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