Nottingham Panthers 2017/18 Season Review

Well, here we are again, another season done and dusted so it’s time for The Cats Whiskers team to share our thoughts on the season past and the players we’ve witnessed during it.  Links are below to each individual player page and below that are general season summaries from each of us, we hope you enjoy reading and look forward to any feedback you have for us!

You can go to each individual player review by clicking on their name below

Michael Garnett
Patrick Galbraith
Sam Gospel

Tim Billingsley
Matthieu Brisebois
Mathieu Gagnon
Steve Lee
Yann Sauvé
Dan Spang
Josh Tetlow

Ollie Betteridge
Jeff Brown
Raphaël Bussières
David Clarke
Mark Derlago
Robert Farmer
Rob Lachowicz
Erik Lindhagen
Alexander Mokshantsev
Evan Mosey
Brett Perlini
Zack Phillips
Luke Pither
Josh Shalla
Mike Vaskivuo

Here are the season summaries from all The Cat’s Whiskers team:

Paul Balm
I don’t like rollercoasters. I don’t see the point of being thrown all over the place in the name of entertainment. There aren’t many times I’ve been upside down in my life and I’m almost certain that none of them have been for fun. I just don’t see the point of them. What might surprise you more is that I don’t really like clichés. I might use them a lot but I know that I’m doing it (at least most of the time). They’re lazy and unoriginal ways of describing something that probably could and should be described in a much better way if a little thought had been given to it. If I’ve been on a journey I’ve physically changed my location and the only thing I know at the end of the day is that it’s time for bed.

If I don’t like rollercoasters and I don’t like clichés why am I going to describe last season as a rollercoaster? Because it was.

Pre-season was full of promise. We stood in line waiting to ride the season itself excited by what we’d seen and what was coming next – the CHL. We shouldn’t have stood a chance in the CHL. Nobody gave us a hope of anything but we defied the odds beating Mountfield, Bern and Turku (I know I’m stating the obvious I just wanted to give myself at least three happy memories) as the train we boarded at the start of the season chugged it’s way to the top of the first hill. That first hill is the biggest and the best, the chain drags you to the top in the same way that our CHL form did. When you’re up there you’re on top of the world, your vision is all encompassing, your view mile wide. You have that feeling of euphoria that being the first EIHL club to make the knockout stages of the CHL gives you. You want the hill to go on and on or at least to plateau out as you continue onwards maintain that height, maintain that form.

The thing is that this isn’t a monorail we’re riding here it’s a rollercoaster and they don’t do flat and what goes up must come down and boy did we come down. Our time in the CHL was over (and bizarrely I do include losing to Zurich as part of that brief high) and it was time to come back down to earth. I always knew we would I just didn’t think we’d do it with such pace or ferocity. That’s the problem with experiencing the highs, you really feel the lows. And boy did we feel the lows (or as I like to call them December). As we thundered back down towards earth with a speed and ferocity seldom seen but feeling strangely familiar we barely noticed the teams going the other way. Teams who don’t regularly slump in December.

A rollercoaster never really recovers from that first massive drop and the Panthers were no different. The highs are never as high as that first hill and the lows aren’t as low as December but they’re still there. There wasn’t a slump like December but we just went up and down a bit twisting and turning until we reached the end of the season. Each smaller and less exciting or depressing than the last. Those last few bumps just felt like going through the motions. We’d had the thrill, nothing was going to match it so we were just biding time until we could get off.

That’s where we are now. We exited in a game that was a microcosm of the season, we started well and then trailed off badly, missing out again on a play-off final again. I don’t think we’d have deserved to be there, I’m not even sure we deserved to be at the weekend. Those Belfast games were the last hill of excitement that’s designed to bleed away all the speed whilst giving one last gut-wrenching moment.

I didn’t go to the 3rd/4th game. I didn’t want to see Clarke and Neilson bow out in such an unedifying manner. They both deserved better than that but it wasn’t to be. We’re on the verge of a great change at the moment. I have no idea how it will go but that anticipation is what brings us back to join the queue to ride again.

I don’t want to do that just yet though. Rollercoasters can make you feel a bit sick. The ups and downs might thrill you enough to want to do it again but you need a break, you need to have a walk around, get the shaking feeling out of your leg. I’ll be back to ride again but I want to forget about what I’ve been through a bit first and, no, I really, really don’t want to buy a souvenir photo.

Jono Bullard
This past season has really tested me personally. From the euphoria of the CHL campaign to the low of the December slump. I found myself questioning my commitment, I lost interest, I didn’t go to games I could have made and my faith was being sorely tested.

