Part of the reason behind Nottingham’s long wait for a league championship has been the inability of the club to sufficiently change with the times. This hasn’t always been the fault of the Panthers themselves, circumstances have simply meant the club not having the resources to effectively compete. In the early 80s, the junior system that had been the mainstay of Panthers’ more established opponents hadn’t been there and now, just when the club looked like they had achieved parity, a new essential element to a club’s success was about to send the Panthers spiralling back to square one.

The 1988–89 season had seen the relegation of Nottingham’s arch rival Streatham Redskins—one of the clubs that the Panthers would have aspired to emulate when they reformed—to be replaced by the Cardiff Devils, a relatively new team with some very new ideas on how to achieve success in British hockey. While still a First Division club, the Devils had offered Durham stalwart Stephen Cooper a contract which allowed him to give up his day job and play ice hockey on a full time basis. Now they had been promoted, Stephen’s brother Ian also made the move south on similar terms.

The Devils romped home to the Premier Division title, in the first of five successive seasons where the team with the Cooper brothers on the roster succeeded in winning the championship. The Panthers meanwhile slumped to sixth place. They had lost Durdle to Bracknell Bees and were forced into a last minute signing of Yves Beaudoin after their intended signing, Duncan McPherson, mysteriously disappeared while holidaying in Austria (his remains were not recovered until 2003). Beaudoin did not have nearly the same impact as his predecessor on the blue line and, given the heights attained the previous season, the league campaign was bitterly disappointing. Panthers did do better in the playoffs, but they were dealt the gut wrenching blow of losing in the final minute of the semi final to Murrayfield only moments after scoring a deserved equalizer.

The Devils went on to defeat the Racers on penalty shots in one of the outstanding playoff finals of the modern era. Few had predicted that Cardiff would win the league, let alone a Double. The Panthers, alongside the other clubs of the ‘old order,’ realized that they would now have to court the best players with more lucrative offers than before. With this in mind, Durham Wasps offered both of the Cooper brothers full time contracts to successfully tempt them both to return to their home town.

The 1990–91 season ended in much the same fashion as the one that preceded it. The Panthers struggled to a sixth place finish and this time failed to advance to the final four at Wembley. The Cooper brothers, this time wearing the famous blue and yellow of Durham, were league winners again. The Wasps went one stage further than the Devils had the previous season, winning the Norwich Union Trophy to become the first team to win a Treble since Dundee Rockets had seven years earlier.

The following season would prove to be a more productive one for the Panthers. They secured the services of Dan Dorion, who together with Adey proved a devastating attack. The team dominated the early season, leading the Premier Division and securing a place in the Autumn Cup final after narrowly edging out the Devils in the semi finals.

The final was Nottingham’s first visit to the newly opened Sheffield Arena. It was an impressive sight to rink dwelling fans only used to an annual visit to the much older Wembley. Their opponents were Humberside Seahawks, playing their first season in the Premier Division and another side trying to spend their way to success. Panthers led 4–1 just under half way through the game but the ‘Hawks clawed their way back into the match and at the second interval the score was tied at 4–4. Two goals proved from Dorion proved crucial as Panthers established a 7–4 lead with ten minutes remaining. A late goal from Humberside meant an nervy end to the match, but Panthers held on to a 7–5 win to secure their second Autumn Cup title of the modern era and third over all.

Panthers supporters who travelled to Durham the following night, still revelling in the triumph of the cup win, were in for a nasty shock. The Wasps fans uncharacteristically applauded the new Autumn Cup holders on to the ice and then basked in the glory of a 17–3 victory. While the sheer size of that win could be put down to a not too inconsiderable amount of alcohol which might have been consumed the previous evening, it was also an indication of the growing importance of a team’s financial resources. The Wasps had retained the services of the Cooper brothers and had an ex-NHLer of some pedigree in Mike Blaisdell on their side along with the ever formidable Rick Brebant. Any team, let alone the Panthers, would have been hard pressed to compete with such a line-up. Durham successfully overhauled the Panthers to win the title by a comfortable margin before defeating Nottingham 7–6 in the playoff final at Wembley.

In 1992–93 the Cooper brothers returned to Cardiff. An even more scary prospect for the Panthers—the Sheffield Steelers—lay in wait in the First Division and during a tumultuous and deeply tragic season the seeds of the fierce rivalry that now exists between the two clubs were sewn. The season began in calamitous fashion when the Stadium’s ice plant failed. Panthers were forced to play a number of games, including their Benson & Hedges Cup quarter final against Basingstoke, in Hull. Upon their return to Nottingham the Panthers were soon forced to come to terms with perhaps the most devastating blow the club has ever had to face.

Gary Rippingale, an eighteen year old defenseman who’d risen through the ranks of Nottingham’s junior system and who many predicted a bright future for, died suddenly following the team’s Halloween celebrations. The first game following his sudden passing saw the players dropping their sticks one-by-one in tribute inside a totally silent Stadium. The opposition Peterborough Pirates stood little chance as an emotional charged team put in a fitting tribute to Rippingale with a 15–3 success.

The Panthers were soon fighting relegation and with Dorion not having the season he had enjoyed the previous year, Dampier took the decision to release him. He was replaced by defenseman Selmar Odelein, a player with NHL experience. While Odelein was initially not well received by some, he quickly proved to be an outstanding defenseman and played no small role in Panthers being transformed from relegation candidates to a strong top three side.

No sooner had Odelein signed the Panthers were dealt another bitter blow when Dampier decided to end his seven year association with the Panthers. His destination was the First Division Sheffield Steelers, a side playing to enormous crowds at Sheffield Arena with financial resources that made the money being thrown around in British hockey to date seem insignificant.

Dampier was replaced by former Ayr coach Kevin Murphy, a man with a reputation of being a fierce disciplinarian. He helped to orchestrate Panthers’ transformation from the struggling side of early season, and indeed continues to hold the highest winning percentage of any modern era Panthers coach. The remainder of the season had its moments, most notably Odelein’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thrashing of Whitley hard man Mike Rowe, but the season ended in disappointing style when a Dan Dorion inspired Humberside Seahawks defeated the Panthers in overtime in the semi finals at Wembley.

Despite having overseen a large improvement in the team’s form, Murphy was surprisingly dismissed as coach at the end of the season. Rumours abounded that certain players found his style of coaching to be insufferable and that it was they that orchestrated his sacking. The hunt to replace Murphy eventually saw Mike Blaisdell, who had been surprisingly sacked by Durham mid season, take over as coach.

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