Nottingham Panthers - History - 1980 – Present: Modern Era - Ice Stadium Years

Ice Stadium Years

The Nottingham Panthers were revived largely thanks to the efforts of Gary Keward. In 1980 the Ice Stadium directors, led by Charles Walker, agreed to a request by Keward to give ice hockey another chance. The Sheffield Lancers, a team Keward helped to run, were relocated to Nottingham taking the name of the team that had occupied the same building 20 years earlier. On 20 September 1980 the modern Panthers took to the ice for the first time defeating the Solihull Barons 7–4 at the Ice Stadium.

During their first three seasons the Panthers played in regional leagues, first in the English League South and then in Section B of the British Hockey League. In 1983 the British Hockey League reconstituted itself into the first truly national ice hockey league for 23 years and Nottingham became one of nine founder members of the league's Premier Division. The Panthers were one of the best supported teams in the league with games regularly selling out but success on the ice eluded them as the team struggled against more established opponents such as the Durham Wasps and the Murrayfield Racers. It was not until the appointment of Alex Dampier as coach in 1985 that the team's fortunes began to change. In his first season Dampier led Nottingham to the playoffs for the first time since reforming. The Panthers lost all four of their quarter final group games and failed to advance to the finals at Wembley Arena.

In 1986 Nottingham secured their first trophy since reforming and their first overall in thirty years when they defeated the Fife Flyers 5–4 in overtime to win the Norwich Union Trophy at the NEC in Birmingham in front of a crowd of 5,600. Layton Eratt scored the winning goal after one minute and 53 seconds of the extra session in a game that had seen both the Panthers and the Flyers lead twice. In the league Nottingham again succeeded in qualifying for the playoffs but again failed to register a point. The team repeated this in the Championships the following season bringing the number of consecutive playoff defeats to twelve.

In 1988–89 the Panthers enjoyed one of their most successful seasons. They finished third in the league and were not only able to register their first win in the playoffs but also advance to the finals at Wembley for the first time. Nottingham met Whitley Warriors in the semi final, winning the match 8–6. In the final the following day the Panthers defeated the Ayr Bruins 6–3, clinching their first Championship title. Another Autumn Cup followed in 1991 but Dampier left the club during the 1992–93 season to join the newly formed Sheffield Steelers. He was replaced by Kevin Murphy who coached the team for the remainder of the campaign. Murphy was in turn replaced by Mike Blaisdell during the close season of 1993.

Blaisdell assembled a strong team for the 1994–95 season and led the Panthers to the Benson & Hedges Cup with a 7–2 victory over the Cardiff Devils in the final. Nottingham opened their league campaign with a 21 game unbeaten run but four defeats over the final two weekends of the regular season, including an 8–6 home defeat to nearest rivals and eventual champions Sheffield, denied the club their first league championship in 39 years. During the 1995–96 season the Panthers made it to both the Benson & Hedges Cup and playoff finals, but they were defeated on each occasion by the Steelers.

In 1996 the Panthers became a founder member of the new Ice Hockey Superleague. The new league abolished the wage cap and restrictions on the number of non-British trained players a club was allowed. Many of Nottingham's British players, who had risen through the ranks of the club's youth development system, were dropped in favour of North American imports. Of Nottingham's locally trained contingent only Randall Weber, Ashley Tait and Simon Hunt were retained. The Panthers began the season by qualifying for the Benson & Hedges Cup final for a third straight year following a 6–3 aggregate victory over arch rival Sheffield at the semi final stage. In the final they defeated the Ayr Scottish Eagles 5–3, taking the lead 29 seconds into the game and never relinquishing it. The Panthers finished fourth in the league and qualified for the last four in the playoffs after finishing top of their group with five wins and one overtime loss from six games. Their semi final against the Ayr Scottish Eagles became the longest game in British ice hockey history. The scores were level at 5–5 after regulation time and each of the following five periods of ten minute overtime ended goalless. Only in the sixth period of overtime, with the two hour mark of the match nearing, did Jeff Hoad finally score a shorthanded winner for Nottingham ending the game after 115 minutes and 49 seconds. In the final the Panthers met Sheffield where they were defeated 3–1 after taking an early lead.

In 1997 the Panthers franchise was sold after directors revealed the club was in considerable debt. A buyer was found in London based businessman Neil Black and his sports management company. The 1998–99 season saw the Panthers sign one of their strongest ever line-ups. After finishing third in their Benson & Hedges Cup group, the Panthers eliminated the Slough Jets and Newcastle Riverkings before defeating the Manchester Storm in the semi final despite being depleted by injuries and facing a full strength Storm side. The final saw the Panthers taking on the Ayr Scottish Eagles in a repeat of the 1996 final. Here Nottingham came from behind to defeat the Eagles 2–1 with Finn Pekka Virta scoring both goals. In the league the Panthers finished in third place, twelve points behind champions Manchester. Nottingham also qualified for the finals of the Challenge Cup and the playoffs but the team were defeated by the Sheffield Steelers and Cardiff Devils respectively. During the course of the season Paul Adey and Greg Hadden scored 141 points between them, four players scored more than 20 goals, six players earned more than 30 assists and seven players achieved 30 or more points.

The 1999–00 season was the club's final year at the Ice Stadium before moving to the National Ice Centre. The budget for players was limited by the club chairman so that the Panthers would be able to break even the following season. Players were asked to take a wage cut, leading to the departure of Trevor Robins, Mike Bishop, Mark Kolesar, Eric Dubios and record goalscorer Paul Adey. This frustrated Mike Blaisdell who left the club in November to become head coach of the Sheffield Steelers. He was replaced by former coach Alex Dampier. Lacking the spending power of many of their rivals, Nottingham finished sixth in the eight team league. The club fared better in the Challenge Cup where it made the final for the second successive year but the team was defeated 2–1 at London Arena by Mike Blaisdell's Steelers. On 22 March 2000 the Panthers hosted Newcastle in their final game at the Ice Stadium. Jamie Leach scored Nottingham's last goal at their home of 54 years but the club was defeated 2–1 in overtime.

Read more about this topic:  Nottingham Panthers, History, 1980 – Present: Modern Era

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