The Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers were natural enemies from the very beginning. The two cities had long shared in sporting rivalry by way of the competition between Sheffield’s football teams and Nottingham Forest. When the Steelers were promoted into the Premier Division in 1993, the two clubs were complete polar opposites. The Panthers were a club based at a community rink with a small but knowledgeable following of fans, the Steelers were an arena based club built on glitz and glamour whose large number of fans learned the dance routines before they learned the rules.

The arrival of the Steelers caused deep-seeded hostility from the rink based clubs who viewed the wealth of the new club and their ability to sign players at will as an affront to everything the game stood for. More than any other team, the Panthers came to represent that view point. Having lost their coach of seven years to the Steelers, new coach Mike Blaisdell immediately had to deal with a string of Panthers players being tempted up the M1. Among these were Odelein, Chris Kelland and Mark Wright. This sense of injustice was repeated at other clubs. If Cardiff had introduced ‘cheque book hockey’ to the sport, then Sheffield were taking matters to whole new extremes.

Blaisdell was able to secure the signings of a number of influential players, including forward Ross Lambert and defenseman Garth Premak, and the Panthers finished in a respectable fourth place. Cardiff continued their domination and, having secured the services of Rick Brebant, retained two of the three trophies they had won during the previous season. The Steelers had already made a breakthrough, however, finishing second in the league. The season included a number of feisty tussles between the Panthers and their new foe, most memorably a meeting in Nottingham where the Panthers’ Simon Hunt and Sheffield’s Les Millie fought in the opening minutes of the match and Panthers rallied from 2–0 down to win 6–3.

The two sides met again at Wembley, this time with Sheffield coming out on top by a dominating 8–0 score line. Though the Steelers were themselves on the wrong end of a one sided match the following day, Cardiff lifting the playoff championship with a 12–1 victory, the semi final set the stage for a decade of almost complete dominance by the new club over their older neighbour.

Undeterred by the shocking set back of Wembley, Blaisdell set about building a team capable of challenging the Steelers. Most crucially, the Panthers secured the signing of Rick Brebant on a two-year contract. Other new additions included Chuck Taylor and Darren Schwarz. With Brebant to star on the same line as Adey, Panthers looked capable of mounting a serious and sustained challenge.

The season began that way. Panthers powered into the final of the Benson & Hedges Cup despite losing Schwarz, whose wife was having difficulty settling in the country. Here they faced Cardiff who were making their third successive appearance in the early season showpiece game. The Panthers continued their masterful form, putting in an almost flawless performance to claim the cup with a 7–2 victory. Mike Blaisdell, who had been forced out of retirement following Schwarz’s resignation, scored three of the goals himself in his last game before Mario Belanger took over forward duties. The Devils rarely had a look in the game and only for a few minutes during the middle session did they look capable of getting something out of it.

With the Autumn Cup won again, Panthers immediately resumed their dominant form in the league. At Christmas, few were disputing the fact that a league championship would be Nottingham’s once again after a 39 year wait. It still seemed a mere formality in the middle of January when the Panthers travelled to Sheffield, having gone 21 games unbeaten and being two points ahead of their nearest rivals with two games in hand. A victory would put the Steelers all but out of contention.

They game began disastrously. A little under 25 minutes into the game the Steelers had a 6–1 lead and the Panthers were looking beaten. Then a miraculous recovery began. By the end of the period the scores were tied at 6–6 and it was Sheffield’s turn to be on the rocks. A few minutes into the final session and Panthers had done the unthinkable and led 7–6. Sheffield equalized but Nottingham soon had the lead again. Having poured everything into overhauling the Steelers, the Panthers began to tire and in the final few minutes of the game they conceded to twice to lose 9–8.

The game, though arguably the greatest the Panthers ever played in, was the start of a gargantuan collapse by the Panthers. Initially the wins continued, though the team never quite looked the side that had played in such dominant fashion during the early stages of the season. Then the Panthers lost 8–4 in Fife having led 4–1 at the end of the second period. A few games later the Panthers faced Cardiff at the Ice Stadium and fell to another 8–4 loss, the following night they travelled to Edinburgh and were defeated 8–5. The destiny of the title was no longer in the Panthers’ hands. The Steelers, who had continued their winning form after that 9–8 win, now needed a single point in Nottingham in the next game to seal the championship for themselves.

I still feel sick thinking about that night. The game exploded before a puck had even been dropped, with players from both sides involved in a scrap during warm-up. Once the real action begun, Panthers suddenly looked like the side that had been so convincing for much of the season. By the half way stage of the game, Panthers led 5–2 and the championship seemed on again.

