Mick Holland began work on the Nottingham Evening Post in 1980, and volunteered to go down to the Nottingham Ice Stadium to report on Panthers first match since 1960, due to having watched hockey on TV and playing it as a kid with an improvised stick and a shoe tin puck! It was an assignment that was to change his professional life.
[Jono] What is your history at working for the Evening Post?
[Mick] I have reported on all the big East Midlands football teams at various stages, except Mansfield Town, but despite fulfilling my dream of reporting on Forest on numerous occasions, football, in general, is not a patch on hockey, whose players make life much easier for a reporter. I also went to Sarajevo to report on Torvill and Dean’s Bolero, the only regional journo there, and despite that being a marvellous experience, it was more memorable for me watching the hockey. The great Russian team included Tretiak, Fetisov, Larianov and the rest and I talked to Yank Pat LaFontaine who went on to great things in the NHL, seeing figure skater Katarina Witt in her underwear wasn’t too bad either!
Around 1995-ish I was made sport editor when Northcliffe (the Daily Mail group) took over the Post and for three years watched Andy Lowe do Panthers game reports, although I had an input in to what he was writing as I was still interested, despite Forest being in the Premiership (sometimes) being taken over by Scholar/Soar and then Doughty. The Post was undergoing major changes at this stage too, going tabloid and into full colour.
I have since been editor of the Football Post and am now the ‘community sports editor’, ensuring all the sports pages are designed and subbed and hit the press on time as the chief sports sub editor, as well as looking after the sport on the Post website; AND being in daily contact with Panthers and issues surrounding the club.
[Jono] What are the best & worst rinks you’ve had to report from?
[Mick] Where do I start? I’ve seen ’em all, the good, the bad and the condemned! It was also the days before mobile phones and computers and I used to travel on the team bus. Now that is worth writing a book on for a start! I’ve sat on the old coffin lids behind the away bench at the old Durham rink (watching them manipulate the clock to suit the play) and they used to make that place as unwelcoming as possible for the visitors. It was cold, wet and dank. Whitley, before they ‘refurbished’ it, was a dump. They used to paint the lines on the ice with a Bex Bissel carpet cleaner filled with coloured water, one man holding it as straight and steady as he could while someone pushed him around. The rink at Blackpool was shaped like a kidney and how anyone played hockey on it was a mystery; I used to sit on the roof of an old shed in the corner of the tiny Ayr rink because there was no room anywhere else; the current Basingstoke rink is hardly conducive to an ‘Elite’ League.
Very few rinks have designated press boxes, but I prefer to sit in the stands anyway, not necessarily near the Panthers or opposition supporters but because it is a better atmosphere. That’s why I stand by the glass at Hull and Coventry, listening to the abuse aimed at the players in Black and Gold, funny at times, darn right appalling at others!
At the major events, the league designates certain seating areas for the press but to be honest, I don’t enjoy sitting next to some of the old farts (eg Norman de Mesquita, Tony Allen) who claim to know more about the game because they used to watch it in the glorious 50s! There are no particularly good rinks to report from although, to their credit, all the clubs try to accommodate the press as well as they can. I am not one for sitting in a press box miles away from the action. Sheffield’s press gallery is a long way from the ice and the game appears so slow from up there. The new Manchester and Cardiff rinks have restricted vision so I often have to ask what’s happened in areas I can’t see. Of course, the fabulous National Ice Centre has to be up there with the best (honestly). But there are certain things that niggle me as much as the fans about their attitude to Panthers, their core tenant.
[Jono] During your years reporting on the team, who do you think are the best players ever to wear the black & gold?
[Mick] Different eras produced different players, both imports and Brits, but the list is long, very long. Off the top of my head: Terry Kurtenbach, Terry Gudziunas, Jimmy Keyes, Fred Perlini, Paul Adey, Rick Brebant, Mike Blaisdell, Chris Kelland, Greg Hadden, Doc Durdle, Ross Lambert, Selmar Odelein, Roy Mitchell, Graham Garden, Eric Charron and Trevor Robins have to be up there. Of the Brits, Dwayne Keward, Simon Hunt, Nigel Rhodes and the current crop aren’t too bad either. The ‘one-season wonders’ were Dan Dorion, who was found out in his second season after being named league player of the year, and John Craighead, who really only played at his best until around January of that first season. Craighead made the league sit up and take notice but for some reason stopped doing what made him so good, ie being intimidating and hitting. He didn’t like me for saying that in the newspaper. But how they could do with someone like him now! Corey Neilson has to be the best offensive D-man we’ve had since the three-imports days of Durdle etc and Bruce Richardson is as near as Ross Lambert or Graham Garden as we’ve seen for a while.
