On Time Management, Hockey Celeb Culture and Fan Outrage

This weekend, the Blaze finished their regular season with a 4-2 loss against Belfast at home followed by a loss to the last-place Hull Stingrays away.

The big story of the weekend was the absence of Jerramie Domish from both games, for reasons as yet unknown. New Blaze coach Matty Soderstrom has been getting stick all week for his appointment, and the fans are angry about a lack of passion and most seem to have already given up on the season, putting the management under attack for not releasing a statement and generally acting like hockey is the most important thing on earth and the sky is about to fall on the Skydome.

Or, to put it another way, it was just another week in this injury-ridden and tumultuous Blaze season.

Normally, as Blaze PBP guy, I’d have been joining in with this and posting my opinions on the new coach, how the Blaze should do this and that, which player should be signed, the whole thing.

But over the last week or two, I’ve become sick of the whole churning of fan opinion in Coventry-particularly with the accusations levelled at the players of “not caring any more” and “only wanting to accept their paychecks”. Mainly, I’ve become sick of the propensity of the Blaze fanbase to treat every single thing that happens in Coventry as something to either be torn down, debated or thrown around as proof that this club is going to hell in a handbasket.

This culminated last night with fans getting wound up about…of all things…their coach deciding to miss an away game to go and scout the opposition, saying that it was an “insult” to those who had travelled, that a man who’d given 18 years of his life to their team was disappointing because he elected to travel and scout the opposition for a game that actually meant something next week rather than go to the bench for a meaningless end-of-season game that would have zero effect beyond ticking a box saying all fixtures had been completed.

Let’s get this clear, Blaze fans. Paul Thompson’s time is his. If he decides that he wants to spend his last regular-season game scouting Blaze’s next opposition and giving his assistant (who let’s not forget is going to be doing Thompson’s job next season) the chance to cut his teeth with absolutely nothing on the line, then that is his affair.

You, I or anyone else have no right to tell him his actions are wrong, nor do you have any right to feel disappointed because something that you arbitrarily expected to happen didn’t. That, my friends, is called life.

Oh, but it was his last regular-season game” you cry. So what? There are at LEAST two more games during which Paul Thompson will be behind the Blaze bench, including one at the Skydome next Saturday. The only significance of Sunday night’s game was an arbitrary one ascribed to it by you and those selling the tickets for the away coaches, which meant considerably little to anyone else. You can see how much significance the man for whose “milestone you were all getting so teary-eyed about ascribed to it by the fact that he missed it to go and DO THE JOB YOU’RE ALL EXPECTING HIM TO DO, which is attempt to make it more likely the Blaze will win a game that actually matters next weekend.

I can understand being annoyed at the way the game was “sold” to you, but getting annoyed at Thommo himself is a step beyond the line.

In the grand scheme of things, getting pissed off about the “snub” Paul Thompson delivered to you and your mates (a snub which only exists in YOUR OWN HEAD) is about as petty and worthwhile as yelling “I’M THE NEW KING/QUEEN OF THE WORLD!” in Coventry city centre and then flying into a rage because nobody bows. See the bigger picture here, people, for Christ’s sake.

*takes a breath*

Am I done with this post yet? Not even close.

Blaze dman Jerramie Domish missed both games this weekend for undisclosed reasons, which has led to a flurry of fans saying “WE WANT A STATEMENT” along with a bunch of wild speculation about what’s happened and the reasons why, none of which I’ll post here as some theories are potentially libellous. People want to know why Domish didn’t play, and more than that, some expect to be told by the club immediately.

At the risk of being potentially flamed here, and writing this with no insider knowledge, it seems to me the reasons why Domish didn’t play or (if it IS the case) the reasons why Blaze have terminated his employment are between the Blaze & Domish himself, and the reason that as of now the club haven’t commented on why he didn’t play at the weekend and why any statement they release on the matter will simply contain the bare facts and not justification is, in my eyes (and I’ll put this as bluntly as possible), because sometimes the reasons are none of our business.

UK hockey is a sport where, rightly or wrongly, the fans are allowed a lot of access to the players. This, in Coventry, appears to have bred a culture where fans think they should be told EVERYTHING about a team, including the players’ private lives. The “celeb culture” which appears to have invaded everyday life has hit the Skydome and other clubs, too.