However, the enormous talents of Sheffield’s Ken Priestlay were not going to be denied. From thereon in he almost single handed took control of proceedings. Soon 5–2 had turned into 5–7. Panthers managed one last goal but Priestlay, and the Steelers, were to have their night. Sheffield triumphed 8–6, clinching their first title and ending Nottingham’s hopes in the most heart rendering and devastating way possible. It came as little surprise when the Panthers collapse was completed by an 11–7 loss to Murrayfield, a side Nottingham had defeated 19–2 at their unbeatable best, in the playoff semi final at Wembley.

Though that collapse is almost certainly the darkest moment in Panthers’ history, on the ice at least, it was an indication of just how the dynamics of the game were changing, and how difficult it would be for the Panthers to compete in this environment. When Nottingham had needed to strengthen their team they had signed a seasoned minor pro with a respectable career in British hockey in Mario Belanger. In the same situation, Sheffield opted for Priestlay, a former NHL player who’d been part of the successful Pittsburgh Penguins side of the early 90s and who had his name on the Stanley Cup. That he played such a pivotal role in that championship decider was perhaps fitting, that game represented the end of the old, community based club era and the start of a brass, new and exciting professional one.

It was no surprise to anyone when Sheffield won the Grand Slam the following season. They added to their plethora of stars by signing Tony Hand and few disputed their chances of continuing the domination they’d established the previous season. The Panthers again found themselves as the primary victims of Sheffield’s success losing first the Benson & Hedges Cup final by a 5–2 score line.

At season’s end, having finished fourth in the league, the Panthers successfully qualified for the last ever playoff finals to be staged at Wembley. In the semi final they defeated Sir John Hall’s Durham Wasps, a particularly satisfying feat with the Panthers faithful given that Hall had convinced Rick Brebant to leave Lower Parliament Street in the middle of a two year contract to coach his new team.

The final seemed to be heading the way of the previous meeting between the Panthers and Steelers at Wembley when Tim Cranston put Sheffield into a 3–0 lead at 27.27. With only a short time to go in the second period, however, Panthers staged another miraculous turn around, scoring three goals in the space of 94 seconds to tie the game. The game tying goal, scored by Neil Morgan, sparked wild celebrations amongst the Panthers support. The game ended with the scores still tied, and so the last Wembley final was to be settled by penalty shots.

After Adey missed the first effort for Nottingham, Malo put the Steelers into a 1–0 lead. Blaisdell calmly stepped up to score the Panthers’ next effort before Tim Cranston’s miss restored parity. A further three shots were saved before Steelers’ captain Rob Wilson put them ahead. Cowley then saved the final Panthers shot to seal their Grand Slam in the most dramatic manner possible.

Though beaten, a lot of pride was placed in the fact that Panthers had been able to take the Steelers as far as they had, a defining feature for Nottingham over the next few seasons as the gulf between rich and poor continued to grow.


5 Responses to “1993-1996: The Great Divide”

  1. 1 Ken Abbott April 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    I remember the 8 – 6 home defeat that clinched the title for the Steelers very well.
    Having ran a “Hockey Shop” in Sheffield at the time,through the shop we’d sold tickets to a live “beam back”, by Televideo, to 2000 Steelers fans at Ponds Forge in Sheffield, in return we were allowed a merchandise stall in the foyer.
    As a Panthers fan since 1984 I was the only one in the building not celebrating the final result.
    However, by having a stall at least I was able to “take their money” by selling 500 match day programmes.
    A few weeks later we were at Wembley with a stall for the Panthers (the Booster club didn’t do it that year) and a stall for the Steelers – guess which one I ran.
    Happy days but loads of frustrating results.

  2. 2 shinykiwi January 17, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Having been a Steeler since its formation in 1991, it’s really nice to see a proper history of the time even it has been written by a Panther 😉

    Seriously though, for us De-Dars we really didn’t know that Hockey had been different, but it needed some pazzaz like the Arena era gave us to join together football fans from another heated rivalry (blades-owls) in a single building. I guess this was the annoying thing, as you say yourself, we learnt dances then rules. Still I’ve loved our rivalry, the friendliness in the stands and the rough stuff on the ice.

    The 9-8 and 8-6 are absolutely classic encounters that sum up the whole thing. And yes I was one of those watching the “beam-back” at Ponds Forge which was awesome. My main memory was the massive slash from the Panther on Priestley’s arm as he shot the 8th – but he didn’t care, and neither did we!!

  3. 3 Daryl Slinn (@darylslinn) October 25, 2013 at 11:55 am

    A great read and a true and heart felt telling of the story of how hockey in the UK was to be changed forever.

  4. 4 Rr October 25, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    Great read and insight into the history

  1. 1 What History Has Taught Me « The Cat's Whiskers & Cat's Whiskers TV Trackback on January 14, 2013 at 9:43 pm

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