter/hitter to come, Corey should think carefully about how to utilise Farms more effectively. Clarke isn’t getting any younger and the loss of Myers and all the qualities that he brings to the team is huge – big shoes to fill for young Ollie Betteridge.

On defence, Lee, in my view, has been too inconsistent over the last two years and he certainly doesn’t instill great confidence when on the ice. It could be argued that his performances have gone downhill since Corey began ‘developing him’ into a more offensive, mobile defenceman. With the players that we have on D, it may be the right time to scrap that plan and allow Stevie to once again play a more simple, defensive game. On the other hand, I was impressed with Oakford last year and although no longer a young man, he seems to have really come on since arriving in Nottingham. At times, I thought he could have felt a little bit hard done by for not receiving more ice time, particularly in the run in, and I hope Corey has the faith in him next season to allow him to progress further.

That a coach as experienced as Corey continues to leave gaps in his recruitment is a source of great frustration. Last year we lacked a genuine sniper and a points scoring (Corey Neilson-esque) defenceman. The season before (the CHL season) we had no team toughness, not to mention a glaring lack of quality throughout the roster. This year we seem to have an over abundance of gritty, grinding forwards without much in terms of point scorers – more specifically, goal getters. In addition, our D, although brimming with quality, seems one-dimensional. Surely it can’t be that difficult to tick the boxes to ensure that all of the required team attributes are covered, and that the right mix of offence and defence exists within both the forwards and the D?

I am aware that hockey is not played on paper and that, in reality, players will perform better/worse than expected and will demonstrate qualities/deficiencies, which their stats may not reveal. Unfortunately, at this stage however, I find it hard to make an argument for this roster being an upgrade on last season’s crop, or superior to 3 or 4 of the rosters assembled around the league.

On the 15th March 2013, Matt Francis fired into the empty net to end a 56-year wait for a league championship, sparking wild celebrations in Belfast. Sadly, I will be stunned if there is a repeat of such scenes in 7 months time.

Jon Wright

Ice Arena Wales

The new home for the Cardiff Devils is now complete, the 17 million pound arena is open and up and running, so it seemed like the perfect time to visit South Wales again. I remember during the eighties visiting Ninian Park (former home of Cardiff City). In those days following football carried a health warning. On arrival at Cardiff Central you simply kept your head down for the rest of the afternoon, visiting a pub was never considered and keeping one’s mouth firmly closed was advised. In the nineties however, I went on several occasions to the Wales National Ice Rink. This was in the centre of Cardiff and was actually demolished in 2006. It was much more welcoming and I witnessed some cracking games against the Nottingham Panthers; I recall also the excellent atmosphere there.

Over the years the Devils have had some problems to deal with; ownership, finance and home ice being the main issues and they were actually declared bankrupt in 2001. You would need to go back to 96/97 when they last won the league title (ISL). More recently though there is clearly a refreshing change running through the organisation, last season’s Challenge Cup win was followed up with another final appearance this season losing only to an overtime goal by Evan Mosey (Nottingham Panthers). Also the team has enjoyed an excellent campaign in the league, which was going down to the final game. With the off ice problems now in the past the club can look forward with some confidence, especially with having Todd Kelman as the General Manager.

My wife and I decided on a two night stay in Cardiff, this allowed us to see the final and deciding game of the season and of course visit the new arena. We decided to let the train take the strain, except at £72 return it was more like a strain on our pockets, good job we had a railcard and for this trip some Tesco vouchers, at least that make it reasonable. We opted for the Marriott Hotel in the centre of town, excellent location and at £79 per room there were no complaints.

The new arena is situated next to the Big Blue Tent (BBT), I actually never made it there but friends have assured me the sightlines were poor at best. Getting to the arena from the centre of Cardiff is not that user friendly, walking is difficult and takes the best part of one hour, you can take a local train to Cogan, its probably a 15 minute walk from there, we were short on time so decided on a taxi (£8.50). I had ordered 2 tickets by phone and needed to collect them from the bar area, they are not yet up to speed with the administration side. On collection it was Todd Kelman who recommended the pizza van outside for food. He is quite hands on with all things happening with the Devils it seems. He was not wrong; cooked in a proper oven while you wait the pizzas could not be faulted. As we sat outside to eat we watched the usual Hockey players warm up, football, to rid themselves of the bus legs, Panthers players were not always in control of the ball though, also there is something strange when players try to head the ball with baseball caps on….

We decided to have a beer at the ice arena, as the nearest pub is quite a walk away. From the bar you can see the second ice pad and get a view of the new facilities. It is all very impressive. Speaking to some of the local fans they informed us the BBT will be gone in April, a new hotel will be built, in fact the whole area is under development as part of a £250 million project.

Block 10 row D would be our seats for the evening, it was a stretch to see the far right hand corner looking through the players benches, decent overall view though, the Jumbotron showed the entrance video which was not bad, perhaps the acoustics need equalising somewhat, there are bound to be a few teething problems to start with.

Now on the night there would be a need to stay tuned to everything that was happening in Kirkcaldy. Steelers would need to lose up there if the Devils were to stay in with a chance of the league title however, everyone was struggling to get a phone signal but eventually news came of a 2-goal Sheffield lead. The Devils could only concentrate on their game at that stage and after an end-to-end first period Douchet fired them in front with a shot from the outside which found its way past Wilkman. In the second period Salters tipped in number two to put the Panthers on the back foot, to their credit though they were playing quite well going forward and forced Bowns into some good saves before Waugh stepped in to reduce the arrears with a nice finish.

At this point Panthers were looking good before deciding to hit the destruct button. Firstly Farmer was called for a stupid retaliation penalty and with Bowns off for the extra skater the Devils scored on the delayed penalty, Haddad netting from an angle. Now if Wilkman was a little disappointed with a couple of the Devils goals he will be distraught if he sees the 4th one again, scored by Fournier. I was surprised at this stage that Wilkman was not replaced. In the 3rd period the Devils became very nervous, firstly credit Wilkman with 2 fine saves to deny them a 5th goal, but Farmer and then Kolnik scored to bring the game back to 4-3. The Devils held on though for a deserved win, they would in the end finish runners up as the Steelers claimed their 9th league title with a 3-1 win in Scotland, how do they do it? The Devils deserve much credit for a terrific season. Andrew Lord has done a fine job as player coach and you have to feel they will be a force in the seasons ahead.

We decided on a walk to a local pub for a couple of glasses to allow us a chance to digest the evening, a really good experience we felt. It is recommended that should anyone have an opportunity to visit the new arena they most certainly should do so, we will definitely be back.

Just a few thoughts on the Nottingham Panthers. The CC is already in the trophy cabinet as we know and credit to the organisation for that. However, the league title was never really in their sight. It is always easy in hindsight to look at the reasons why but yet again injuries to key players have hit the team; defensively I never thought the balance was quite right. On paper they certainly look a very good side and have shown it at times, perhaps there is little need to make too many changes, finding consistency though like in any sport is always the key.

To conclude we again have to say many congratulations to the Sheffield Steelers, back-to-back league titles their 9th overall, a tremendous achievement.