I used to be part of this. As a fan, I wanted to know EVERYTHING about my favourite players, up to and including what they listened to in the changing room or their favourite pregame meal. Being “in the know” was fun. It gave you credence and a bit of a buzz.

Being the Blaze webcast announcer, I am lucky enough to have a little more access to the team than the “average fan” and I do try and find out information so I can do my job effectively. Every PBP guy does. After all, if we want to we have the chance ask the players, staff and management why things are happening, why someone isn’t playing, and all the questions that people are asking.

But, if anything, being in this privileged position has taught me a valuable lesson, both about fandom and the operations of a sports team.

Even with access the average fan could only dream of, there are times when I ask a question which to me seems perfectly reasonable and am told simply “You can ask us all you like, but sorry, we’re not telling you the answer. Why? Because we’re not.”

When I first started, this sometimes used to frustrate me. After all, I’m supposed to be “part of the team”-the players know me. Why am I still being shut out? Why wasn’t I told the reason for this line change, or this personnel decision?

Now I know why.

Even in my position, if I’m not told something, it’s because. even though I may want to…I don’t need to know it.

It’s human nature to WANT to know everything possible about a situation, to look for reasons and speculate. Wanting to be told everything, wanting to speculate is fine. It’s what fans do and have done since time immemorial.

But expecting to be told everything, even when having that knowledge will make no change to anyone’s life beyond a few people or have negative effects on fans’ or players lives-that’s a new fan phenomenon in the UK. And more to the point, it’s a fan phenomenon that’s unrealistic. A phenomenon that relies on a “perfect world” where information isn’t power and it can’t be used against the teller or the subject. A phenomenon that in this world simply is unrealistic.

Sometimes, it’s necessary for one to accept that not everyone needs to know everything. And the more I come to know, the more this becomes true.

In hockey, as in life, information is power.

And simply put, especially when it’s power over your players’ lives and future careers. power is not something to be given up lightly.

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Roar Of The Panthers: How Nottingham Became The Best Team In UK Hockey

A few weeks ago I wrote a post outlining a possible scenario for Nottingham managing to throw away the league title and allowing Belfast to catch them. I promised that should Panthers not do so, I’d write a post admitting my mistake. Here it is. Along with a whole lot more.

56 years of hurt. Gone.

The Nottingham Panthers are a team that many fans love to hate for their money, the (perceived) arrogance of sections of their fan-base & their almost fetishistic preoccupation with Sheffield (a preoccupation which is somehow exceeded by the Steelers). They’re a team whose time on and around the top of the mountain in British hockey has always been punctuated with the little nagging whisper of “well, you haven’t won a league title yet”. 

The Panthers of the Elite League era have often been a team who have played beautiful hockey and had arrays of talent (sometimes both together) but never quite seemed to put it all together DESPITE the two consecutive playoff wins and four consecutive Challenge Cups over the past few years. A team that were great, a team that could dominate games, but never a team that could dominate a league. Indeed, they seemed to win trophies in spite of the fact that, when it came down to it, they were a collection of expensively assembled individuals who could play well at the right time (if the right time was a few games) but never seemed to be able to get things together long enough to dominate.

In short, the Panthers of the Elite League era have always been a team to be a little wary of, but never a team to truly fear. A team that could (and perhaps should) have a chance of being truly dominant, but never really got near it.

A team that always, somewhere, had a fatal flaw, whether it be goaltending (several seasons), the propensity of Corey Neilson to overplay himself (again, several seasons), a love of style over substance (see…Jade Galbraith, Dan Tessier, Steve Pelletier, and others).

In short, the Panthers were a group of individuals who were a “team” only in the sense that they happened to wear the same jersey for a year. A team built under the premise of “we’ll throw money at all the best players we can, then try to make them fit a role”. It was an approach that worked well for one-off games or shorter tournaments, when individuals can make a difference, but not so well for a league season. Somehow, as egos got in the way or every player tried to be the “alpha dog”, the Panthers always found a way to shoot themselves in the foot as teams who were less talented but more cohesive found a way to outwork, outplay or simply outdo the Panthers over a long league season.

This year, for the first time, Corey Neilson built a team. He built a group where the players fitted the roles that were needed. A team that could beat you with scintillating run-and-gun hockey or grind out a win, depending on what the situation required.

