The History of the Nottingham Panthers
The Early Years
In the first Panthers Yearbook the club brought fans a brief history of the club. Then, a year later the story was a year older and the team published an updated version. The teams history had promoted new information about the team's name, where it came from and why, or to be more precise the mystery surrounding the name deepened somewhat. Panther's history has never been anything but interesting.
The old Nottingham Ice Stadium, now a fading memory, was home to the Panthers from the team's inception up to the turn of the millenium but the saga of the Panthers did not start with the opening of the old barn. Instead of sticks and pucks the completion of the old building coincided with the war and she housed guns and bullets as a makeshift munitions dump.
A couple of years later plans for the first ever team took shape and a policeman on his rounds in Canada got to hear about the try-outs. Even drafty, damp digs in Nottingham had more appeal than walking the beat in Winnipeg and Les Strongman and eleven colleagues boarded the SS Aquitania on a journey that would change not only their lives but those of thousands of sports fans in a city made famous by a legendary outlaw who robbed the rich to feed the poor. Certainly Les Strongman and his team mates fuelled the imaginations of the sell-out Nottingham crowds and the city soon became a hockey hotbed.
"Nottingham Panthers supporters are the best in the world and always have been. Even now, 54 years after playing in the opening season in Nottingham, I still see some familiar faces at the home games," said Les, who still lends a hand to try to encourage and develop local wannabe hockey stars of the future."
No-one can honestly remember why the team was ever called the Panthers in the first place. One story links the name with the nickname of an "imported" squadron based near Nottingham for the war, this was thought to be the most likely explanation though, a team was assembled and then sent home to Canada without playing a match when the war broke out. It was thought the name probably stuck and eventually the team involving Les Strongman came into the building for the first ever game on Friday, November 22nd, 1946, and they stuck with the name tag of "Panthers".
However, after last year's Yearbook came out, hockey historian Martin C. Harris added more fuel to the mystery when he pointed out that there is a reference to a proposed team called the Panthers in Nottingham in the annals of the British hockey authorities long before the aforementioned story could have taken place. The thinking behind the naming of the Panthers continues to remain one of the city's biggest puzzles.
Back in 1946, the Wembley Monarchs provided the opposition on the opening night and they and the other sides proved too strong for the fledgling Panthers who finished bottom of the National League. They battled hard though and the fans rewarded them with rapturous support and the team in turn rewarded the fans by never giving up. Even in that first season there was a hint of great things, Panthers finished above Wembley and Streatham in the National Tournament where they were runners-up to Brighton Tigers. Five years after that first game and the Panthers were National League champions and they repeated their success in 1953-54 when they pipped Streatham by a single point and captain Les Strongman was on hand to receive the trophy.
Legendary sharpshooter Chick Zamick had joined the team in 1947 as a last minute call-up. He arrived in Nottingham in a borrowed suit and with borrowed money in his pocket. The five feet seven inch tall centre was soon setting records. He scored his 100th goal inside a season and a half and had the crowd on its feet for his 200th goal in January 1950. By January 1954 he was up to 500 goals and the following year as player-coach led the Panthers to the British National League title and the Autumn Cup.
With Zamick taking over the role of player-coach after Olympic gold medallist Archie Stinchcombe was asked to resign to cut running costs, Les Strongman left Nottingham to take up a player-coach's role himself, in Switzerland. He then returned to win the British National League title himself, but not with the Panthers, he'd returned to Britain to play for the Wembley Lions. Like Strongman, Zamick took a coaching role in Switzerland on a three-year deal, after which he too joined the Wembley Lions. Big Lorne Smith took the coaching reins in Nottingham and Strongman was back in the city in 1958 but he left for Malmo in Sweden where he stayed for five seasons before returning to start a business in the city where his name and that of Zamick is synonymous with ice hockey. Zamick too, returned to Nottingham to start up various businesses.
The Modern Era
Sport and money go hand in hand. It will always be that way. Teams have to cut their cloth according to what they can afford. The same applies now in the British Superleague as it did in the late fifties. And so it was that the end was nigh for that first love affair between the city of lace and the sport of blades and ice. Lorne Smith was still in charge of coaching, as well as patrolling the blueline for the Panthers, in season 1959-60 but as the merry-go-round of players at clubs up and down the country continued, the British Ice Hockey Association announced there would not be any more senior hockey.
Twenty years later a new ice hockey struggle broke out in Nottingham. Gary Keward was trying to persuade the rink management that hockey would be a success. Eventually the man from the rink said "yes" and Keward moved the team he'd built up in Sheffield to Nottingham. Strongman was behind the bench alongside Keward when the Solihull Barons skated out to provide the first opposition of the so-called modern era. The "new Panthers" won too, with a 7-4 scoreline and by word of mouth the fan base grew and grew. The team was mostly amateur, new to the sport, rough round the edges and superbly enthusiastic. The house-full signs went up and new stars were born.
