Cat-Scratch Fever: Why The Nottingham Panthers Are Right, And Their Opponents Are Wrong This Offseason

“If you don’t want to use a competitive advantage, you don’t want to compete. Period”

There’s been a lot of controversy this offseason amongst EIHL fandom over the Nottingham Panthers roster. Not because it’s breaking any rules, but simply because the Panthers are using those rules and taking every single competitive advantage they have in building it.

The Panthers are competing in the Champions’ Hockey League as EIHL representatives-a league which brings together rules from many different leagues and effectively gives Corey Neilson a blank slate to build his roster. Whilst the rules of a “traditional” EIHL roster only allow for 12 non-British players to dress on any given night, the Panthers currently have 17 carried on their roster, along with nine British players…enough for five lines-worth of players and, theoretically, enough to field a team without any British players at all in the CHL if they go for the standard EIHL template of three-line hockey.

The fact that only 12 of these 17 imports will be allowed to actually dress at any one time in the “league” roster, that several of these players have been announced as signing on “short term” contracts for the CHL, and that during the CHL games the Panthers will likely use their imports far more than British players simply because that’s the way they’re better able to compete has set off mutterings around the rest of the league about the way the Panthers are building their roster being “unfair” and “making a mockery of the EIHL”. Some have even gone so far as to say it’s “not a Panthers team” and those UK hockey pundits of a Sheffield persuasion have tried to claim that the early season roster building is detrimental to team morale as the imports look around and are forced to fight for their jobs.

All of the above objections from others are at best misguided, and at worse, just plain bitter sniping at another team disguised as concern trolling. The insular attitude of  “well, they shouldn’t be allowed to use their resources” is also, in a nutshell, the kind of blinkered, miserable attitude in some quarters that sums up the EIHL’s small-time mentality among many involved.

Let’s get this clear. In the context of European hockey, the EIHL is not a strong league. In the context of Champions’ League hockey, the Nottingham Panthers are like minnows swimming in a school of sharks. Teams like Bern, Hamburg and (in Nottingham’s group) Lulea have budgets, recruiting power, coaching, and facilities that EIHL teams and fans can only dream of. They also have roster strengths that far, far outweigh your average EIHL roster. Good as the Panthers are by UK hockey standards-if they took on the vast majority of CHL teams with a 12-import roster they would get absolutely annihilated.

We’re not talking “annihilated” in the context of just “losing every game”. We’re talking “annihilated” in the context of losing by a minimum of four or five…and that’s if the other team is only playing at half speed. The teams in the CHL are better-trained, better-drilled, better-paid and deeper than any “traditional” EIHL squad.

Using that argument, and with the Panthers representing an EIHL that only has a tenuous hold on being allowed into the top competition in Europe thanks to a discretionary wild-card…how the hell can anyone who claims to have the growth of British hockey at heart (like other EIHL team employees) say that the Panthers doing their level best to actually provide some competition for these other teams and not get embarrassed is “not in the spirit of British hockey?”

It’s that kind of “limit yourself because we’re not sure you can get money along with it”, risk-averse, short-sighted thinking disguised as “wanting everything to be fair” that plagues UK hockey.

The simple fact is-Panthers choosing not to load up for the CHL when they’re able to is something no sane team or fan would want. As a fan, who wants to see your team humped 7 or 8-nil knowing that your team COULD have made itself competitive and didn’t? Why would you not want to see the best possible team out there, and even if you’re not a Panthers fan, why would you NOT want to see your league represented as well as possible because you’re more concerned about some moral arbitrary notion of what an EIHL team “should” be in what is essentially a pre-season competition?

And if you’re a Panthers coach, the advantages keep coming. You’re effectively being given an excuse to make your twelve imports, the “difference makers”, the marquee players on any EIHL team fight for their jobs in a pre-season camp against real opponents far better than you could find anywhere else. Sure, some of these players are “announced” as signing on initial short-term contracts, but if you think that Corey Neilson WON’T be watching every single player on his team and thinking out strategies to convince every single one of his imports to stay a Panther if they perform well, or that these players HAVEN’T been told “the only way you’re guaranteed a contract is if you perform with us” then frankly you have no idea how sport works.

Some have said that carrying 17 imports into pre-season will cause tension in the locker room early on as every import is forced to fight for a job-including Dave Simms. Of course it will.

That’s the whole point of doing it. If you’re unhappy about Nottingham carrying extra imports and making them & British players fight for CHL playing time and jobs when the short-term contracts run out-there’s one reason and one reason only for you doing so, however you trot out phrases about “team bonding” and “giving the Brits a chance”.

That reason is simple jealousy that your team isn’t able/willing to do the same. 

To claim that players being forced to fight for jobs is a “bad thing” for a team is so laughable it’s almost beyond belief. Every single man in the Panthers dressing-room is a pro hockey player. They know damn well what they’re getting into. They know that their earning potential depends on them playing well-either to make an excellent showing on a short-term contract and put themselves in the European shop window. Any notion that they’re not going to be comfortable in a pre-season/early season dressing room where they have to fight for jobs is idiotic…if they are uncomfortable at having to fight for a job, they probably shouldn’t be pro hockey players.

The Panthers loading up for the CHL is a naked demonstration of a team doing what’s best for them-indeed doing a thing that any other hockey team would do-and getting pilloried for it based on vague excuses for one simple emotion…jealousy.

It’s also a demonstration of the small-time mentality still prevalent in UK hockey among a lot of people “well, if we can’t have nice things or use their entry into a new competition as a great combination recruiting tool, bonding exercise AND player evaluation early in the league season through our clever planning, nor should anyone else”.

The hypocrisy being demonstrated by those bemoaning Nottingham knowing full well that their own team would do the same were it possible is just sad. And it’s one more example of how, deep down, it seems that some in British hockey actually have an aversion to doing anything to better the game, unless it benefits their team directly.

It needs to stop.

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