The Day The Rivalry Changed

Steelers TV commentator Jonathan Fearnley writes about when & why the Panthers/Steelers rivalry changed.

I want to talk about the rivalry between the Nottingham Panthers and the Sheffield Steelers. I’m not one of the people who call the rivalry “the biggest in Europe” because I’m not aware of most of the rivalries in European ice hockey.
Ask yourself, do you know what the biggest clash in Danish hockey is? Who do Djurgardens IF love to hate? What’s the marquee fixture in the Alps Hockey League? Can you even name two teams from Slovakia?

Despite EIHL successes in the CHL and Continental Cup the average UK hockey fan’s knowledge of the European game is next to zero. I know mine is, so I have no basis for any claim about how rivalries compare.

But I know that it’s changed. It’s not the same now as it has been in years past. That’s not to say it’s better or worse, that’s for you as an individual to judge. It has undoubtedly changed though and it’s because of March 15th, 2013.

Sheffield finished 2nd in the league in their first 3 seasons of existence. Yes, two of those seasons featured a promotion, but when they finished runners up to Cardiff in not just the 1993/4 Premier League but also the playoffs there’s always a danger that you can get tagged as losers. Bottlers. Chokers. Once you get a reputation it can be hard to shake. Before 1994 was over the Steelers had also lost the B&H Cup semi-final to Cardiff.

By the end of the 1995/6 season Sheffield had won 2 league titles, 2 playoff titles and a B&H Cup. Never again would they be called losers. Reputations can be soon formed but also soon discarded. They’d beaten Cardiff along the way, eliminating any fears they might be a bogey team.

They’d also beaten the Panthers along the way, including a crucial win in the decisive game of the 1994/5 league season 8-6 in Nottingham. Add to that a subsequent Playoff final win and B&H Cup win and Nottingham had started to feel about Sheffield like the Steelers initially had of Cardiff.

“We don’t like them – they keep beating us to the trophies that we want.”
Back then the Steelers just wanted any trophy they could get. For Nottingham it was a bit different. They’d won the Autumn Cup in 1986, 1991 and 1994 plus the Playoffs in 1989. They weren’t short of trophies but they weren’t the right ones – they wanted a league title.
It was hard for them not to look enviously up the M1 in this situation. Sheffield had been in existence for five seasons and already claimed two league titles, Nottingham’s current wait was already at 40 years.

The best rivalries have 4 things: History, meaningful fixtures, geography, politics/religion. You can’t have a rivalry without having at least a couple of these things. The best rivalries in sport, such as Rangers v Celtic, have all four. They go head-to-head for all the trophies and have done for years, they share a city and the socio/political reasons are not something I need to go into.

Over the 27 years Sheffield have been in existence they have lifted 28 trophies, Nottingham have won 18 and they’ve met in 12 finals along the way. Tick and tick. There are only about 40 miles between the two rinks. Tick.
It’s hard to claim the miners’ strikes of the 1980s played a part in setting the Sheffield v Nottingham rivalry. There will be “Scab!” shouts at football matches even now, but it’s not something that gets aired at ice hockey. Is it something that still affects people even now? Yes. And the whole point of a rivalry is that you don’t forgive or forget. Tick.

As Sheffield claimed league titles in 1995, 1996, 2001, 2003 and 2004 Nottingham’s wait went on. Sheffield won the first 6 finals the teams contested. Then, on St Patrick’s Day 2004, the Nottingham Panthers won the Challenge Cup against the Sheffield Steelers in the Sheffield Arena. I won’t go into that game in detail here because I’ve written 500 words about it for Saturday’s match night programme. (On sale around the concourse, priced at just £3.)
It was the first tiny shift in the balance of power after Sheffield had again taken the league title. Nottingham were in contention at Christmas, then they were shutout by the Steelers and the Panthers league season fell away. (Sound familiar?)

Nottingham finished second in the standings for the first time since 1995 but again, it was Sheffield who stopped them. Still, stopping a Grand Slam attempt with an OT winner in Sheffield’s rink was the first sign that the Steelers weren’t always going to have it their own way against the Panthers. That said, 3 weeks later, Sheffield beat Nottingham in the Playoff final at the NIC to return the favour.

Every time the Panthers had some success, the Steelers hit back. Nottingham wins the 2008 Challenge Cup, Sheffield win that season’s playoffs and do the league/playoff double the next season.
By now the narrative had been set on the Steelers side. The league is what really matters. “We have won it plenty of times, you haven’t won it for XX years” (complete as appropriate), “We are number one” etc.

The constant jibes, the regular defeats, the frustrations of another league season that didn’t deliver just kept things bubbling along nicely. Nottingham want a title, Sheffield won’t let them have it.
The Panthers claimed another overtime win against the Steelers in the 2011 playoff semis on their way to winning the trophy. That defeat hurt Sheffield, of course it did, and it gave Steelers fans a taste of what Nottingham felt like every season when they didn’t win the league.

It’s not clear when it was decided that the league championship was the big thing in UK hockey. Yes, there is a football culture in this country but that’s also true of plenty of other European countries. It’s also true that the current EIHL playoff system is shorter than it used to be and thus easier to win, or at least more liable to produce an underdog winner.

Where did the narrative come from? Did it come from the teams winning the BNL in the 1950s? Did it come from Murrayfield’s successes in the 1970s and 1980s? Or did it come from Sheffield shoving it down Nottingham’s throats at every conceivable opportunity?