Tim Peacock and Doug Withenshaw joined in the fun alongside the manager's sons and the team's reputation began to grow. Although the pickings were a little thin in that first season, the entertainment had been of the highest calibre. Dwayne Keward led the scoring with 99 points, Darryl Easson (now one of the Great Britain junior team coaches) had 56points and Paul O'Higgins, recruited from Solihull was third on 48 points. Tim Peacock's predatory shark eyes had seen him bag 25 goals in just 20 games after his late arrival.
The second season saw the team consolidating their position. Players like Jeff Andison, Randy McClinchy and the star of the show Terry Gudziunas arrived from Canada. The inevitable disputes about money and ice time started to build and players came and went. For example, Withenshaw was cooking and delivering doughnuts to earn a living in the daytime (knocking off radio interviews during his deliveries to the bowling alley) and then training at night. The second season was a long drawn out affair both on and off the ice and even the fans had had enough by the end with gaps in the seating at the final games.
The National League was reformed in 1981 and the surprise package proved to be the Panthers who finished runners-up to Streatham but for the Panthers, it was just beginning. Gary Keward paid the price with his businesses away from the ice suffering because of the amount of time he was having to devote to hockey. League chiefs tried to clamp down on the number of imports and rule changes seemed harsh and directed at the Panthers.
The crowds stayed faithful though and the Panthers flirted with success. The heros continued to come and go. Jimmy Keyes would battle like a wounded Tiger on the ice, then take time to find his dislodged contact lenses before play could resume. Greg McDonald was the first player to play a full sixty-minute game. Others came and left without trace. But not so Alex Dampier. His first stint with the club started in 1985, quickly saw two matches abandoned for fighting and an unbelievable overtime sudden-death victory against big guns Fife in the Norwich Union Cup Final at the NEC in Birmingham. With Tony Johnson as manager and Alex Dampier well into his first stint behind the Panthers bench a new hockey revolution took place some ten years after Keward had brought the sport back to Lower Parliament Street.
Teams at that time were limited to three "imports", it was almost a tradition that teams entertained their fans by bringing over a big Canadian defencemen and two forwards. The idea being the forwards would link up and score the goals while the defenceman did his best to stop the opponent's striking duo from doing the same. Dampier had other ideas. He installed not one, but two blueliners from Canada. Neither of them could remotely be described as heavyweights in the goon department. Darren 'Doc' Durdle and Terry Kurtenbach patrolled the defensive zone for the Panthers. Durdle's nickname came from his habit of "doctoring" his stick with the sanding machine and playing with the narrowest blade ever seen in Britain at that time. Kurtenbach was a college player, a thinking man's hockey player. Durdle would rush the puck at every opportunity and fans favorite John Bremner would drop off the wing to cover as Durdle raced up the ice. It was a simple game plan but it worked to perfection. Hired gun Bruce Thompson worked as hard as anyone could up front but couldn't put the puck away. He was replaced by Paul Adey.
Adey, of course, had fellow forwards, but they were British and therefore not of a similar standard but he stuck to his task and helped by those rushes of Durdle and solidity of defence provided by Kurtenbach, the Panthers booked their place in the Wembley Heineken Finals for the first time ever. Favorites Whitley were brushed aside on the Saturday and Sunday Ayr had little answer to the Panthers' tactics. It was Panthers first big win since the fifties. Joke-aholic winger Gavin Fraser said in the hospitality bar afterwards: "We don't want to watch the tape, in case we lose it second time around!" He needn't have worried, Panthers had earned their glory, and the victory is etched in the record books for all time. The Panthers were finally established among the elite of British ice hockey. Adey went on to become the club's all time leading scorer, eventually staying with the club until the end of season 1998-99 to take a contract with a team in Italy. Dampier left the club to join Sheffield. Kevin Murphy had an unhappy time in charge for a while and then Mike Blaisdell was hired as coach. The charismatic ex-NHLer brought cup success aplenty to the club. Even insiders at the PR firm which looked after matters for Benson and Hedges have been known to call theirs the Panthers' Cup. Three victories in five years was an impressive record.
Meanwhile the Superleague had been born and although the opposition was limited in numbers at least the organisers of the sport had drawn up business plans and long term objectives.
Now, other bodies and leagues are mimicking the Superleague. Meanwhile in Nottingham the plans were drawn up for the new National Ice Arena. A £40million pounds project with two pads and a bowl featuring around 7,500 seats for hockey. A magnificent new home for the Panthers and everyone involved in bringing it about deserves praise.