Interestingly, two of the worst imports, Danny Bissonnette and Peter Chiarelli, now hold down jobs in North American hockey. Chiarelli is GM of the Boston Bruins, no less, and Bissonnette has been GM and coach in the minor leagues.
[Jono] Taking all factors into account, from your perspective which was better for the Panthers, the old barn or the NIC?
[Mick] The old Ice Stadium without a doubt, simply because of the atmosphere and intimidation factor. A bit like Durham used to be in the old days. Teams come to the NIC now and everything is made so comfortable for them it’s hardly surprising most players lift their games. At the old place, the away dressing room was right next to the bar and where all the smokers stood and looked in, shouting remarks. I’d love Neil Black to build a 4,000-capacity rink but the city council wouldn’t give him permission. Long Eaton in Derbyshire perhaps?
[Jono] How do you rate this season’s Panthers team against all the others you’ve seen?
[Mick] I enjoy every season and judge each one separately because there is such a big change of personnel each year (it’s cheaper than bringing back wage-rise seeking cup winners as Coventry found out).
In the early 80/90s, the players weren’t paid and did it solely for enjoyment and it was a laugh. But I think Mike Blaisdell’s highly competitive 1994 team with Adey, Brebant, Lambert, Chuck Taylor, and Garth Premak etc would take some beating, if only they had a good goalie!
Some people have said the current Elite League is like a ‘beer league’ but they couldn’t be further from the truth, although the players do seem to have a good time in Newcastle! Neilson has got it as tight as you’d expect and while the Superleague had better players, the hockey wasn’t as exciting as you’d expect because they cancelled each other out and the goalies were so good. As a fan, I’m enjoying this season as much as any in the past few years.
[Jono] As far as you’re concerned, who has been the most obnoxious player, manager, personality from sport in general?
[Mick] I think you’re trying to draw me here! The hierarchy in the old days had their heads stuck so far up each other’s backsides that a successful new team like the Panthers was always going to upset a few people, notably the Smith family, who used to run North-East hockey, as well as former BIHA presidents Bunny Ahearn and Fred Meredith. They didn’t like a Nottingham journalist criticising them in print. There are a few self-interested people running the show nowadays, too, and I think you know who they are.
As for players, well we saw one the other night who I despise, Shane Johnson, of Belfast. Why someone hasn’t creamed him before now I don’t know, probably the same reason why nobody took Vezio Sacratini’s head off, removed Tim Cranston’s legs or just ran over Tommy Plommer in the car park. I suppose everyone thought that about Graham Garden and Ross Lambert when they played for Panthers, Great off the ice, total pricks on it.
As for sport in general, I can’t understand why great sports people like Ian Botham or John McEnroe were allowed to bring their game into disrepute and get away with it. Joey Barton? Don’t go there.
My other main dealings have been with footballers/managers and I’d say Howard Wilkinson was the worst boss I’d dealt with. Talk about pulling teeth! Gordon Taylor of the PFA is the highest paid union official in the country at nearly £1m a year with bonuses, but as far as the press is concerned, a total quote less non-entity. Yawn . . . .
I have ex-pro footballers as friends and I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with any of the modern, money-grabbing lot we have today. I am very fortunate to cover a sport that makes my job much easier than some. I believe that if you treat people correctly, they’re OK in return.
[Jono] There’s no denying the quality of hockey is much improved from when you started reporting but what about British ice hockey hasn’t improved?