I didn’t want to feel that way and it really bothered me that I did. I think it was due to that CHL run. I genuinely felt that there would be no-one to touch us, if we could live with and beat some of Europe’s best then surely the EIHL’s finest would be far easier to put away? Everything I saw from the Panthers in the CHL (and up to the beginning of December domestically to be fair) gave me such hope and optimism that the usual mid-season crash was even tougher to take.

It could and should have been so much better, legends such as Corey Neilson & David Clarke should have had some silverware to provide a fitting end to their Panthers careers. However it wasn’t to be and sadly for me 2017/18 will be a season that promised so much but in the end delivered so little. Disappointing.

Andy Haywood
On the whole it will go down as trophy-less, and as such a disappointment, but finishing in the Top 4 in the league, when we were 7th for so long, along with quite simply a stunning CHL performance made it a more than average season in my book.

Sure we all wondered where the CHL team had disappeared to when we were struggling in December, but once we dug out of the slump, and brought in Pither & Vaskivuo, we looked dangerous again and played some good hockey.

The playoffs were nothing short of heart breaking. Had Bussieres scored that goal then it would have been different. I think overall Cardiff probably would have beaten us, but the fairy tale would have lived on. As it happened he completely messed up and Sheffield equalised, and unfortunately, there was only going to be one winner in OT.

It was a shame to see 2 great Panthers legends bow out like that, but they leave behind a legacy, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and let’s be honest, it’ll be a very difficult task to potentially emulate.

On the whole I’d say the season is probably best summed up as strange.

Antoine Marie-Jeanne
It’s been real hard work being a Panthers fan recently, so much so that I ended up missing a fair few games towards the end of the season. Domestically the Panthers of 2017/18, despite flashes, were probably on par with the much maligned team from 2016/17…

Obviously we had the super high of the CHL campaign. Win more than 1 game, sure, I thought we had a chance. Win 1 away, same really. Qualify? No chance! But qualify (top of the group no less) we did, after some unbelievable performances topped by that win over Bern at the NIC.

At the time we were winning domestically too. Sure, we weren’t blowing teams away, and a fair few games went into OT or beyond, but there we were, top of the league and in the 2nd round of the CHL. “Champions elect” we said…how wrong we were.

A disappointing 2nd leg against ZSC began what was a quite dramatic fall from grace. Confidence had seemingly gone completely and loss after loss followed. Let’s face it, we were out of the title race by mid-December. Simply awful.
I don’t know what happened as I’m not party to the behind the scenes goings on at Panthers HQ, but even by Panthers standards, this was a new low. And it felt lower because of the highs we’d experienced just a month before.

Although I’d attended the odd game in the pre-Neilson era, it wasn’t until late September/early October of 2007 that going to the Panthers started to become a regular thing.
Not knowing much about ice hockey at the time (although plenty will say I still know nothing today, I don’t disagree!) I spent the first few games trying to get to grips with the flow of the game and trying to identify any similarities to football.

Since those early days I’ve been lucky to witness a golden period for the Nottingham Panthers…a trophy haul that any team in the league would wish for, despite the lack of league titles.
When it was announced that Corey Neilson would step down as head coach at the end of the season it really was the end of an era. Gone was the free flowing “sexy Neilson hockey” and gone were the trophies. Then Clarkie followed by confirming his retirement and departure too. Two bona fide legends for the Panthers and the EIHL.

Although it looked like the team would somehow conjure up a fairytale finish in the playoffs, it wasn’t to be, and one mistake too many in a game that pretty much summed up our season, meant that it’d be the “hangover game” where we’d finally say our goodbyes. Although it turned into a bit of fun, where Fife’s Jordan Marr turned into a pantomime villain, it wasn’t the stage we wanted, or frankly, Clarkie & Corey deserved to end their Panthers careers.

But as we will be reminded, the ticket says versus not beating…

Adam Reddish
The 2017-18 season will be remembered as possibly the most bizarre I can remember. And I remember quite a few of them.
There were times prior to the end of November that I truly believed this side would go on and join the class of 2012-13 as near-immortals in the club’s long history. However, after the now-customary December League implosion, an exit from the Challenge Cup at the hands of Belfast and the painful, yet somehow predictable ‘throwaway’ nature of the Play-Off Semi-Final defeat to Sheffield, I’m wondering how history will judge a side who made history progressing from its CHL group, but then who contrived to make a total hash of the domestic campaign. One thing’s for sure, I’m definitely ready for four months of respite from the unpredictability of all things Nottingham Panthers.

