Journey’s End

Paul Balm sums up an incredible Champions Hockey League campaign for Nottingham Panthers.

Practically the first thing I saw this morning when I woke up was the Panthers shirt my son wore at the game hanging from the clothes airer and it brought last night flooding back. The memories of the noise, the passion, the intensity cleared the early morning post-sleep fog away in a single blast. We were out of the CHL after losing to Zurich.

I’d been in a funny mood all day. A weird humourless grump seemed to hang over me. I doubt anyone noticed any difference from the norm but I did. I was a bit shorter with everyone, a bit more demanding. Eventually I put it down to nerves. The thing was that thinking about the nerves then made me grumpier because I wasn’t really sure what I was nervous about. This might have been the biggest game in British ice hockey since the dawn of time but I didn’t really expect us to win the tie. I thought if we were at the very top of our game we could maybe win the game but I thought our chances of making the final eight had shrivelled when the third goal went in last Tuesday.

So why was I nervous. I blame social media. All the messages I seemed to read on Facebook and Twitter from Panthers fans were about how excited and nervous they were. Maybe I’d picked it up by some weird osmosis. Were my nerves being caused by the nerves of others? Is it possible to catch nervousness?

I ended up getting to the arena ridiculously early and after a security check that felt somewhat akin to a bear hug (do they really HAVE to get that close?) I sat down to watch Zurich warm-up. In some ways I’m glad I did, I would have paid £12 to just watch warm up. You could tell they are a very well drilled and talented side. I lost count of the shots that hit the pipes or only made the top of the net ripple. The passing was sharp, the shots wickedly accurate. These boys were going to take some beating. So, yes I was glad I’d watched warm-up but I can’t say it did my confidence much good.

Let’s face it the game didn’t turn out the way we wanted it. Losing the last home game 3-0 feels harsh. It felt harsh then and it feels harsh now. We stayed with a team far superior in almost every way for forty minutes and, for me, if we’d had just a little bit more luck we could have gone into that second interval a goal or more to the good. There were at least a couple of gilt-edged chances that went begging that had they gone in would have made for a very different last twenty minutes.

You make your own luck though or rather Zurich made ours. They had the skill and the strength to control and limit us and they did. The only area they didn’t surpass us was in grit and determination. We gave it all we had, left everything on the ice, gave 110% (not that, that’s impossible). Choose whichever cliché you want but they sum up what we saw. We threw everything we had at Zurich and they held us back. You can’t argue with that. They were, I believe, the best team we’ve seen in the whole competition but that was always going to happen at this stage. There was always going to be a step up in intensity when the knockout stages arrived. Lose a game in the group stages and you’ll probably get a second chance, not now though, it’s win or bust and if I know that you can you bet the coaches and players do too.

I can’t write an article like this without talking about the crowd. The noise generated in those opening two periods and at the end (I’ll get to that in a minute) was incredible. I can’t honestly remember a time when a crowd in Nottingham has made more? It’s great to see the Panthers’ players acknowledging our efforts, we deserve the plaudits as much as them. We’re never going to make that noise week in week out but it just goes to show the vicious circle that exists between a crowd and their team. We made noise, the team responded and when the team responded we made noise. The third period was more subdued, the goal and Spang’s penalty took the atmosphere down a peg or two until something incredible happened.

You won’t often see a crowd rise to salute a 3-0 loss the way every man woman and child did in the NIC last night (the Zurich fans had been stood up all game and shirtless for most of the third period). That standing ovation for the last few seconds of the game, at least for me, wasn’t for last night’s performance, no matter how battling, relentless or at times unlucky it was. Maybe that’s wrong it should probably say “wasn’t JUST for last night’s performance”. The crowd rose to acknowledge every single CHL performance this season. They stood for Garnett’s saves, Mokshantsev’s wonder goals and all the other moments in between. They rose as a single individual for a group that aren’t individuals, they’re a team. It’s unfair to single out Garnett and Mokshantsev, not because they don’t deserve but because the rest of the team deserve it as much. They are a team.

In the end, I suppose we got what a lot of people, Panthers fans included, thought we would get in August. Look out the window though, the sun is hanging low in the sky, the leaves sit in drifts around the feet of the trees rather on their branches. It’s November, not August. There’d have been no shame if we had bowed out of the CHL in August. We were the 32nd seed after all and, by our owner’s admission, we entered by the back door. We didn’t exit in August though we left in November and that should be sung from the rooftops.

The CHL will move on from here. The names of the losers are already forgotten, shed like those leaves at the feet of the trees. We’re one of those names now but for a while we were THE story of the CHL this season. The competition will go on and they’ll rightly trumpet the name of the winners across their media but they should never forget what we (and let’s not forget Cardiff in this) did and nor should you. That little 32nd seed, that back door entrant won their (and their country’s) first game away, won all their home games, made the knockout stages, I could go on. You can’t feel bad about any of that, all you can feel is an immense pride. We did ourselves and UK ice hockey proud.

Looking at that shirt, just hanging there on the clothes airer, already dry and ready to be worn again felt like a metaphor for today. Our time in the CHL is over for this year but we have to move on and like that jersey we have to be ready to go again.

We’ve seen what winning the league can bring us, we just have to go out and do it. If we can manage all this as 32nd seed just think what we could do as 31st!

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