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