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!