I’ve been missing my hockey recently after my last mid-season trip to Saint John in Canada. Whilst there over Christmas and New Year I made hay with a couple of live Quebec Major Junior Hockey League games at Harbour Station watching the local Saint John Sea Dogs. This was complemented by a daily procession of televised hockey games as is the way in Canada, in particular watching the home nation’s fabulous victory in the World Juniors competition.
It’s fortunate that living here in Nottingham, there are very few, if any, UK cities that are superior to follow the game. Not only does it host the oldest, most historic club in the Nottingham Panthers, it also boasts a fine ice stadium, the National Ice Centre, in which to watch the game. Arena hockey is not widespread in the UK with only a handful of teams fortunate enough to skate in them and the NIC has long been the favoured home of the Hockey Play-off Finals each Spring. It could be argued that the term ‘Hockey City GB is still Nottingham’s own.
I used to be very much a regular watching the Panthers on a Saturday evening but gradually, and for various reasons, that ended. One of those reasons was that the league downgraded in quality through clubs suffering financially and the resultant strict club wage-capping. From watching superior Canadian professionals of a good standard icing for the ‘black and gold’ on game night, more reliance was put on cheaper, often locally -bred options. There’s a fair argument that this was/is a preferable, more manageable state of affairs but that’s perhaps a debate for another occasion.
I miss my hockey and this season I’ve been back in the seats at the NIC on a few occasions, observing what’s happening down there on the ice. Last night the visitors were the Tony Hand-led Manchester Phoenix. Tony Hand, whilst not necessarily the most popular player in British hockey is nevertheless rightly lauded as one of this country’s greatest-ever talents. Now forty-one years young, his playmaking abilities appear very much intact. He is still the ‘smart’ he always was. It was difficult for me to envisage that I’d first seen Tony playing for his native Murrayfield Racers in Edinburgh when he was just a boy of fourteen years of age – playing in a team of men in a very tough sport indeed. That and the fact that he was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL point to a very special player indeed.
Another interesting figure in the Manchester line-up is Montrealer, David- Alexandre Beauregard. The left-shooting sniper has a superb goals-to-games ratio but that is only part of his story for the player has the disability of having only one eye, the other being lost in a nasty mid-game accident. The fact that his hockey career thrives despite his disability is incredible enough consider this however, during the game that David lost his eye, after a stick blade pierced his eye, he continued on the play and completed the move by scoring before leaving the ice for medical treatment. Canadian hockey players – they breed them tough.
A slow, stuttering start to the game and the portents were not good. The Panthers play was generally ragged with players making basic and elementary errors. Worryingly there seemed to be little passion, emotion or momentum from the home side and during the early stages the Panthers took a five-on-three penalty and went a goal down unsurprisingly. What followed was a turgid display by Nottingham throughout the first period which bordered on amateurish. Things picked up a little after the first intermission with the play ebbing and flowing between two well-matched teams. Both goalies, Manchester’s Murphy and the Panthers’ Michele Robinson, another Montreal product, made excellent contributions as both sides struggled to find the twine.
The third period finally begin to make the admission fee look value for money as a real hockey game broke out. Nottingham went ahead with a deserved goal from James Ferrara before player-coach, the excellent Cory Nielson crashed home a slap shot to give the home team a three-one lead with just ten minutes left. Nielson had a tremendous game – very authoritative and assured in his play, he led his team by example with his control, toughness and intensity.
Amid exciting scenes at the end of the contest, Manchester hauled the game back to three-two after pulling goalie Murphy and going with six skaters. The ploy was successful for the Lancashire club but there was little time for an equalising goal as the Nottingham team ran out worthy winners. Such is hockey.
On balance an entertaining game then with most of the NIC crowd alighting the stadium into the cold night air satisfied and happy. I’ll be along there again soon.