It was a team built as much for a rainy short-benched November night in Fife as a glitzy final. A team that, for the first time in a while, looked as happy winning games while wallowing down in the gutter as doing so soaring in the stars.

Every player had a role, and played it impeccably. Craig Kowalski stopped pucks with a regularity that was almost metronomic. Gui Lepine and Stevie Lee settled nerves at the back, with Lepine a looming presence on the blue-line, and Lee continuing his climb to the top of the British defenceman pile. Jonathan Weaver revelled in decreased icetime and a more specialised role, using his veteran brains to excellent effect. Eric Werner was a revelation as a two-way defenceman. Up front David Ling was the pest par excellence, always able to find that little extra bit of quality to back up his hard-nosed play, and making sure that even if he wasn’t scoring, the opposition feared him- whenever and wherever he was on the ice-his sweep of awards proves that.

Bruce Graham provided another deadly scoring threat-his deceptively languid style blending perfectly with Ling’s. Pat Galivan, Matt Francis and Rob Lachowicz gave speed and scoring, and Brandon Benedict, Matt Myers and Kelsey Wilson provided grit, snarl and a superb two-way game. And in Jordan Fox, the Panthers had a captain who led by quiet example…the man was rarely less than flawless.

In short, this team was as finely put together and with as much attention to detail from Corey Neilson as the finest of Swiss watches, and it ran like one. The Panthers in full flow were a truly wonderful thing to behold-their high point for me coming on a December night before Christmas when they dismantled the Blaze for a flawless 8-0 victory with a surgical precision that was beautiful, awesome and terrifying all at once.

However, as the end of the season approached, the Panthers were close, but not home and dry. With the pressure building, this was the time for the team to buckle if they were going to…particularly with the weight of 57 years of hope, missed chances and expectation on their shoulders. Having seen them do so before, and with Belfast coming up hard on their heels, I speculated it could happen again.

But it didn’t. On their biggest night for 57 years, in enemy territory and with the hopes of Panthers Nation on their shoulders, the Golden Cats swept away the last obstacle and started the party in Nottingham. Demolishing the Steelers in their own rink in the first leg of the Challenge Cup final meant that they secured the Double despite a loss in their own barn, and then came the playoffs.

Every truly great team needs a little luck, and the Panthers got it against Fife in the playoff quarters, losing 4-2 in Scotland and having two Flyers goals disallowed in their return leg, eventually sneaking through by one goal. After disposing of Cardiff in the semi, yesterday saw the Panthers again get a little luck as their first PO Final goal hit the bar, Stephen Murphy’s back and then trickled in.

The Panthers then had to ride their luck again as the Giants came back before winning in overtime…but it’s said that when a team is truly good, luck sometimes follows them. And frankly, there was no other team that realistically deserved to seal the Triple Crown this season.

There is a Roman saying “let them hate, as long as they fear”. This season it could have been emblazoned on the Panthers jerseys…they were a team that the rest of the league (including “my” Coventry) hated. A team that spent the whole season with a monumental target on their back and carried the burdens of both the hopes of their own fans and the opprobrium of the rest of the league with stout hearts and straight backs, defying every attempt to jinx them.

And they have gained just reward for their efforts in a Triple Crown of league, cup and playoffs, denied a Grand Slam only by the ridiculous scoring of the EIHL’s conference points system. And for that, and placing all team rivalries aside, they deserve to be fulsomely and justly praised.

Well done, Nottingham Panthers, Elite League League, Challenge Cup and Playoff Champions, 2012/13.

End Of An Era: Farewell, Paul Thompson

Eighteen years as a head coach. Seven national league titles (four in the Elite League alone) Four playoff titles (two English League, one British National League, one EIHL) Two Challenge Cups. Three other cups. One glorious treble season. Over 1200 games as a head-coach for Coventry Blaze. Two World Championship medals as Team Great Britain coach.

All of the above statistics belong to one man-Coventry Blaze’s Paul Thompson. He’s been one of the few constants in eighteen years of constant change in British ice-hockey-his suited or tracksuited figure behind the Blaze bench is a silhouette that’s become known to everyone in British hockey as unchanging-a constant like the ebbing and flowing of the tides or the world turning.

He’s stuck beside the Blaze through times of feast and times of famine, screaming, motivating, cajoling and driving feats of athletic excellence out of his players on Skydome ice year after year.

