Paul Balm describes another road trip that was very much needed by some of the TCW crew…

I don’t think I was really looking forward to this weekend. Sure, it was a chance to get away with friends for a few days but I really didn’t know if I wanted to watch the final games in a regular season that had seen the Panthers mis-fire so often that they sat in seventh place as we drove north. I didn’t really want to watch three games in three days. As I sat in Tina’s car I really wasn’t sure I wanted to be there.

Normally, on trips like this you’re full of excitement, especially if, like me, you don’t do it that often. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh or Braehead in over seven years and I’d not seen a game in Dundee since 2005 so, yeah, it had been awhile. This time though, I didn’t have those feelings of nervousness or apprehension walking in to any of the games. It wasn’t really a feeling of wanting it to be over and out the way so we could go back the pub but more if we win we win if we don’t then fine, I’ll just forget about it and move on. I really didn’t have any nerves walking into Braehead, a game that on paper at least should have been the hardest for the Panthers.

I don’t like Braehead Arena. There I’ve said it. It’s not a bad venue but it has its faults like anywhere does. I always though the netting above the plexi was supposed to go behind the plexi rather than in front leaving a six-inch gap that a puck inevitably found its way through, hitting a Panthers fan in the process. What was probably worse was the fact that she had the time to retrieve it, make sure she wasn’t hurt, take a photo of the puck and stick it on Instagram, Twitter or whatever the kids are using these days before the steward strolled down to see if she was alright. I don’t like it because of how hard it is to get in and out of it. Whoever thought that an arena of that size only needed one narrow walkway and one entrance/exit (and more importantly one bar) wants their head examining. We weren’t in any rush after the final hooter so we hung around for a while under Braehead’s wall of sod-all (I’m all for clubs having banners but why do you have them if you’ve nothing to celebrate apart from existing) and we still ended up having to clamber over seats and walk through the stands to get out.

It was a strange game in many ways. Going 2-0 down inside the first ten minutes probably didn’t help but I thought our fans were very quiet. Mind you, I thought the Braehead fans were quiet as well. If it hadn’t been for the drums (mercifully) at the other end of the rink the place would have resembled a morgue and don’t forget that this game was a sell-out. There just didn’t seem to be much of an atmosphere at all and having an announcer that you couldn’t tell a word he was saying really didn’t help. It wasn’t his accent it was the PA, every word he said just sounded like a fuzzy blur.

Anyway, game over, it was time to make our way, clambering over seats, shuffling along with the masses, past the queue to get the mascot’s autograph (I’ll never understand the appeal of mascots to adults, never) and out into the shopping centre enroute to the Lord of The Isles (that’s the nearest pub if you don’t know). Back to where we’d been before the start of the game and back, even to our previous table to do what people who have been to ice hockey games do. We talked about the game and engaged with people we probably shouldn’t have about comments they’d made and then deleted about how Panthers would roll-over in the game. The first ten minutes they looked like they could well have been right but I don’t believe they ever were.

One of the great things that happens on away trips is that you bump into the same people again and again. The same bunches of fans were in the pub before the game, after the game and at breakfast the morning after. You talk to people you know, to people you don’t know and mix with the fans as a group in general. It gives you a sense of belonging that you don’t get at home games, a sense that you’re part of something bigger than the four of you. And then, when you’ve drunk your fill, drunk more than your fill, or get chucked out at closing time whichever comes first you have to walk home.

There aren’t many houses that close to Braehead Arena and that, I can only think is a good thing. As we walked back to our hotel, we were probably very loud, but that, I like to think is that we knew there were not many houses around us. We railed against the fact that at IKEA the baked beans come in a pot with your breakfast and that’s just not right. The main thing we discovered is that you can fit Adam into a discarded shopping trolley. This somehow, somewhere down the line, got him called IKEA man and whilst the nickname stuck for a while it needs to be pointed out that it’s not strictly true. Yes, we were outside IKEA, yes Adam was in a shopping trolley. He was actually sat in a Dobbie’s Garden Centre trolley but calling Adam Dobbie the Garden Elf didn’t have the same ring to it and anyway there is only one Elf Lord on the Cats Whiskers.

I was sharing a room with Jono again and I don’t seem to need as much sleep as he does and that can cause problems. If you don’t want to just sit there and listen to his not quite snoring (it sort of sounds like a slightly broken, run down pump wheezing away) then, like me, you get up and go for a walk. This means that I had to get dressed in the dark. Say what you like about Premier Inns but they know how to fit a blackout curtain. We stayed in three different hotels in three nights – no basing ourselves in Stirling for us! That meant that we never unpacked which, again, added to my predicament I had to quietly unzip my case, try and find the clothes I wanted and put them on in the stygian darkness created by the curtain.

