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.

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