The revolution in British hockey gained considerable momentum during the 1995–96 season. Not only had the Steelers succeeded in sweeping every major title, they had also been joined by another arena team. The Manchester Storm, who won the First Division championship in convincing style, were capable of attracting crowds which even made those in Sheffield seem insignificant.

An even more notable change was occurring in one of ice hockey’s hotbeds: Durham. The Wasps had been taken over by Sir John Hall who announced the club was to move to a new arena in Newcastle. This led to something of a divorce, Hall gaining custody of the Wasps as a legal entity, a new club, Durham City Wasps, would continue to play at Durham’s ice rink gaining custody of the fans. Hall’s Wasps team played at Sunderland’s ice rink during 1995–96, before making the move to Newcastle Arena at season’s end.

There was now a significant movement within British hockey to radically change its structure. The new clubs saw the Premier Division and the restrictions that came with it as unacceptable and began making plans to sweep it away and create a league of their own. Eventually Super League was announced, consisting of the Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees, Cardiff Devils, Guildford Flames, Manchester Storm, Newcastle Cobras and Sheffield Steelers. The Panthers were initially left out of the line up, their old rink and traditional set up being representative of everything the new league wanted to replace.

However, when the Guildford Flames withdrew from the new organisation, the Super League approached the Panthers to make up the numbers, an offer the club were quick to snap up. The addition of Ayr Scottish Eagles—a new team playing in a new arena—brought the number of teams involved to eight. The difference between Nottingham and the other seven clubs was substantial. The Panthers had more than forty years more history than any of the other teams, their rink was the oldest by nearly fifty years. While the other teams were backed by large attendance, large sponsorship agreements or rich chairman willing to bankroll their club, Nottingham were a community ran club whose day-to-day running was overseen by volunteers. To be properly competitive the Panthers would now have to adopt a wholly professional outlook towards their on and off ice operation.

The most obvious difference between the Premier Division and the new Super League was the type of player a club could sign. The restrictions on the number of ‘import’ players a team was allowed to have had been severely undermined in the last few seasons of the Premier Division, and now they were done away with entirely. The result was that many British players found themselves being released to be replaced by North Americans. Amongst the various drastic changes made the Panthers squad, Trevor Robins became the club’s first modern era import goalie, Mike Bishop and Darryl Olsen signed to patrol the blue line and Marty Dallman, Greg Hadden, Derek Laxdal and Jeff Hoad came in to bolster Nottingham’s attack.

Some elements of the old system remained. The Benson & Hedges Cup continued with Super League and non-Super League teams alike entering. Having particularly excelled in this competition during the previous few seasons, Nottingham again found themselves in the latter stages. After knocking out Cardiff in a penalty shootout in the quarter finals, Panthers found themselves facing Sheffield for a place in the final.

Much was made of the fact that, to date, the Panthers had been unable to defeat their arch rival in a big game. Wembley thrashings, a league-winning comeback, and two final wins during the previous season gave the Steelers a huge amount of confidence going into the first leg at Sheffield Arena. Evidently Panthers had not read the script, and the team managed to stun the home support and take a 3–2 lead back to Nottingham.

The second leg proved to be an outstanding exhibition of the new standard of hockey that fans could expect. Trevor Robins put in a display of goaltending the likes of which few inside the Ice Stadium had seen before but this performance was overshadowed by Derek Laxdal. The Canadian scored a hat-trick of goals, including one from a devastatingly accurate Marty Dallman pass that few players in the old Premier Division would have been capable of executing, or taking advantage of. When Laxdal scored a diving empty net goal to give the Panthers a 3–1 win on the night and a 6–3 aggregate victory, it sparked wild celebrations in the stand that continued long after the final hooter. The Panthers had finally achieved an important victory over their arch rival and the victory felt almost as sweet as lifting the cup itself.