The start of the season saw the Panthers once again take their place at the Champions Hockey League (CHL) table, seeded as the tournament’s rank outsiders. Whilst it was exciting to once more be mixing it with Europe’s best hockey teams, few inside or outside Nottingham expected to make anywhere near the impact they ultimately ending up doing. An unsurprising, yet respectable, defeat to SC Bern in the opening fixture felt like it would set the tone for Panthers CHL involvement. Yes we’d compete; we looked to have a strong roster on paper, but likely end up finishing bottom of our Group with opponents able to call upon much greater depth and financial resources. But then the established order was well and truly rocked, repeatedly, with arguably some of the club’s most eye-catching and high profile results ever achieved. It started with a win over in the Czech Republic against a side intriguingly named after a lawnmower company – HC Mountfield. History was made as Panthers became the first UK side to mow their way to an away win in the competition. No sooner had that happened, but Panthers had secured the double over HC Mountfield with a strong 4-3 win, and all of a sudden fans began to wonder whether progression out of the group was a distinct possibility after all. Still, Bern was next up and surely their multi-million € roster would breeze into the home of the confident upstarts, restore some natural order and skate away with an easy win. Not so. A glorious 4-2 victory sent the home fans into ecstasy.

This CHL lark appeared to be a doddle, Viva la underdog! But there was more work to do, and with the way the Group’s other results played out, the club knew a win at home to Finnish outfit Turku would seal a memorable place in the knockout stages. It was tight, and any remaining nails were finally bitten right down to the bone, but another monumental effort spurred on by a frenetic Panthers crowd dragged the side over the finishing line with a shut-out for Michael Garnett adding a cherry to the cake. Job done and the almost unthinkable had only gone and happened. If ever there was an ‘Unbelievable Jeff!’ moment, then surely this was it?! The final fixture now meant little in terms of qualification and a week later, Turku exacted a degree of revenge for the 2-0 defeat. What should not be overlooked though, was the little old Nottingham Panthers, ranked 32nd of the 32 sides competing had only gone and qualified top of their Group – an astonishing achievement when all is considered and one that if suggested a few weeks earlier would definitely end in men in white coats turning up at your front door in the dead of night asking you to step outside and bundled into a waiting van.

The organisation was now treading uncharted territory, and as a fan, it felt utterly great – if a little surreal. Excitement was raised for the draw contemplating which of the big guns we’d draw. Wow, it was Zurich Lions; a side with one of the biggest wage bills in Europe paying NHL-esque salaries to some of their star players. But we’d matched Bern, so why couldn’t we repeat the trick against their Swiss rivals? As it happened, a plucky and heroic first-leg defeat was followed up a home loss a few days later which ended the CHL adventure in front of an appreciative crowd. No disgrace in being beaten by Zurich whatsoever, and the Panthers efforts had pinned Nottingham Panthers firmly on the global hockey map. Indeed, us fans were as proud as anything at what our side, who had turned heads at every step along the journey, had achieved. Combined with some strong Cardiff Devils performances, UK ice hockey had gained a new level of relevance and acceptance.

Back to domestic matters, and the fear was it’d take time for the side to reacclimatize back to a more physical, in-your-face style of hockey played by most EIHL teams and we’d be on the wrong end of a bunch of defeats. These fears thankfully didn’t materialise with Panthers continuing to grind out EIHL wins, albeit largely unspectacular and with a fair few OT and Penalty Shot wins contributing to the healthy points total and league position which by the end of November had seen us ascend to the top of the standings. Everything was seemingly going well; the team looked well-drilled, kept finding ways to grind out wins and appeared to be a close knit group off the ice too. And then Evan Mosey got injured and the season promptly disappeared over a cliff edge.

Unless you like bad news and/or have masochistic tendencies then there’s really not much more to say about the season from this point on, but I’ll attempt to summarise in a paragraph; The goals dried up, a string of losses ensued, Josh Shalla departed as the sacrificial scapegoat for a lack of offensive potency, a confident side (almost overnight!) became a gibbering wreck and a wretched run was capped by one of the most lacklustre, soul-destroying and incompetent home Christmas performances against Sheffield that any Panthers fan will ever have the misfortune of watching. If someone you knew bought you the DVD of that game, unfriend them – immediately.

With confidence through the floor, hopes of a League title went up in flames. Animosity amongst the club’s fanbase increased with each passing week, with many a heated discussion played out on social media platforms querying how a bunch of guys who had made European hockey sit up and take notice just a few weeks earlier now looked like they’d struggle to beat one of the many peewee sides based out of Nottingham. Who was to blame? Was there a single attributable reason for the spectacular collapse? Put simply, the fans had gone from the best of times to the worst of times – and for me, it felt thoroughly miserable.

