The Annual Hockey Ritual

This week Paul has his own personal summary of the Play-Off Finals Weekend

There’s nothing better than a story with a happy ending is there? But, I’m getting ahead of myself here, there’s no point talking about the end of the play-offs without talking about the rest first. I’ll say from the outset that this article is very much about my experiences of the play-offs. My “unique take on things” if you will. It also comes from a mainly positive point of view but who you support is (or should be) a simple accident of geography so don’t blame me too much for it. Having said all that the play-offs is (in part) all about bringing fans together and maybe some of the things I talk about will strike a chord somewhere along the line.

If you read my article last week you’ll know that I had a bit of a problem. Due to an almost OCD level of superstition I couldn’t wear the same colour as the opposition and the shirt I always wore for the play-offs is blue and yellow. Luckily the Nottingham Lions very generously offered me a game worn shirt to wear and given it was black and gold (proper hockey colours) I snapped their hand off. So, that was obviously a change but it also led to another change. I still got people asking me if I was confident, knowing (I’m assuming) that I would answer in the negative but now I also get people asking me if I’m sticking with the Lions shirt. Well, I am. You don’t change a winning formula do you. The Lions were also kind enough to give me a second (white) shirt so I had a second, much easier, dilemma about which to wear. This was much simpler though, when you’re my size it’s best to stick to dark colours. That white shirt will go in to the auction for next year’s Rink Rush to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

There are other superstitions or rituals that we have to go through along the way both collectively and individually. I always listen to the same album on the bus before the first game (Moving Pictures by Rush if you’re interested) simply because I listened to it once and we won so that’s it, it’s stuck in there. We, as a group, also have to have a shot of Jagermeister between the two semi-finals but the Lord Roberts didn’t have any! This, if I’m honest threw me out slightly. A ritual is a ritual after all and with Panthers coming up in the second it felt like my pre-match preparation had been thrown out of kilter. I still wasn’t that nervous (being pessimistic helps with nerves, if you think you’re going to lose it sort of makes them easier) but I was now slightly on edge.

Have you noticed I’ve jumped to the second game and not mentioned the first? It’s not just because I’m a Panthers fan it’s just that I can’t find anything positive to say about it. Coventry played well and Cardiff were presumably stuck in traffic and didn’t get to the rink until after the game had finished. We struggled in the pub after to think of a worse EIHL play-off performance than that. A few were mentioned but I don’t think anything compared. I always feel sorry for the fans of the team that loses the first semi. You’re full of excitement and it gets dashed within only a few hours. After the season Cardiff have had the way it finished must have felt like a real kick in the teeth for them. OK they saw their side win the 3rd v 4th game and come out top scorers over the play-off weekend but that’s hardly any consolation.

I don’t really know what it is but the Saturday night after the games is always a bit too much for me. Maybe, it’s because I’m getting on I don’t know but the pubs are always a bit too busy, the music is a bit too loud. It’s always nice to get a bit of peace and quiet if you can to reflect on what has already happened and what there is still to come.

It’s the fans that make the play-offs. I’ve said it before that at times the games in the Arena seem almost coincidental particularly for those fans that won’t see their team at the weekend. I might have said the pubs get a bit too much for me at times but I love the fact that fans from those ten teams can all come together to have a drink and a chat, to renew friendships or make new ones. Where else can you try and get a Sheffield fan to give me the two bottles he is holding in exchange for my one pint because that’s how it should be? It’s a good job the fans do make it really because I get the feeling that the EIHL put less and less effort in each year. You get nothing other than the ice hockey for your money and I know it was a sell out and I know that’s what we’re all there for but there’s nothing to set it apart from the rest of the season. The play-offs are an end of the season celebration and they should be made to feel that. Would it hurt or even cost them all that much to put on a bit of interval entertainment? Or something between the two semis? The EIHL has come on so much in some areas but lags in others and the advances only serve to shine a light on the deficiencies.

Sunday morning, the calm before the storm. A pizza and then a couple of pints to settle the nerves before the final. They may not have been there en masse on Saturday but they sure were on Sunday. About an hour before the game started they kicked in. It almost felt as though I had been hit in the stomach. I could feel myself getting quieter, I didn’t want to go in the arena. There was part of me that would have cheerfully gone home and hidden myself away for the next three hours. I’m quite glad I didn’t though.