Once I was dressed and out I then realised that there’s not much to walk around and see in that area of Glasgow. I’d got a recycling centre, a hospital and the edges of Govan in one direction and the shopping centre in the other. I opted in the end to have a walk down toward the shopping centre, get something to drink and at least blow away a few of the cobwebs. In the end I decided to nip into IKEA to use their facilities if you know what I mean. If you’ve never been in more than one IKEA then be warned they are not all the same. I’m fine with the one in Giltbrook but this one was different and I ended up getting lost, blindly following arrows that didn’t seem to lead anywhere other than another area of light fittings or soft furnishing. I eventually found the exit and returned back to the hotel to sit and watch an absolutely terrible game of kids football on the pitch below our hotel room while we waited for Adam and Tina.

After a breakfast in the same Wetherspoons where I discovered how fussy my travelling companions are when it comes to a full breakfast, how accommodating of such fussiness Wetherspoons are and that after almost 18 years of friendship Jono still doesn’t know that I don’t take milk in coffee we set of for Dundee.
As I said earlier it had been 13 years since I’d seen a game in Dundee and that didn’t involve the Panthers so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Another town, another pitch black Premier Inn room.

You didn’t need the curtains this time, the trees and hill behind the hotel combined to drain any light from what had been a bright day until then. If we’re being honest then there’s not a lot to do near the rink in Dundee. There’s a cinema but if I wanted to sit in the dark I’d have stayed in my hotel room, a KFC, a McDonalds, and Indian restaurant and a pub. So guess where we went after we’d got the tickets for the game and found Adam’s wallet?

It was whilst we were in the pub that we discovered that Aaron’s partner Toni had given birth to a daughter – Imogen Nancy Lord so that just meant that we had to have another drink to wet the baby’s head.

The one thing that hits you when you walk into Dundee Ice Arena is the smell. That’s not a bad thing, the complete opposite in fact. It smells the way all ice rinks used to. I was immediately taken back to the old Ice Stadium, to Peterborough or Whitley or Durham. Anyone who has been watching games for a while will know what I mean. It’s hard to describe but it’s a mixture of wet rubber, cold and very possibly cheap cooking fat all mingled together with the atmosphere.

If Braehead had been quiet then this game certainly wasn’t. It was probably the best game of the three marred, in part, by the abysmal standard of refereeing. When the Dundee fans started “Ref you suck” after Robert Farmer had entirely cleanly (I’ve watched the replay) destroyed Mimar with a check that led to the game winning goal from Derlago we just had to join in. I think I’d go crazy watching that kind of officiating every week. There was a really good crowd in for the game and an, at times, feisty encounter brought out the best in them. A bit of righteous indignation will do that.

Being in Dundee also marked the return of the Cats Whiskers to the TV as we were all interviewed during the first interval. I’m not sure who we came across (the interview is on Youtube but I daren’t watch it) but it felt good to get back in front of the camera and a fair few Panthers fans including the guy in the Robinson shirt who just wandered across (not the last time something like this would happen that night). Thanks to the guys at Dundee Stars Live for having us and I hope we didn’t blight the viewing figures too much.

I want to take a moment here to pay tribute to Omar Pacha. He’d just seen his team lose 4-3 in a game that was getting increasingly fraught and tense towards the end but he got hold of the mike and called Corey Neilson back on to the ice so that he could pay credit to him in the last game he would coach against the Stars. He didn’t have to do it but he did so thank you Omar.

If there’s a downside to Dundee Ice Rink it’s the choice of beer. Belhaven is not the best bitter in the world as we’d discovered earlier so we ended up drinking bottled beer and by the end of the night Carling. (I know I know, but needs must and all that). It was karaoke in the bar and after much cajoling and a certain amount of vodka we convinced Tina to get up on stage and prove why she’s the only talented one amongst us. I’m sure you’re one of the two thousand plus people who have seen the video already, if not there’s a link on our Twitter feed but what you might not know is that Jolene was Tina’s second song of the night. For some reason the first wasn’t recorded properly and that’s a shame if only for the fact that you missed the woman in the mobility scooter go sailing across the front of the stage half way through Tina’s performance.

We had a couple of conversations with Dundee fans that night that just go to show how great ice hockey is. We went from wildly disagreeing during the game to chatting and agreeing about stuff in a matter of minutes or hours. You’ve got to love the fan we were talking to as we left who assured us that Dundee WOULD rise again and if they can get the crowds in and swell the coffers I think they’ll go long way under Pacha. You probably wouldn’t love him as much if you were a Fife, Braehead or Sheffield fan though.

Asda breakfasts are worse than Wetherspoons ones. In Asda they run out of teapots when there’s two dozen people in the café, they don’t take the skin of the black pudding and they get really confused at my friends’ fussiness.
Edinburgh, I love Edinburgh. I probably didn’t get to see as much of it as I’d have liked this time but whenever I’m there I’ve always got the same thought in my mind “when can I come back again”. Even sitting through the entirety of Notts County’s capitulation to Chesterfield couldn’t detract from how much I enjoyed it. We met up with Tina’s cousin Peter for the afternoon who, amongst many other things, revealed the strange name, amongst the locals, for an area just west of the Grass Market that is probably not repeatable here. I just don’t understand why they’d call one Burke and Hare.