Known for being one of the most straight-talking men in the sport, he’s won everything it’s possible to win in British hockey, accepted every possible word of praise, every accolade.

And more than that, he’s taken a city that knew nothing about the sport of ice-hockey, a sport dominated by a seemingly unshakeable love for football, and turned it into one of the few places in Great Britain that can truly be considered a “hockey town”, and in the process was taken into the hearts of Coventry itself. It seemed that he’d be here for life. To a large degree, Paul Thompson is the personification of Coventry hockey.

Today, just before the end of his eighteenth season, came the announcement that would shake Coventry hockey to its foundations.

Paul Thompson, the man who built Coventry hockey into what it is today on the ice, is stepping down as Blaze head coach.

He’s heading for Sweden, to test himself as head coach of Troja-Ljungby in the Allsvenskan.

And, for the first time in eighteen seasons, the Blaze will have a new man at the helm next season.

This is the event many Blaze fans have been dreading. Thommo leaving was thought by many (and still is) to be the potential first sign of the Apocalypse for Coventry hockey.

And yet, somehow, you can’t help but be happy for the man himself. This is an opportunity Paul Thompson has long deserved. An opportunity he has been offered in the past, but turned down, feeling that he still had things to achieve in Coventry, or for the sake of his family. An opportunity that now, finally, it appears he feels he can seize with both hands.

The Swedish Allsvenskan is a higher-budget, higher-profile league than the EIHL. Skills and salaries may be higher, but so are expectations. It’s the opportunity for a man who has achieved everything he can achieve in British hockey to move on to the next stage in his career, and work his magic on a higher, more glamorous stage.

An opportunity that no-one can begrudge a man who’s given his life so far to British hockey, both as a player and as a coach-and has given the vast majority of it to one team.

There is sadness in Coventry today. But there is also tremendous pride-for finally, the incredible work that Paul Thompson has done here is being rewarded by the wider world of hockey. Finally, the world outside the small, insular world of UK hockey has taken notice.

His efforts have paved the ice of the Skydome with silver for eighteen seasons. Finally, he’s reaping the personal reward of the efforts that have already rewarded his team and UK hockey a million times over and above what he’s received for them.

Now, it’s time for him to take the next step in his career. Time for he and the Blaze, at least on ice, to part ways. Time for a new man to take on the task of keeping the Blaze burning as brightly as the man known to all in British hockey simply as “Thommo”. A new era for both the man, and the club he’s leaving behind.

But until then, there’s still the matter of the Elite League playoffs this season to finish. And the chance for one more Paul Thompson-led celebration in Coventry. Don’t bet against it just yet, either.

Troja-Ljungby fans don’t realise just how lucky they are yet. But they will do.

Thank you for everything you’ve done in Coventry, Thommo, and here’s hoping the hockey gods favour you in your new job.

After all, you’ve earned it.

Uneasy Lies The Crown: How Nottingham Panthers Will Lose The Elite League Title

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”

“Henry IV, Part II”, Act III, scene one.

Back in the heady days of August, when possibilities spread out in front of the ten Elite League teams and anything was possible, there was a lot of talk of the Nottingham Panthers finally breaking the Curse of 1956 and pulling in an Elite League title.

As the season’s gone on, there can be no argument that the Panthers have proved themselves to be the best Panthers side of the Elite League era, demolishing rivals left right and centre to sit with a four-point lead at the top of the table ahead of Belfast, and ten points ahead of Sheffield in third.

A lot of fans are already handing the league title to Nottingham, saying that their combination of skill and strength and depth is enough to finally break that curse.

I’m not one of them. In fact, I think that over the next few weeks, we’ll see this Panthers team placed under the kind of pressure that will make everything up until now seem a cakewalk. And I think that they can be stopped by Belfast. After all, the Giants only need to win two more games than the Panthers, and more importantly, they play them twice-in Belfast.

So here, in my eyes, is how the Panthers lose the title….weekend by weekend.

9th/10th March:

Belfast face Braehead and Edinburgh in two games that they simply have to win-a slumping Clan and a Capitals squad missing Rene Jarolin and Jade Portwood are still tricky adversaries, but they could be a lot trickier. Belfast have made a habit of losing the odd game they should have won this season, but Doug Christensen will have his (full-strength) squad ready to do-or-die over the next three weeks, and these are games you’d back the Giants to win, particularly with the added incentive of keeping up with Nottingham.