I didn’t enjoy most of the game if I’m honest. Don’t get me wrong I thought Panthers played a great game and really seemed to up their intensity and work-rate but I never felt like we were particularly in control until Kevin Quick scored the second. I had to get away in the second interval, I was so tense that I needed to be on my own. I went and prowled along the corridor beneath the stands just to get away for a while. Maybe it was that tension or maybe it was the fact that I thought play was stopped about five seconds from the end that meant I didn’t go mad in my normal way when we won. There was something about the whole thing that felt different somehow. I’ve been trying to work it out ever since and I’m still no closer.

I love the scenes in Bolero Square. The way the fans get to congregate to see the team one last time and to cheer them all individually again. The joking and camaraderie shown while we waited for the team to appear were brilliant. I had a couple of surreal moments leaving the square to finally get to go to the pub. Firstly I met Graham Mosey (Evan’s dad) for the first time who pulled me up (rightly so) for something I said about Evan two seasons ago. It was a real pleasure to meet him and talk hockey with him briefly. If that moment was embarrassing the next was truly surreal. Stephen Schultz, Logan MacMillan and Chris Lawrence appeared with both trophies. This isn’t the sort of thing Panthers players normally do. What was even stranger was that Lawrence and Janssen came in the Nottingham Legend with the trophies as well. I don’t ever remember this happening before when we’ve won. OK I might have missed it and I’ve seen the odd player in there but never with the trophies. To be honest that last couple of sentences upset me a bit really. Taking the trophies to the fans is exactly the sort of thing they should be doing. It’s OK saying we’ll be in this bar or that bar after the game but they should be taking it to the fans not making the fans go to them. So, if you’re reading this Chris or Cam (I doubt it but I can dream can’t I?) thanks for doing that. It meant a lot to us.

Sunday night is always a bit messy. For me, it’s the big party night of the weekend win or lose. I could tell you stories about what happened but they’d mean nothing to you. We might have found the tiny maracas hilarious but you’d just think we were mad. Singing along to songs the DJ was playing in Bunkers Hill in the club style? Just stupid to anyone but us. If you’ve ever done been out on play-off Sunday you’ll know what I mean and you can just add your own stories and memories here. There’s nothing better than being in a pub with all your friends in the middle of a party atmosphere regardless of what the score was.

Having said all that though there’s a bittersweet tinge to the celebrations on the Sunday night. On the one hand you’re on top of the world, full of the joy that a trophy brings but on the other you know that the season is over until September and, what’s more, the team you’ve watched all season will never be the same again. Now, that might be a good thing or a bad thing depending how well your team has done but it’s the same for everyone.

The format may be flawed. Four games to win a trophy isn’t really enough and it can be a bit of a lottery. It might, at times, feel as though the social elements are beginning to take over the sporting ones completely but I wouldn’t change much about play-off weekend if I’m honest. I’d make changes to how you get there but there’s nothing out there that compares to what we’ve just experienced.

Finally, we all know that the play-offs are wonderful, they’re brilliant, they’re great. The thing is though that they’re not real. Or, should I say they’re not reality. You leave real life behind when you enter the pub at half ten on the Saturday morning (something that seems a very long time ago now) and you only really return to it when you wake up on Monday morning. You spend those hours in between in a hockey bubble able to forget everything that normality throws at you. I went to my local Tesco to do some shopping just before I wrote this. I haven’t thought about shopping or Tesco or anything like that since last week because I haven’t needed to. All I’ve thought about was hockey and having a laugh with my friends. Was I thinking about paying my gas bill when I was recreating the Challenge Cup trophy with a glass, the contents of a Pizza Hut salad bowl and two breadsticks? No, no I wasn’t. The play-offs are a temporary relief from the world outside. That’s what sport can do, it can take you somewhere else for a short period of time and I guess the play-offs just intensify that. The world is still there, you just get to forget it for a while.

Right, I’d better go and pay the gas bill. Have a good summer everyone.

You can follow Paul on Twitter @MrBalm

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