Fans are key to Panthers' success, says boss Black
WHEN Neil Black completed the purchase of ailing ice hockey team Nottingham Panthers back in 1997, on behalf of his Aladdin Sports Management company, little did he envisage it would take him 16 long years before they won a league title.
With the team resident in the 1930s Ice Stadium and its limited capacity of around 2,600, he knew it would take time before SuperLeague team Panthers started to get on an even-keel.
But with the opening of the £42m National Ice Centre due within three years, he was prepared to run the club at a loss while the big arena teams – and those sides who put trophies before survival – hogged the honours.
Of those six teams who won the SuperLeague title, none of them exist today under the same ownership – having gone bust.
In fact, of the ten teams who played in the Superleague during its seven years' existence, only Panthers have the same owners and management in today's Elite League.
For some, owning an ice hockey team was like a hot potato.
For Neil Black, despite threats from supporters and a coach walking out on him through those testing early years, it was more of a mission to prove people wrong.
And now, at the head of Britain's most successful team of all time – off the ice at least – his patience and fortitude is just 60 minutes and two points away from being rewarded.
"Hey, let's not jump the gun here," said Black. "We need a win in Belfast tonight or tomorrow to get it sewn up and it won't be easy.
"Belfast will have a big say yet.
"But with a bit of luck, one more big performance will do it."
Looking back on his 16 years in charge, Black says it is patience more than anything that has seen the club survive some major upheavals in the sport.
During the Superleague era, despite Black's refusal to get drawn into the trap of signing players he couldn't afford, Panthers still won the Benson & Hedges Cup twice, were runners-up in the play-offs twice and were Challenge Cup finalists on three more occasions.
"We've had our ups and downs, but not that many downs to be honest," he said.
"There have been a few disappointments along the way, but nothing dramatic; it's the same in everyone's life.
"Quite simply, we persevered and stuck to the main principal which is, don't run before you can walk and basically don't jump the gun on too many decisions.
"We've probably made a couple of knee-jerk decisions, but basically, we've stuck with the plan, happily doing our own thing and minding our own business.
"That's always been our approach.
"I think the only true barometer of success can be judged by the number of people who actually care about your team – the number of regular fans plus the number of fringe fans you've got.
"Secondly, it might be what you win in terms of trophies. But there's no point winning a trophy if you've only got 500 fans to celebrate it with.
"At the end of the day, it's all about how many people care about what you're doing, and in that sense, we've done well.
"We've built it up and gradually in time, more and more people have shown they care about the Panthers, that's the key.
"We've won plenty of trophies, but not the main prize, but I am more pleased than anything else that we have so many people caring about what we do.
"We are extremely fortunate that we have a very, very good relationship with the arena
"And we try to keep our prices at the low end of the average in the league and recognise that as well as having a very nice place to watch us, we put a good product on the ice, too.
"Because of that, we've been able to keep our fan base together even when we've had less successful years.
"That's the main thing with this sport in the UK. The number one stakeholders are the fans, your customers."
With coach Corey Neilson in charge of the team for the past five seasons, after initially coming as a player in 2006, he has lasted longer than any of his predecessors.
And Black points to Neilson's early-season injury as key to turning round the club's fortunes .
"Corey has always been an absolutely top-drawer bloke," said Black. "He's a pleasure to work with.
"He had a few ups and downs when we had some bad results against teams we should have been beating a couple of years or so ago.
"But he came through all that.
"I don't want to say I'm pleased he got injured and was unable to play; but as a result of him being out of the playing line-up earlier this season, it has made for a fabulous year for us.
"I'm sorry for him because he loves playing so much but we needed something unexpected like that to happen, to enable him to oversee things from the sidelines instead of on the ice.
"And let's not forget the contribution made by Corey's assistant Rick (Strachan)."
Black also praised Neilson's successful recruitment programme which cuts down the risk element when signing import players new to the UK.
"He's been excellent. There are two things in our league you really have to do as a coach, the real ingredients to be a success," said Black.
"Number one is recruitment and the second is man-management.
"We don't have big enough squads in this country, with all the specialities that comes with, to do enormous amounts of coaching to turn players from X into Y.
"So you have to recruit really well in the summer, getting the players to do a specific job.
"And Corey has been excellent at that because since he's been coach, there has been very little that has not worked out for him over the seasons.
"It's not our style to just get rid of players if we can help it. You have to hope that they all gel together and this lot have gelled very well.
"The key to having a successful club is doing all the hard work in the summer regarding recruitment.
"Basically, we're virtually ending the season with the same team we started with apart from Guy Lepine who came in a bit later and then Kelsey Wilson.
"Beau (David Beaurgeard) has come in, too, as a spare and that has proved to be a very wise move.
"But it's not just about the players and coaches.
"In (general manager) Gary Moran and his off-ice team, the equipment guys, the physios and trainers and all the volunteers, they have all gone together to make us what we are.
"But as I've said, we've won nothing yet.
"All I am hoping for is one more big performance . . ."