The Panthers, meanwhile, face Hull on Sunday (which you can probably bank as two points) but on Saturday night they face the little matter of a Sheffield team who’d like nothing more than to shove an almighty spanner in the works of Panthers’ league challenge. They’ve already won at the NIC this season, too. If Corey Neilson’s men are going to crack, this is the kind of game that’s going to pile on enough pressure to make them do it.

I can see the Steelers doing so, too. Possibly not in regulation, but either way, I think the Giants are gaining this weekend.

Projected points:
Nottingham 77, Belfast 75. Four games remaining.

17/18/19th March

This is the weekend upon which the title will be won or lost for Nottingham. Two games, in the Odyssey, against their biggest rivals. There will be no motivation required for either side-but the pressure, which was strong enough beforehand, will all be on the Panthers. The Giants HAVE to win the Friday night game. Do that, and all of a sudden, the two teams are level on points and the momentum has shifted-the doubts will begin to creep in, the pressure will rise, and the Panthers go from sitting fairly comfortably at the top of the table to being level on points and beginning to feel the first tickle of a choke in their collective throats.

And oh yeah, they’ll likely have had the first leg of a Challenge Cup final the week before, too. Three games in five nights is a big challenge when they’re all cup finals.

I think the Giants will win that Friday night game-possibly in overtime. And so we come to Saturday-a titanic battle in the Titanic Quarter-the Panthers wounded from a loss the night before, a massive Giants crowd, an opponent buoyed by a monumental shot-in-the-arm of self belief, tired, banged-up, with the prospect of a CC Final 2nd leg coming up…it’s a nightmare for any squad to face, and it’ll be a test beyond any the Panthers have faced this season.

In my mind, that game’s only going one way.

And suddenly, the Panthers have to get at least three points to win the league.

Projected points: Belfast 79, Panthers 77. Two games remaining

MARCH 23rd/24th

And so we come down to the final weekend of the season with the Giants having, at the very best, a two-point deficit (assuming a split in Belfast) and more likely than not a two-point lead. Belfast face Coventry and Sheffield, Nottingham have a double-header in Cardiff.

But, crucially, the Panthers will likely have to face the Devils off less rest, after contesting a Challenge Cup final which (particularly if it’s against Sheffield as is likely at the moment) the week before will leave them tired on the Friday night.
Sure, Cardiff are not an unbeatable force, particularly in the NIC, but they are exactly the kind of team who are a nightmare to face when you’re tired-hard-hitting, relentless, and physical. On the big rink on the Friday night, the Panthers might just have enough still, but it’ll be a close-run thing, especially with the need of having to win-a loss, even an OT loss, means that the Giants can clinch the league…

…on Saturday, when they play Coventry. While I hate to bet against my own squad, the Blaze will be merely playing out their fixtures and likely already have one eye on a tricky playoff tie with any one of four other teams (but likely Cardiff). The Giants have only lost once at the Skydome this season, and with the impetus of a title on the line, I don’t think they’re losing this time.

Sunday will see Nottingham travel to Cardiff & Belfast to Sheffield. The tiring Panthers will have had an extra day’s rest after Friday night’s battle, but Cardiff on their own rink is a tricky place to go and win-more so when you have to go there to win a title. But they will go with the destiny not in their own hands…but in Sheffield’s.

Assuming the Giants don’t clinch the title in Coventry (which is a possibility), then the Panthers will be relying on the Steelers to do them a favour. Then, of course, they have to win in Cardiff…no mean feat themselves. I’m not sure they’ll manage it.

And in all realism, would Steelers fans really want their team to gift the Panthers a title by winning a meaningless game for an already-clinched 3rd place? I’m not so sure. The Giants will simply have more motivation to win than the Steelers will. And I think they will-which will make the result in Cardiff immaterial

Final points prediction: Belfast 83, Nottingham 79. Giants are EIHL Champions.

Of course, all this prediction could be skewed by OT losses-but look at it this way…realistically, Nottingham can only lose three points from the next eight to be sure of a title win-and will play two more games than the Giants in the next three-week span, including three games in five nights twice. Corey Neilson may have to make choices on how much he wants to win the Challenge Cup and whether or not to sacrifice it for the sake of the league-because if not, the Panthers league challenge will end up becoming the victims of their own success.