[Mick] You make me sound like a dinosaur! In the days of the three imports, the Brits were on the ice all the time, there were more mistakes, the goalies weren’t as good and so the teams’ best players always shone and got a hatful of points. Just look at the stats of Brebant and Blaisdell in 1991-92 for Durham. In just 36 games, they each scored over 70 goals, Rick had 160 points, and Brit Ian Cooper had 100 points and 51 goals. (I thought we were back to those days with the 7-6 scoreline against Belfast the other night!) There is no doubt that the Superleague set the Brits back but I think we’re on the right track again, despite the ridiculous ruling that means some teams can sign 11 imports and capable Brits like Warren Tait, not wanted by Sheffield, can’t get a game at one of the 11 import teams. Until we have a proper, strong governing body, and not one aligned too much to the Elite League as it is now, the GB team will not get proper lottery funding and will struggle to improve its position in the world hierarchy. If GB manage to get up to being ranked 24th (I think), they will get Olympic funding which will help tremendously, but then it is a matter of persuading the team owners to postpone the season for a week or two to allow the Brits to train and I can never see that happening in reality, however wasn’t it strange that Sheffield didn’t mind playing Manchester during the recent GB tournament, knowing full well Phoenix wouldn’t have a goalie?
[Jono] You’ve been very critical recently of the set up of the EIHL, what would be the ideal set up in your opinion?
[Mick] I’ve been harping on for a long time on two counts, that we have to bring in a top-line ref from North America to coach our officials properly and that we have to have a sustainable EIGHT-team league. It’s ridiculous that, with Sheffield out of the Challenge Cup, a non-appearance in the semi-finals of Panthers, and the big crowds they would bring, would be a ‘disaster’ for the league. Why should teams like Edinburgh, Basingstoke (who won’t be here next season) and Hull have to rely on the ‘big four’ to survive? An eight-team league would also bring more meaningful games against the likes of Sheffield, Coventry and Belfast which would be better for the fans and for the league, too. Remember, the NHL got by with SIX teams for 70 years!!
[Jono] Fans of other teams, especially Sheffield, tend to be very critical and dismissive of your reporting. Does it bother you?
[Mick] I couldn’t give a monkeys. I have been winding up Sheffield’s fans (and Simmsy) since the days when my old mate Alex Dampier jumped ship here and I carried on when Blaiser took over at the House of Spiel. I can remember a night with Blaiser, Brebant and Chuck Taylor and all the Sheffield players, watching an AC/DC concert at the Arena. Some Sheffield fans who knew me did a double-take when they saw us all rocking happily in the stands! Quite simply, I write for the readers of the Nottingham Evening Post so my stories will always have a Nottingham slant. I make no excuses for that. Some people agree with what I write, others don’t. They are entitled to an opinion but it just so happens that my opinion is more informed than the readers’ because I am working with these hockey people all week and I know most of what happens at the club. Obviously, not everything I get to know goes down in print and so there is a certain amount of trust involved among all parties.
If the team plays badly I say so, but then I get slammed for being too negative. So I don’t really worry about criticism, or praise for that matter. What does annoy me is when people question my integrity. OK, sometimes I get things wrong in a game report. But whenever I write anything that may be construed as being controversial, I ensure I check and double check the facts and go back to anyone being quoted to ensure they are happy with what will be published. If some of my stories have a negative and totally unexpected response from the supporters you wouldn’t believe how quickly the people who have been quoted make quick back-tracks. I do take notes, I do have comments recorded. Some players obviously don’t agree with what I write but as I told Scottish defenceman John Bremner many years ago, “you play crap and I’ll write it”, when he laughingly suggested I go back to writing the Births, Marriages and Deaths column!
As my reports/stories are for a newspaper whose majority of general readers don’t understand hockey terms, I unfortunately have to simplify what I am writing. For instance, I can’t say: “He hit the water-bottle from the left circle,” or “he jammed it in through the five-hole” or especially: “he jumped out of the box after serving a fighting major to beat the left-wing lock and was too quick for the collapsing D.” See what I mean? Doris from Bulwell would get her letter off to the editor before you could say ‘Sheffield never broke the wage cap’!
[Jono] What’s your opinion of Internet hockey forums?
[Mick] I think they are great . . . if only the contributors didn’t take themselves or their fellow posters too seriously! I have to laugh when someone (you know who) purports to know everything about Panthers because he happened to work for them years ago. He is the same chap who says I only write what Gary Moran says so. And there will be some website readers who believe him. I have a great relationship with Gary (who I have known since we were Evening Post sprogs) and Panthers. And he tells me what is happening to promote the team and we liaise over other stuff, but that’s it. Some chap was surprised to see me at Edinburgh for the weekend up there earlier in the season as he honestly thought GM (who was at home in Nottingham) gave me the details from all away games.
[Jono] What advice would you give someone wanting to get into ice hockey journalism?
[Mick] Don’t! Learn your trade first and then specialise. I was lucky … and still am.