The Panthers made their third successive visit to Sheffield Arena for a Benson & Hedges Cup final where they were to face the Ayr Scottish Eagles. Ayr had defeated Basingstoke 9–6 on aggregate in their semi final, needing a mammoth 9–4 win on the Bison’s home ice to secure a place at Sheffield. The Panthers made their intentions clear within thirty seconds of the start, with Laxdal scoring off a rebound off the end boards. The team asserted their authority from that point on, leading for the remainder of the game and twice leading by three goals. A late goal from the Eagles to make the final score 5–3 did not dampen the celebrations. Panthers had defied their status as a team added in to make up the numbers to lift a trophy and earn themselves a place on the season’s honours roll.

Panthers eventually finished a respectable fourth place in the league and successfully qualified for playoff semi finals at their new home of Manchester Arena. Here they were to face Ayr Scottish Eagles once again. Few would have imagined when the Eagles took a 5–2 lead with little under six minutes to go that they were witnessing a game that has gone down in the record books as being the longest in British hockey’s history. Blaisdell—in an act which could only be described as sheer desperation—used the next break in play to challenge the legality of an Ayr player’s stick. It worked. Ryan Kummu was sent to the box for illegal equipment and on the subsequent power play Mike Bishop reduced the deficit to 5–3.

The goal rattled Ayr who had been looking comfortable up until that point. Neil Morgan made the score 5–4 and 39 seconds later Panthers had completed another playoff turn around and had levelled the scores at 5–5. With the final itself not due to be played until the following week, the Super League had implemented the Stanley Cup style rule of continuous overtime until a goal was scored. When the deadlock was finally broken, the Panthers and Eagles were a mere four minutes and eleven seconds away from having played the length of two games in one.

By the sixth period both teams were looking dead on their feet and many in the stands had already headed for the exits. When Andy Carson called a holding penalty against Mike Bishop, the first penalty of overtime, many suspected that the Panthers would be unable to hold out with a man missing and the game would soon be over. They were right to think that the game was almost at its end, but when Jeff Hoad collected a loose puck, skated up the wing and scored a shorthanded winner for the Panthers on a shot from his own rebound, he bought an ecstatic and relieved Nottingham support to their feet.

Unfortunately the Panthers still looked like they were worn out when they faced the Steelers in the final a week later and lost 3–1 after taking a early lead. This disappointment aside, a Benson & Hedges Cup win, playoff final and respectable mid table finish couldn’t be scoffed at from a side who hadn’t been assured a place in the new league until late on in its preparations. The very nature of Super League was about to plunge Panthers into crisis.

The club’s directors, all appointed on a voluntary basis, revealed that the Panthers were in considerable debt. In order to survive there was little option but to end the Ice Stadium’s control of the club and put it into private ownership. Without this sale, the directors claimed, the Panthers had no prospect of a future. At first the directors looked locally for a buyer, but no one within the Nottingham business community seemed interested, forcing the club to advertise nationally, something which had a great deal more success.

In the mean time players refused to take a pay cut, and the club’s precarious finances quickly thrust on ice preparations for the new season into irrelevance. When a potential owner withdrew from negotiations with only weeks to go until the beginning of the new season, the Panthers seemed doomed. With options running thin, the directors turned to Neil Black, owner of a sports management company in London. The future of the club was finally secured in mid August, only a matter of days before the beginning of the new season. Though Panthers have been more fortunate than most to have enjoyed financial security within British hockey, this brush with financial ruin came very close to putting the club out of existence.

The 1997–98 came to be all about Ayr. In winning the league title, playoff championship, B&H Cup and the new Challenge Cup, they became the first team to win four major national championships in a single season. For Panthers fans, the season is particularly remembered for the success the team enjoyed over the Steelers; particularly a 9–1 victory at the Ice Stadium and a 5–0 win in Sheffield marred by a bench clearing brawl which saw the Panthers become the first team to ever shut out the Steelers in their own building. Nottingham supporters had waited many years to enjoy such comprehensive wins over their arch rivals and could not be blamed for lapping these victories up for every bit of their worth.


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