Paul Balm Column 13th February

I know this is earlier in the week than usual but I’ve got too much to do at the end of the week and I think we’ve got things to talk about now don’t you? I was going to write this last night but hopefully things might be a little more considered this morning.

After the third goal went in last night I said to my son “Remember the way you feel now because you’re going to have to get used to it”. The thing is I don’t really know what I was feeling. It should have been a mix of anger and disappointment, a rage at what could (you can’t really say should but it’s hard not to) have been, a keening despair for another opportunity wasted. I’ll stop there, I’m going too far not least because I don’t really feel anything other than slightly disappointed and well, normal. At least normal for this time of the year.

Let’s face it we’ve been here before. There are those that will tell you we’ve been here too many times and it’s difficult to disagree with them but at the end of the day we don’t have the right to win every time we play. We can sit and look for common factors over the past few years and jump to knee-jerk conclusions about individuals or groups of people, but I think there’s something that goes deeper than that. There’s an ethos running through the club that has got a hugely important element fundamentally wrong.

The archive on the Evening Post’s website doesn’t go back far enough but I’m pretty sure at the start of this season or before Corey Neilson was making the usual noises about making sure his team was going to be entertaining. Now I’m guessing (and I stress that word guessing) that he was either told to say that or got the job because he said that at his interview. There’s this idea running through the club that we’re all turning up week in week out for two and a half hours of excitement, that if we crash and burn we’ll do it with flair and style. I’m sorry but that sort of attitude has only ever worked for Evel Knievel. Excitement doesn’t win you hockey games. We can go out and beat the “lesser” teams by cricket scores week in week out but when the time comes to step up a gear, to grind out a win against better opposition then that’s got nothing to do with entertainment. That’s what league winning teams do, they get on with their job, raise their game to do what has to be done. I don’t believe that we have that. No, I take that back, I think we might have it but I need to have it proved to me but I wonder if the management do. There seems to be a lack of a commitment to excellence across the whole organization. We might be bringing in 9,000 people (it’s actually a lot less when you factor in those that went to both games) but what are we giving them? A series of performances that will prove that we’re second (or probably third for the pedants out there) best yet again.

I think the biggest disappointment for me this season has been the lack of any form of real, actual statement of intent. The two horses in the title race (and I know I’ve talked about this before) both brought in players of quality when they needed to (repeatedly in Belfast’s case) and who did we bring in? A former player who hadn’t played competitively in months but was immediately placed above the hard-working and pleasingly chippy Sami Ryhanen purely it would appear because he was Sean McAslan.

As ever in these situations there are plenty of people saying they won’t be back next season or they won’t be having a season ticket but I bet the Panthers management, like me, take these statements with a pinch of salt knowing that come September the vast majority will be back because they love the team more than they do the players or the management. Having said that there are a pretty high percentage of people who were in the building on Saturday and Sunday night who won’t care one iota about what I’ve written above (and I’m not just talking about the Belfast fans either). It feels to me that an increasingly large proportion of the Panthers crowd are made up of people for whom ice hockey is simply part of a Saturday night out, a starting point to something else. Take Saturday night, I was sat towards the back of block 12 and had the misfortune to be sat in front of a group with a number of small, totally disinterested children. Now I know that Panthers, like any other team, need to attract new fans and I hope they continue to try and do so, and that means that my problem here isn’t really with the Panthers but the people they are trying to attract. Hockey is a family sport but please, if you’re thinking of coming and bringing children with you please wait until they’re old enough to appreciate what’s going on and not spend all their time kicking the back of the seats in front (you do know if they do you can tell them to stop don’t you). Save your money, if you must spend it take them to the next couple of Disney films and then bring come when they’re a bit older. You think I’m over exaggerating? I wish I was but as I trudged out on Saturday night I distinctly heard one of the little darlings ask who had won? Ask yourself is that money well spent? Those that were watching probably were entertained and that’s what Panthers are all about isn’t it?

I’ll try and end on a positive note for a change. How refreshing was it to see those kids on the ice during the intervals on Saturday night. The figure skaters had got a bit samey (I’m sorry but once I’ve seen one I’ve sort of seen them all) and a change was definitely as good as a rest. The only problem was that I definitely noticed some who could skate better than a certain editor of an online fanzine, despite his assertions in the pub afterwards that he could have taken them all on!

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