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Another Hockey Road Trip, but not an NHL one…

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The year 2012 was not the best year for me.  After nearly 26 years in my job, my position was made redundant.  It was one of the most difficult times of my life.  I spent many of a day going through the motions, feeling sorry for myself, and wondering what I was going to do.  This was not the time that I was going to enjoy a life of not working.  Being only in my late forties, I knew that I have a lot more to give.  It was just a matter of the right situation.

iconICON came calling.

A company in Farmingdale, that provides clinical supply support to drug companies that are trying to get new products to market, needed a logistics analyst, and on November 13th, my 10 month hiatus was over.

Well – one part of my life was sorted, now an other one – hockey – became the next piece to be in limbo.  The lockout was on – and I really had little thought that we were going to see a season this year.  Another bit of sadness for me.

So, I was planning a trip that my job had asked me to attend.  Our company is enlisting another organization to assist us in coordinating our logistics carrier data.  The company has an office in Scotland, and with our company based in Ireland, I had to go across the pond to visit our Corporate headquarters to meet with the company.  With the itinerary in place, I also set up some time to visit my friends in the UK.  People that don’t know me don’t know that I have a great friendship with some folks that support the Sheffield Steelers of the British Elite Ice Hockey League.  Let’s put it this way – they are the New York Yankees of this league; many championships, outstanding teams, and yes, a character personality talking about the team.  I was getting excited about the trip, and the chance to get to see some hockey.

Yes, I have covered some AHL games, and I love to talk about the Sound Tigers, but it was another version, the top league in Great Britain.  No – it is not the Swedish Elite League, or the top league in Germany or the KHL, but it is a good league with some talented hockey players.  So I was getting my interest piqued.

Then, of course, it happened….

The weekend I planned the trip, the NHL lockout was ended.

A case of de ja vu.  1995 – The lockout that followed the Ranger Stanley Cup win.  My then girlfriend (now wife) and I planned a trip to Atlanta to see the Denver Grizzlies (our Sound Tigers at the time), take on the Atlanta Knights at the old Omni arena.  We bought the tickets, and lo and behold, the work stoppage ended.  We missed the opener.

And yes, I miss another opener again.

So – off I headed to the western edge of Europe, to the British Isles.  My meetings in Dublin were productive and I am excited about the upcoming project.  Then – my interests turned to England, and the game on Sunday.  Let me set it up.<!--more-->

The best team in British Ice Hockey History

The best team in British Ice Hockey History

The Nottingham Panthers vs. the Sheffield Steelers is the UK’s answer to Rangers/Islanders.  Although the mileage is a little further (about 50 miles or so separate the two cities), the rivalry, or derby (pronounced darby to us Yanks) is intense and extremely passionate.

For the visitors from the A42 (highway that is near Nottingham), they have been a team that has always produced good hockey clubs, but no league championships.  Their last league overall victory is from 1954; and since the inception of the Steelers in 1991, it has seems that their existence has made the life of a Panthers fan be a difficult experience.  Many instances have occurred that have made the Nottingham fans drown in their beer, as the Sheffield fans celebrated victory.  Especially one in 2003, for which I was in attendance for.

The last game of the regular season, and the scene was this, the winner takes the league. Will it be the end of a long drought for the team from the British Midlands, or would the folks from South Yorkshire be glad once again.

sessaThe National Ice Centre in Nottingham was full and rocking.  And mind you, a strong amount of fans of Sheffield in attendance.  I had been over to see the team in the previous two years, and even got the chance to drink from the league championship trophy in 2001 (long story for a different day). In the lineup for the Steelers was a young forward named Jason Sessa.  A fourth round pick of the Maple Leafs, he came from the hockey hotbed of Dix Hills, Long Island.  After some time between the AHL and ECHL, he came to England, and did a nice job for the Steelers.  When I found out – I knew I had to be in support of my fellow Long Islander.  As a matter of fact, I sponsored his jersey, and got it after the previous game.  But this night, the Steelers were in a big fight.  Would they spoil the Panthers victory celebrations once again?

The answer is YES!

discoA forward named Chris Szysky (alias Disco), scored with just about two minutes remaining in regulation to give the Steelers the lead for good.  The Steelers did it again, and won the league.  It was great watching this in Nottingham, and then the drive back to Sheffield to await the players to return.  A big crowd was there to welcome the champions back.  It was a great deal of fun; one of the best hockey experiences that I have ever had.

Now – bring on 2013.

<!--more-->The Panthers are currently in first place in the league.  A well built squad filled with a mixture of North American and local UK talent.  They have won 25 of their first 32 matches, and lost a tough one the night before to the Belfast Giants.  On the 27th of December, they came into the Motorpoint Arena (home for Sheffield – which is also affectionately known as the HOUSE of STEEL), for the second end of a home and home matchup.  The result was a 9-4 thrashing of the visitors.  So revenge was in mind.  For the Steelers a victory over the Coventry Blaze, but according to folks that I talked to before the game, not the most overwhelming one.  It would be interesting to see what  the game would bring.