Along the way Panthers have done their best to entertain the crowds. The team's enjoyed successes and failures. There have been moments of happiness and moments of great sadness. Many friends of the club are no longer with us. Their memories live on with each and every game and they came with us into the new facility. For the team's last year in the old building there was another disagreement over money. Coach Mike Blaisdell left to join Sheffield and Panthers replaced him with former hero Dampier.
Last season every club had the same size budget imposed on it as that used by the Panthers in the previous season when against the odds, Panthers had reached the Challenge Cup Final.
The final game in the Ice Stadium came on Wednesday, March 22nd, 2000. It was a night dedicated to the fans and it was fitting that Messrs Zamick, Smith and Strongman were on hand to witness the end of another Panthers' era.
Then came the new era. Underway in a new millenium and in a new arena. A home fitting for the glamour club of British ice hockey. But once again the first year proved to be a struggle. Panthers stuck religiously to the wage cap but still put together a squad on paper that looked to be competitive. The entertainment value was still there but not by way of victory upon victory and while the cap-breaking Steelers won everything, the loyal Panthers' fans were tested to the limits. The mercurial Jimmy Paek, a double Stanley Cup winner brought his class act to the city of Nottingham and there was a momentous "get out of jail" play to sneak into the play-offs. Many, many people thought the chemistry would finally click come the play-offs and the Panthers would get their hands on some silverware. Peter Woods had joined the coaching staff and given the club a brief lift, but come the play-offs with players like the bustling Eric Lavigne and Barry Nieckar under instructions to stay out of the box Panthers were too tame to trouble the opposition.
The Superleague play-offs were a spectacular affair staged at the National Ice Arena. But there was an important element missing. Namely those mysteriously named Panthers. All time leading scorer Paul Adey was given a chance to kick start his coaching career alongside Director of Hockey Alex Dampier, with the team where he belonged. A stronger squad was assembled.
The team did improve. Year two in the new barn saw the team rise from eigth in the standings to fourth. Adey brought his solid work ethic to the table and the club was just a solitary win away from runners-up spot. Sadly that win eluded them in the closing games of the regular season and come the play-offs the club's recent miserable run saw the end for hockey director Alex Dampier. The buck had to stop at his desk and a record of 14 losses in 15 post-season play-off games meant a parting of the ways. Adey took sole charge of the team for its last three play-offs games. Once again the season showpiece at the NIC took place without the ISL's jewel, namely the Panthers, but at least the club was unbeaten in those last three games. The run earned Adey a shot at flying solo for season 2002-3. In 2003-4 Adey was behind the bench for a spectacular Challenge Cup victory in Sheffield's own back yard. The following year saw injuries taking their toll but the fans had the bonus of seeing "locked out" NHL stars competiting in numbers in Britain. The Panthers had three NHLers but just failed to lift any silverware. The owner decided to shake things up and brought back coach Mike Blaisdell but a third place finish in the standings was all the club had to show for his efforts. Now new head coach Mike Ellis built a roster along team ethics for season 2006-7 and everyone at the club wished him all the best of luck as he stepped up the rankings and went behind the bench of the famous black and gold Nottingham Panthers.
His first regular season though did not go to script. After a roller coaster ride the club finished fifth in the regular season standings of an Elite League now sponsored by bmibaby. But in the play-offs it was a different if nail-biting and heart-stopping ride. The quarter-finals with Sheffield went to a penalty shoot-out. Rastislav Rovnianek in goal was outstanding and the GMB Panthers finally beat their arch-rivals and went through to the finals weekend in their own barn...the fabulous National Ice Centre.
Incredibly the Panthers' semi-final and final also went to shoot-outs (against Belfast and Cardiff) and incredibly the black and gold army won both battles. It was a script that Hollywood would have rejected as too far fetched but the GMB Panthers were crowned Play-off Champions for 2007 and there was a smile on everyone's face for the summer months!
In the new Elite League era the Nottingham Panthers have proved themselves to be as competitive as any team. The league title continues to elude the team but the cup and the play-offs have become something of a specialist area for the Panthers. The GMB Panthers won the Challenge Cup in 2010.
A year later they retained the trophy and added the Play-Offs Championship crown. Then in 2012 they won the cup for a third year in a row and they retained the play-off title, to record a remarkable, never before achieved, double-double.
A quick review of the UK statistics shows the Panthers, since 1994, have appeared in twelve cup finals, winning eight and in nine play-off finals, winning three. Twenty-one cup finals for the fans to enjoy, with the biggest achievement yet, the retention of the double coming in season 2012-13.