The section of the season from January onwards almost became irrelevant. Of course, the team needed to secure a Play Off berth, but the strong start to 17-18 meant that was never really in doubt. Yes the form turned, and the addition to the roster of Vaskivuo and Luke Pither (the latter demonstrating in a short period how seriously good a player he could be over a whole season) brought about a run of wins which saw the club recover to a respectable, but ultimately misleading fourth place having languished down in sixth, and even as low as seventh for a good chunk of time post-Christmas. Our ‘reward’ for a 4th placed finish were the Belfast Giants in the PO QF game, and confidence in progression on to the Finals weekend, it was fair to say, was low. However, after almost matching nightmare starts in both legs, the team deserved a lot of credit for turning around what seemed an impossible situation and the joy in the NIC when Dan Spang’s OT winner found a way past Jackson Whistle briefly reminded fans of the now rather distant euphoria we regularly experienced throughout the CHL.

The semi-final game against Sheffield neatly summed up Panthers season. Flashes of great play, naivety at failing to control/see out a game and then the failure to convert golden opportunities and show a killer instinct to secure a win (yes Mr. Bussieres, I’m referring to THAT miss). The defeat hurt, but there was a strong sense of inevitability about the outcome. I’m not going to talk about the Third/Fourth place match because as far as I’m concerned that does not constitute competitive hockey in any way, shape or form. It has no place in the Play Off Finals weekend and I wish the EIHL would kick it into the long grass.

Anyway, I’ve neglected to mention two pretty big things so far, so I’ll drop them in now. Firstly Corey Neilson announced a few weeks before the end of the season that he was calling time on his tenure as Head Coach of the club. Secondly, and just as fans were coming to terms with the news about Neilson, it was followed up by David Clarke’s announcement that he was to hang up his skates upon the conclusion of Panthers season.

So much has rightly been written about the impact and influence of these two, and I don’t plan on revisiting the commentary as far greater and talented writers than I have expressed their gratitude and admiration in much better and eloquent ways than I could ever wish to achieve. I agree with it all, so it’s sufficient for me to simply call them legends of the hockey club who we as fans will fondly remember for many years, even decades, to come. Whilst fans and commentators understandably use the number of trophies, titles, records and accolades as a somewhat crude metric to calculate just how much a contribution #5 and #77 have made whilst at the club, I firmly believe this doesn’t cover the whole extent of influence both have made to putting the Nottingham Panthers firmly on the hockey map – something all the titles in the world cannot really achieve. And we should be eternally grateful for the role which David Clarke as a player (surely to be rewarded with the retirement of #5?), and Corey Neilson – first as player, then as Head Coach, has played in making that happen.

Tina Taylor
I’m not much of a baker and I’m also nothing more than an average cook and while I’ve never attempted to make a soufflé what I do know about them I can use to analogise the Panthers season.
The ingredients have to be pretty exacting, the way you put them all together needs to be spot on and even if it does rise while it’s in the oven and you get all excited because you think you’ve absolutely cracked it and it’s going to be a showstopper, once you take it out of the oven it can still fall flat as a pancake and you’re left wondering what went wrong and thinking, perhaps it’ll be better next time.

Just in case you can’t see where I’m going with that I’ll take it out of the kitchen and explain myself. We were promised a younger, hungrier (or hornier if you believe David Simms) team this year, they were the ingredients, we had a pretty good pre-season, that’s the bit where you put them all together, the CHL is the oven and when we came out of the oven we were a flat soufflé.

Whoever says they saw us getting past the group stage of the CHL is a liar, it was absolutely unprecedented and totally unexpected. When we got the two wins we were aiming for I was happy, when we continued to get wins I was delirious and when I and four travelling companions were planning a whirlwind excursion to Zurich I was downright proud. I went to Hamburg the last time we were in the CHL but it was completely different, we were so giddy we did a periscope chat from a restaurant before the game and it was probably rubbish but we didn’t care, we were on cloud nine.

Anything I say about the domestic season has probably been covered already on a podcast, an article, a forum post, a tweet… You get the idea. We’re perennial underachievers on the domestic stage and while most of us are probably used to it, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with year-on-year.

We’ve made history in Europe for the second year running and it was amazing to be a part of it, I’m not sure I would trade this year’s CHL run for a domestic trophy to be honest and we have to try and remember what a staggering achievement it was despite not having any silverware to show for it, I will certainly remember the pride I had in my team when I was in the stands of the Hallenstadion on the Halloween of 2017. The score wasn’t what we’d hoped for, the price of a vodka and coke was straight out of a horror film, but everything that got us to that point was more of a dream, a fantasy almost, and we were living it.

Our new coach is the now the head chef, he needs to figure out how many of last season’s ingredients he wants to use, the new ingredients he wants to add and how to make it rise without it deflating.
Next season’s team will probably have a completely different feel to it, a new coach to take over from the departing Corey Neilson and the retirement of an absolute gentleman and Panthers legend David Clarke, I’m interested to see how the soufflé in this new era pans out.

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