Murrayfield Ice Rink is what can only be described as an experience. If you’ve never been then you don’t know what you’re missing out on. The building simply reeks of history from the entrance to the stands to the posters of old teams and events in the corridor below. If you have been then you know what you’re missing – leg room. I spent the twenty minutes from arrival to face off praying that no one would sit in front of me. I’m “only” 6 feet one but if I sat all the way back in my seat my knees still hung over the seat in front.

I think Panthers walked into the rink thinking all they had to do was turn up to win. If that’s true it’s pretty poor but you can almost forgive for that because they’d scored 22 goals on Edinburgh in the last two games. Sunday’s game was very different. We all expected Neilson to play Sam Gospel but he chose to start Mike Garnett instead and, in all fairness to Gospel, it’s a good job he did. Capitals led 2-0 at the end of the first and without Garnett it could have been 5 or 6. They just played way better than us for those first two periods and it was only two goals in about a minute that saved our blushes as we came away 4-3 winners in the end. Three wins, three days and my unbeaten in Scotland streak continued.

The game belonged to Edinburgh’s longstanding back-up netminder Kevin Forshall who played the last game of his career, taking over in the last ten minutes. He never looked troubled after the first shot that nearly flew straight past him without him realising. At the end of the game he got an ovation from both sets of fans as the Panthers fan filed out into the night, some back to their hotels, some for the bus to Stirling and some, like us, heading back into the centre of Edinburgh trying to work out how a team that had looked and played like a seventh place team since December could end up fourth.

We ended up in the Kenilworth on Rose Street. After so much time spent as part of the Panthers group it was just the four of us again. Some Panthers fans did come in while I was stood outside on the phone to my wife but they didn’t stay long. Maybe they saw Jono and decided it wasn’t the place for them, I don’t know. It was great to be part of that Panthers group I talked about earlier but it felt good, and in a way, right for it to just be the four of us at the end of it all. I know there was the journey home on Monday but it still felt like the end.

We sat in that state of quietly contemplative contentment as we discussed what we’d seen and more. We talked about how strange it will be after this season without both Corey Neilson and David Clarke. And it will be. There are fans like Tina who have never seen a team without either of them. We’re in the final days of not one but two eras in Panthers history and change can feel a bit odd. That led to some other, wider ranging shall we say conversations. We talked about the number of coaches we’ve seen a Panthers and then we started talking about netminder and we decided to try and name every one that had played for Panthers once we’d had the inevitable argument about who is best Trevor Robins or Craig Kowalski. All that meant that we were probably the only people in Edinburgh that night who were talking about Sav Iguanta.

We may not have agreed about the Robins v Kowalski debate but there was one thing we all agreed on. We all felt better for getting away. I probably overplayed not wanting to be there at the start of the article. I knew I needed a break and we all, for one reason or another, felt the same way. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about away games and road trips like this. It takes you away from your normal world for a few hours or days and we all need that from time to time. We spent Friday morning to Monday teatime in a bubble. All we knew about were hockey, beer and the laughs and general stupidity. We didn’t know what was going on in the world outside of those things. The only bits that leaked through were about Australians doing strange things to their balls. We left the real world behind and escaped into something simpler and more enjoyable. I’d have said that too if we’d lost all three games because road trips aren’t all about the games they’re about the people and what happens between the games. Look at this article, look how little is actually about ice hockey and you’ll see what I mean.

Closing time meant a change of venue and then another meant it was time for a taxi ride home. I don’t often feel sorry for taxi drivers but I did that night. Riotous assembly in the back of a mini cab isn’t easy but we managed it as we laughed, joked and argued about who the best ice hockey writer in Britain is of all things. The driver deserved his tip Sunday night but I’m sure he’s had worse, or at least I hope I do.

The journey home is always the quietest. The mix of another hangover, another breakfast (Wetherspoons is better than Premier Inn as well by the way) and the fact that you know you’re returning to reality all lay heavy on the atmosphere stifling conversation. That’s not to say there weren’t highlights, the village of Conundrum near Berwick seemed enigmatic and it’s not every day you see a Zamboni on the back of a lorry.

We’re home now, another trip is over and all that’s left are the memories. Some of the hockey was good some wasn’t but that’s not really what we went for. It was why we were where we were but it wasn’t what made it so special. That, as always was the people. I always knew it would be but I’m even more certain now. So, to Jono, Adam (IKEA Man), Internet Sensation and First Lady of TCW Tina who put up with so much this and only told us off occasionally and everyone else we talked to over the weekend I just want to say thank you.

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