'Hockey town' is getting ready to celebrate with Panthers again
NOTTINGHAM Panthers supporters are determined to make it another night to remember on Friday when their title-winning heroes are officially presented with the famous Monteith Bowl at their last Elite League home game of the season.
With the championship sealed by their famous victory in Belfast four days ago, which ended 57 years of heartache since their last title win, Panthers' loyal fans clearly don't want to miss out when they face Cardiff Devils at the NIC (7.30pm).
The game is heading for another sell-out, which would be a record third successive full-house following their last two games against Sheffield.
Coach Corey Neilson said today: "Our wonderful fans never cease to amaze me. They have been absolutely brilliant all season.
"There will be no hangover from last weekend. It's another game the players want to win because that's their whole mentality. They just hate to lose.
"Besides, we still have everything to play for. We want to go into the play-offs on a winning note and of course, there is the matter of the Challenge Cup final against Sheffield.
"That's a trophy we have won for the last three years but I know Sheffield will not want their season to end without any silverware so we will have our work cut out tomorrow night."
Panthers were back on the ice today in preparation for tomorrow's cup final first leg at the Motorpoint Arena (7.30pm). The return leg at the NIC is on Tuesday, April 2 – four days before the play-off finals.
After their disappointment of dropping out of the title chase, Steelers have embarked on a handy three-game winning run and have clearly upgraded their thoughts on a trophy they thought was second rate . . . while Panthers have been dominating the competition.
But in truth, after the league, the Challenge Cup with all its preliminary rounds and then the two-legged knock-out stages is much harder to win than the play-offs where there is just a quarter-final to qualify for the Finals Weekend at the National Ice Centre in April.
But even a high versus low seed last-eight clash can throw up its surprises, as Steelers found to their cost last season when they were dumped out by Hull Stingrays.
The import players, however, still need convincing that winning the Play-off Final – the last game of the season – isn't the biggest of the lot.
As Panthers GB centre Matthew Myers said in Belfast as he tried to take in the achievement of winning the title at long last: "It seems strange celebrating like this with still so much to play for.
"It's always been great going into the summer with a play-off win behind you but that can wait. The Challenge Cup is up next and we are determined our name is on this new trophy."
People have often wondered why Nottingham is renowned as a hockey town and why the fan base is so huge, with an average of 5,000 at their games this season.
By contrast, Edinburgh Capitals play at the famous old Murrayfield rink in front of three-figure crowds and long-established Scottish rivals Fife Flyers – the oldest club in the UK – have a regular fan base of around a 1,000.
From that day back in 1980 when Nottingham-born Gary Keward brought down his Sheffield side to play as the reformed Panthers, the team has regularly attracted the highest crowds in the league despite them struggling at first to compete with the likes of Durham, Dundee, Streatham and other teams who are no longer with us.
But the reason for Panthers' modern-day success and the long haul to become giants in today's game goes back even further than that – even further than when they last won the British league title in 1956.
Quite simply, after Panthers first-ever season back in 1946, Nottingham became a 'hockey town', embracing this all-action North American sport despite the rival attraction of Notts County and Forest down the road.
And despite not even being in business when the league folded in 1960 to that fateful day in September 1980, old time Panthers fans have never forgotten about those early years of Les Strongman, Chick Zamick and others.
People talk about those days of yore, of how the little Zamick would still be a player to be feared these days, of the penalty-box fights and teams being escorted out of town.
So when the game returned here after the 20-year gap, there was virtually a ready-made audience, with near capacity crowds flooding back to the old Ice Stadium.
I still hear these days: "It was much better in Zamick's time."
But let's put a bit of realism on those latter days of the 1950s when ice hockey was supposed to be in its pomp.
And more importantly, let's put the achievements of today's Panthers team into perspective.
In 1955-56 – the season opposition fans kept on mocking about – Panthers won the title after playing 24 games in a five-team league.
There was one Scottish team (Paisley Pirates), with the others – Panthers excepting – based down south.
Contrast that to this season of a 52-game schedule with a ten team league – and more games against the four stronger teams in a two-tier conference system, which includes long road trips to Scotland and Belfast.
As Panthers GB defenceman Jon Weaver said as he sat in the dressing following their victory in Belfast: "This season has been the hardest to win the league, no doubt." And he should know. He won it with Coventry twice.