A lie repeated often enough becomes fact and the Steelers, largely through Dave Simms, pushed this all the time. The pre-game build-up always featured a dig or two in the Panthers’ direction. It’s just an accepted fact now. Listening to some Panthers fans talking during recent pre-seasons they were calling for the club to make the players explicitly aware that the league was the big thing in the UK, just like the Steelers do. Can you recall people saying that Coventry always did this during their heyday? They may well have done but the league title is more of an obsession for the Steelers than anyone else. Whether this is true or not that is what people believed. Also, the more the Steelers won, the more they reminded everyone how often they had won it. The resentment builds and the rivalry intensifies.

Ask most fans what’s caused the change in the rivalry over recent years and they’ll tell you it’s the frequency of the fixtures. The two teams play so often now the games don’t mean as much. There isn’t as much chance to anticipate them because they’re here before you know it. Result didn’t go your way? Don’t worry, there’s another game along in a couple of weeks.
The 1996 Playoff Final was the 11th meeting that season, the 1997 Playoff Final was the 13th. This weekend Sheffield and Nottingham play for the 10th time. “It’s too much”, they say. Do you reckon those same people said that before the teams met for the 10th time in the season on February 9th, 2001? Do you think they said that too many games were spoiling the rivalry after that famous bench clearance? Do you think they didn’t bother going to the three other fixtures the teams would play that season?
Overkill wasn’t a problem back then and it isn’t behind the change there has been recently.

March 15th, 2013. Sheffield fans had resigned themselves to this day coming for a month or so. If it wasn’t this day, it could have been the 16th, 22nd or 24th of March. Nottingham fans might have been less sure. The weight of historical shortcomings in league title races can be overbearing but the previous 48 league games showed that this team was different.

Falling behind twice wasn’t going to derail them. Losing the lead late in the 2nd wasn’t either. This team was always going to find a way. They were going to be champions. Sheffield weren’t good enough to stop them, Belfast weren’t either.

The scenes that greeted Pat Galivan’s goal were incredible, the scenes that greeted Matt Francis’ empty netter were unprecedented. The title was Nottingham’s. The pressure of 57 years released in an instant.

The true impact of that title win didn’t surface right away. 5 days later the Panthers came to Sheffield for the Challenge Cup Final 1st leg. The build-up was intense, the chanting went back and forth but the game was one-sided. Nottingham won 4-1 and their fans lapped it up.

There had been big second leg comebacks in the past and there have been more since but that was never a possibility this time. Sheffield have had some low moments in their history but going into the second leg was about as bad as it’s been in recent times. The Panthers were champions and on their way to a treble, Sheffield were not on their way to the Playoff Final Four for the second year running.

It’s hard to imagine a game Steelers fans would have looked forward to less than the second leg on April 2nd, 2013. The celebrations for the championship win hadn’t yet faded, yet again the Challenge Cup would have yellow and black ribbons on the handles. The mockery would be merciless, the tormenting relentless and Sheffield would have no answer. On this night, the Panthers fans could lord it over the Steelers.

It’s now clear that March 15th, 2013 was the day the rivalry changed. Not died, changed. April 2nd was the day that the effects became clear. The second leg was played, if not in silence, in a strange atmosphere. There was no animosity, no vitriol, no great celebrations. There was none of the usual banter back-and-forth. It was a non-event. By the time the Panthers crowd came to life in the final few minutes of the game most of the Steelers fans had left. They didn’t want to see the Panthers lift another Challenge Cup.

It’s not unreasonable to say that there were some Nottingham fans who weren’t that bothered either. Having won the league title the excitement that used to be attached to the Challenge Cup had been diminished. Compared to the league title, it’s small potatoes. It’s great to win when you haven’t won anything for a few years. (Hello, Belfast!) The CC is the third most important trophy in British ice hockey and Nottingham now realised it.

They also realised that they didn’t need to be jealous anymore. They didn’t have to justify their status to Sheffield or anyone else. In previous years Steelers fans could always say “You wish you were us” because their success on the ice was the envy of the league. Adding the league title to the otherwise impressive trophy haul meant Nottingham didn’t have to look up to anyone.

The elements that make a rivalry are still there but without the catalyst that made it so big, so quickly, it can’t ever be the same again. It would take several years of one team winning everything and the other winning nothing for it to be close to what it was. Neither team are superior right now. As a result of all the recent successes neither club needs to feel inferior either.

The conference system has some justified criticism and a lot of ignorant criticism. When the time comes that the Elite League reverts back to a balanced schedule it will also be used by a few Sheffield fans to delegitimise Nottingham’s championship. “You can’t win a title when it’s a fair league, only when the fixtures are skewed.” It’s inane. It’s stupid. Someone will say it.
That we all know the sort of rubbish banter that will fly between the two sides over the coming years tells you that the rivalry is still there. The fact that the above statement would never be uttered in Cardiff’s direction shows that despite the desperation from some Devils fans to attempt to validate their rivalry with Sheffield, it doesn’t really exist on anything even remotely close to a Steelers/Panthers level.

Think about what the atmosphere will be like on Saturday. Think about what the atmosphere would have been like if Nottingham were currently waiting 62 years for a league title. Even though Sheffield are out of contention too, you know that “1956!” would get an airing, safe in the knowledge that “2016!” is not an acceptable comeback. Nor would anything relating to the Continental Cup, Challenge Cup or Playoffs. Panthers fans know they would swap those for a league title.

But they don’t have to anymore. That’s what’s changed. It changed 5 years ago this week.

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