A Time For Reflection

With Christmas upon us and the end of 2014 in sight, Jono Bullard looks back on the Nottingham Panthers year.

When you look back on 2014 as a whole it cannot be described as a vintage year for the Nottingham Panthers, however it has not been without its highlights.

As we came into 2014 the Panthers hold on the Elite League title was slipping from their grasp as Paul Adey’s Belfast Giants continued their unrelenting charge to take back the Montieth Bowl from Lower Parliament Street, a charge that would be concluded with two victories against the title holders in late February. Giants were champions once again and Panthers dream of being the first back to back title winners since the Coventry Blaze in 2005/06 & 2006/07 was over.

There was one major highlight and that was retaining of The Challenge Cup for the fifth consecutive year. Even the most optimistic of Panthers supporters had doubts that the cup could be retained as they faced the newly crowned champions Belfast Giants who were in superb form. The first leg in Belfast went with the form guide as the Giants recorded a 5-2 victory at the Odyssey Arena, leaving the Panthers with a mountain to climb for the second leg. However a combination of complacency & arrogance from the Giants thinking that the job was done plus a new found belief in the Panthers side saw what can only be described as a miracle. A 4-1 victory for the Panthers took the tie to overtime where no further goals meant a penalty shoot-out. Craig Kowalski stood tall by saving all three Giants efforts, meaning the penalty scored by Petr Kalus in the 2nd round of shots had secured the home side the trophy once again. The celebrations were raucous on the ice and in the stands and another very special night in Nottingham hockey had been added to the history books.
However, we were brought crashing back down to earth a few short days later as 4-0 & 5-1 victories for the Braehead Clan saw Panthers out of the Play-Offs and a failure to make the final four for the first time since 2008. The 2013/14 season was over.

Photo (c) Katie Chadburn

Photo (c) Katie Chadburn

Over the summer the news came that Nottingham Panthers were to be the EIHL representatives of the inaugural Champions Hockey League after Belfast Giants & Sheffield Steelers turned down the opportunity to take part. There was much anticipation when the draw for the opening group stages was made, Panthers were drawn in group K to face Sweden’s Lulea, Finns Lukko Rauma and German side Hamburg Freezers. With games starting on August Bank Holiday weekend, Panthers fans had an earlier start to the season to look forward to than normal.

Because of the CHL participation Corey Neilson started recruitment early. The 2014/15 squad would look very different to the one that had finished the previous term. Only three imports would retain their place, netminder Craig Kowalski plus forwards Greg Jacina & Brandon Benedict. Of the British players Jonathan Weaver left to take up a place with the EPL’s Telford Tigers while Tom Norton returned to Peterborough Phantoms. Sam Oakford was the only new British addition joining from Bracknell Bees and despite some fears they would leave for bigger & better things, Steve Lee and Robert Lachowicz returned to the roster.
A clutch of extra players signed purely for the CHL campaign were also added to the squad. Netminder Martins Raitums, defenceman Colby Cohen and forwards Mark Lee, Martin Podlesak & Nathan Robinson.
After two warm up games in Slovenia against Olympic Ljubljana Panthers faced their opening weekend in the CHL against Lukko & Lulea, both games at the NIC. After a hard fought and close 4-2 defeat against Lukko the Panthers were taught a hockey lesson by Swedes Lulea in a 10-1 defeat. Despite the thrashing most who attended the NIC that day left happy having been privileged to watch such an incredible hockey team. The plan to ice for lines for the CHL competition had also fallen by the wayside as Mark Lee was injured and Martin Podlesak returned home for family reasons. The return games saw Panthers beaten 6-2 by Lukko & 9-1 by Lulea, defeats that ensured we would go no further than the group stages and which also saw Raitums & Cohen come to the end of their short-term contracts. However Nathan Robinson would stay with the club for the first part of the Elite League season.

With the CHL and the Challenge Cup, Panthers only played two Elite League games prior to completing their CHL commitments. It was an average start, a home victory against Cardiff was followed with a shock home thrashing by Hull.  Amongst that came the highlight of the season so far, an outstanding 3-1 victory over the DEL’s Hamburg Freezers in the Champions League with Robert Lachowicz scoring the third that was voted goal of the round by CHL sponsors. Two weeks later in Hamburg Panthers completed their CHL participation with a 6-0 defeat in Hamburg, who had a new coach and attitude. However despite the defeat this was still a highlight. As I stood in the magnificent O2 World Arena I had never imagined that I would see my team play a competitive game in such surroundings. It made me realise how far we had come since I saw my first Panthers game against Streatham Redskins over 30 years ago.


Photo (c) Panthers On The Raod

With the CHL over Panthers could now concentrate on their Elite League campaign. The mixed results continued until an eight game winning streak propelled Panthers up the table, the highlight being a 7-2 demolition of rivals Sheffield on the 8th November. Panthers were finding ways to win, however the team wasn’t playing with the usual ‘sexy’ swagger that it had in the past. This was a very different type of side which put the emphasis on defence, however the lack of goals that the team were scoring was becoming a concern. The run ended with defeat in Edinburgh, a game that would also see Nathan Robinson play his last game for Panthers. Whether or not he returns to the club is still yet to be determined.

Coupled with this were concerns over the fitness of netminder Craig Kowalski. A groin injury obtained during the Challenge Cup game in Hull had seen Swede Mattias Modig brought in as short-term cover. As Modig returned to Sweden Kowalski became injured once again, leading to Modig being signed for the rest of the season. Many are still wondering if we’ll ever see Kowalski play for Panthers again, however I for one hope he does as he deserves an ovation from the fans for the service he has given us over the past four seasons.

Modig’s second spell began well with a shut-out at Hull in a 4-0 win before a 3-1 home victory over Coventry the following day saw Panthers top the Elite League heading into December. However since hitting the summit the wheels have come off somewhat, winning just two of six games since, including a 5-1 home loss to Fife Flyers on Saturday which saw the team booed off the NIC ice.

I wish I could end on a cheery note but sadly I can’t. I still hope that we can see something special from this side but with each poor performance that hope is diminishing. Coupled with that there appears to be growing divisions within the fan base from looking at posts on Social Media & forums. While dissent is to be expected when any sports team hits a bad run, it’s really sad to see certain sections of the fan base at each others throats especially when we are all supposed to support the same team!

What will next year bring? That chapter is yet to be written, but I’m sure it will be no less fascinating. All that remains for me to do is to wish all readers of The Cat’s Whiskers and listeners to the podcast a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy & prosperous New Year. We’ll see you in 2015.


1 Response to “A Time For Reflection”

  1. 1 Colin Clark December 24, 2014 at 9:16 am

    A very accurate summary of the past year Jono as ever, and as you say it is very sad to see the fan base at each others throats, with no sign of unity in sight. The ironic thing is that this disunity stems from having such a fantastic fan base, leading to differing opinions on how cash is or isn’t being spent, and where we want to be as a hockey club.

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