Champions Happy League

After Nottingham Panthers historic Champions Hockey League win over the DEL’s Hamburg Freezers on Tuesday night, Cat’s Whiskers TV presenter Jono Bullard reflects on the enormity of the result for the club and the Elite League.

I’ve supported the Nottingham Panthers for over 30 years. In that time I’ve been lucky enough to witness some special nights in our storied history, however never once during that time did I imagine we would beat a DEL team in a competitive fixture. Just the thought of it seems preposterous. Hamburg have a playing budget at least 8 times that of the Panthers (€6.8m) and have 1,120 games of NHL experience on their roster compared to Panthers 21. On paper we had no right to beat such a side, however on ice we were victorious over the DEL regular season champions.

For me, the Champions Hockey League has been a fabulous experience. I’ve seen teams at the NIC that I never thought I’d see opposing Panthers in serious competitive matches. Yes, we’ve taken a couple of hammering’s from Luleå but we didn’t let our heads drop at all in those games or the games against Lukko Rauma. I’ve felt an immense sense of pride as a fan seeing my team compete on the same terms as such illustrious opponents.
I didn’t realistically expect us to get a point, I thought there may be a possibility we could scrape an overtime loss in one of the games, but given the stratospheric difference between ourselves and the other teams in Group K I felt the best we could hope for was to keep the games close and hopefully show we were better than the 44th seeding given to us. Then Tuesday happened…

There was perhaps a slight air of optimism with the visit of the Freezers, they hadn’t won any game so far this season and had only scored one goal in the CHL group stages so far. However we went in hope rather than expectation. Panthers had been criticised by some for not icing a team representative of the Elite League, but CHL contract players Colby Cohen, Martin Podlesak & Martins Raitums have all left while Mark Lee has been sidelined with injury since the competition began. Only Nathan Robinson remains of the extra players signed for the CHL, but his presence was negated by the absence of Robert Farmer, Chris Higgins & David Clarke, all out injured and all big omissions from the side. Corey Neilson had added a line of EPL players to the squad, Oliver Betteridge of Swindon Wildcats and Jordan Cownie & Lewis Hook of Milton Keynes Lightening. The EPL lads had several shifts and didn’t look out of place, Jonathan Boxill had a superb game while the defence & Craig Kowalski were quite outstanding as the rest of the squad rose to the occasion. It was an incredible team performance which was achieved by our regular Elite League squad with some young additions making the 3-1 victory even more remarkable. [Highlights]

The third goal that was scored by Robert Lachowicz was so filthy over half the females in attendance at the NIC on Tuesday are now pregnant! In all seriousness though it had everyone in attendance and watching on Premier Sports applauding in awe of an incredible finish. Here was a goal scored by a player who had come up through the ranks of Nottingham junior system and is now one of the best players in the Panthers team, a goal which was voted the best of the fifth round of games by CHL Sponsors Cramo. Saying that, the goals from Cody Wild and Nathan Robinson weren’t too bad either.

However the biggest pleasure for me was the fact we deserved to win the game, we were the better team throughout. Some have pointed to the fact that Hamburg are in a terrible run of form, some said that replacing net minder Sébastien Caron at halfway handed Panthers victory, however his replacement was Dimitrij Kotschnew who himself has played In the KHL, DEL & represented Germany at the World Championships so that argument doesn’t really hold water. On leaving the NIC on Tuesday I was speaking to a Steelers fan I know, he said we deserved to win the game. Regardless of Hamburg’s form they still should beat us on paper. They didn’t, Panthers won and we were the better side and I don’t think anyone can realistically argue with that opinion. Still without a win this season, the Panthers defeat was the last straw for the Freezers and they parted company with head coach Benoit Laporte this morning.

So what now? We have to go to Germany in two weeks time. We may be on the end of a defeat however I feel that the Freezers will treat us with a little more respect after their loss. We have shown we can beat them and while we won’t be favourites in Hamburg we can go in there with some confidence. Overall we’ve now risen to 38th place out of 44 in the CHL rankings based on the points we gained on Tuesday. This currently ranks us ahead of more illustrious teams such as Krefeld Penguins (14th seed), Kloten Flyers (16th seed) and of course the 8th seeded Freezers.

What does this mean for the EIHL? Well hopefully Europe will have taken a little more notice of this hockey backwater on the back of the result. We’ve shown that we can compete with some of Europe’s best, have justified our inclusion in this year’s competition and hopefully paved the way for continued inclusion in the competition for future seasons. I genuinely hope that Panthers can win the league this season so that we can enter the CHL by right should the league be invited to take up a place. If we don’t win the league I hope whoever does takes the opportunity to enter. I’ve loved every moment of Panthers participation in the CHL and I hope we can continue to put Elite League Hockey on the map next season. First things first though, a trip to Hamburg…

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