Nottingham Panthers: The ‘Golden Era’
Nottingham has often been known as ‘Hockey City GB’ and not without some reason. The Nottingham Panthers in their original form were founded way back in 1939. Unfortunately Hitler was apparently not much of an ice hockey aficionado and certain of his activities in that year led to the team which had been recruited and imported en-bloc from Winnipeg, Canada making the long trip home almost in the first instance.
During the war years the Nottingham ice rink saw a little pick-up hockey action from Royal Canadian Air Force members stationed at the RCAF base in Langar in The Vale of Belvoir. Many will attest these old games with those expert Canadians putting on a show to the interest and affinity that Nottingham has long had with the grand old game.
After the war in 1946 the Panthers were re-formed, again with many professional Canadian skaters being brought over to entertain the Nottingham public in the originalstadium at Lower Parliament Street.
I was a little surprised to read in ‘Panthers Kim’s’ excellent article on The Cat’s Whiskers blog of the dearth of reporting about the original Panthers. I grew up in a home where both my parents knew full well of the likes of Chick Zamick and his deeds and would talk of him alongside the big personalities in football of that time. I had the strong belief that Chick at least, was pretty much a household name in Nottingham in those days despite the slight lack of media interest. I speak too of the 1960s’ when I was growing up, the Panthers were long-gone and but a memory, yet still their dashing and dynamic legacy lived on with the Nottingham public.
The late 1940s’ and 1950s’ had been something of a golden era for hockey in Great Britain. This was no doubt partly due to the city of London having four teams at various times playing out of the Haringey and Wembley rinks and the media interest that created. It was fashionable for celebrities from the TV, radio and film world to be seen rinkside joining in the fun of this ‘new’ game on these shores.
At that time hockey was quite a different game in this country. Team rosters were small with skaters shipping a lot of ice time. Most players were Canadian as there had been little facilities for up and coming local players to learn the trade. Wages were high and rinks generally full. In Nottingham the Panthers would play on Friday evenings to a dedicated and enthusiastic crowd with no little success.
So much of what happened in the original Panthers era is now unfortunately hearsay, not to claim it was inaccurate. I personally picked up a lot of stories over the years from one of the original Panthers who was a family friend. I’m sure others have just the same. One of those snippets of information was that in those latter days (late 50s’) England’s top footballers were still on a maximum wage of, I believe, £20 per week. Conversely the top Panthers were reputedly earning £20 per game. And often playing three games a week, that’s something also to consider when one thinks of the imbalance of press reporting!
At that time the Canadians were very much part of the local sporting landscape. On public skating nights in the Nottingham rink it was not unusual to see the Panthers players joining in the fun on the ice with local people. Those same Canadians brought other unusual ice-games to the area too such as ‘barrel jumping’ (think of long-jumping on ice over a line of beer barrels!). Perhaps the fact that those RCAF men were here in this country as our allies added to their great popularity in some ways. Certainly they greatly contributed to the good relations that have always existed between Canada and Great Britain.
When thinking of the very elite of sporting talent in Nottingham in the 50s’ perhaps a comparison between Chick Zamick and Tommy Lawton might be an interesting one. Lawton, a great, great England centre-forward (many will say the best ever) might lay irresistible claims to top the Nottingham Sports Personality of the year every year. Great though he undoubtedly was I have heard Chick Zamick described by some people whose opinion I respect as the best hockey player in Europe or even outside of the NHL at that time. In those days of ‘original six’ hockey in the National Hockey League and few opportunities at the top level in Canada and the USA, we can quickly gather what a plaudit that is.
Interestingly history repeated itself during the early years Of the Panthers’ re-emergence when Canadian defenceman, Jeff Andison won the same trophy despite some fierce pressure from the likes of an extremely successful Nottingham Forest of the day. Perhaps one might attribute these awards to the tenacity and dedication of Nottingham Panthers’ supporters.
It’s interesting to look back to the era in which the Nottingham Panthers were re-formed back in 1980. After a hiatus of some twenty years the Nottingham public were very enthusiastic to have the team back in the city scene. I remember that time so well. It was very touching to line up for tickets at the stadium and see fans from the 50s’ re-claim their original seats rink-side and welcome the Black and Gold home once more.
The new era also offered a huge link back to that ‘Golden Era’ too. The Canadians were back in force – re-establishing the old links between Nottingham’s hockey team and Canada. Times have moved on. The Nottingham Panthers have a newer (and excellent) facility on the same land that saw the imperious Chick Zamick, Les Strongman, Kenny Westman, Lorne Smith and Jack Siemon et al showcase their skills. Those men and others wearing the colours will never be forgotten and that is the reason why The Nottingham Panthers is a special and unique club – a club that will never forget it’s long and romantic past.
Images: Top right: Chick Zamick; 2nd top right: Nottingham Panthers 1946; top centre: 50’s Panthers display their skills; bottom left: Panthers left wing, Les Strongman; bottom right: Chick Zamick