For the production of a hockey game, the folks at Sheffield do it right.  There is the usual musical accompaniment and the lights are down.  A newly updated scoreboard also helps the vibe.  And with that, you need a presenter that gets the fans excited and ready to cheer on their heroes; and whether you like him or not (and some do in South Yorkshire and all over the UK),

An interesting bloke, to say the least, David Simms, the voice of the Sheffield Steelers.

An interesting bloke, to say the least, David Simms, the voice of the Sheffield Steelers.

David Simms, alias Simmsey, gets the crowd fired up.  There are things that they do over there, that can not be done in North American leagues (such as getting the fans excited and cheering as play is going), but he is good at his craft. (as you can tell, by the video I took on my phone, announcing the players – and all players are announced every game).

As for the play…  The Elite League, in my mind, would be considered on a level between the ECHL and the AHL.  There are moments that are incredibly skill infused, and would be comparable with many NHL plays or players.  But there can be times, where as a NHL fan, you can see why the North American players are not up in the big leagues at home.  It is not to say that it is a bad game to watch; on the contrary, I have never been disappointed with any of the play over there (maybe the scores, but not the action).

As for the fans over there; I am always more and more impressed with the hockey fans in the UK.  If you put them in a knowledge contest with us North Americans, they can give us a run for the money.  They follow their game, as well as ours.  (Some folks were watching both CBC games the night before – that is midnight and 3AM over there – and then the Steeler game that late afternoon).  I have always enjoyed my conversations about both leagues with them.

The game itself.  The Panthers took an early lead just under 60 seconds into the contest.  To be fair, the Sheffield goaltender, John DeCaro basically pulled a Ricky DiPietro special (no – not an injury, but a walkabout that caused him to be away from his net for an easy tally). When they tallied a second goal in the first period, Sheffield friends of mine were suggesting that I leave the building immediately.

aaBut the Steelers did come back.  With a number of man advantages (a couple of 5 on 3’s), the managed to get one in and make the score 2-1.  In the second period another goal was tallied on the home side, to even the match at 2-2.  Upon talking to some of my friends, we kept mentioning the fact that they really looked flat (Steelers) and did not take real advantage of the power plays.  We thought that it would be the death nail for them.

<!--more-->Indeed it was.  The Panthers would get a goal with about five minutes left in the period to take the lead for good.  They would add another one for good measure two minutes later, to make the final score 4-2 in favor of Nottingham.  For the few hundred Panthers fans that made the trip to Sheffield (and by they way – they sit in one section of the arena, segregated from the home fans), they were happy.  For the over 5,000 Steeler faithful, it was a tough pill to swallow.  With about 20 games left in the regular season (they start just after Labor Day, and finish in the middle of March), they are 9 point s behind Nottingham, and would have to overtake Belfast to get in sight of the top.  The Coventry Blaze and Cardiff Devils are also on their heels too.  For the Steelers it may not be a top season, but there is still no stop in their support and love of their team.  I have been saying for over a decade, that these fans can show Islander fans a few things about support and love of their team.

After the game, a small meal at Friday’s and then to sleep.  I had to wake up at 3:45 AM to have my friend drive me to Manchester to catch my flight to Dublin to get my long flight home.  But this weekend, out of any weekend that I decide to fly over, the UK got a nice treat.

SNOW!

Unlike us experienced North Americans, the UK folks have difficulties driving, cleaning, well basically existing with snow.  In some parts of the country, they received up to about 20 cm (8 inches for you metric challenged) of snow.  That just about shuts the country down.  For me – the drive across the Pennines (look it up on Wikipedia) was not too bad, but when I got to Manchester, it got worse… Ultimately, the airline I was on (Ryan Air) makes nightmare airlines like Spirit and others look like geniuses.  When the doors of the plane closed (about 100 minutes after I was supposed to leave), it was announced that the airport was closing due to the bad weather and difficult conditions on the runway.  Well, my connection flight in Dublin was leaving, and unless I could pull a Star Trek Transport routine, I was not going to be on it.  So hence, my flight finally took off and arrived over an hour after my plane left for New York.  I spent the night in Ireland, and got on my plane the next morning (I am writing the article on the plane); an unfortunate blemish of a great week that I spent in the British Isles.

As far as the Islanders are concerned, (yes, I do remember that I write these articles for THAT team) I actually watched the game on Sat/Sun early AM on a European site that gets the TV feed from the States.  The Devils really swallowed us whole with the pinching play.  As for Monday, I was unable to get the feed for TV, but listened to the game on the Islander web site. Thanks Kinger for mentioning me on the broadcast stuck in Dublin.  A much better performance and getting contributions from all aspects of the team; they earned their first win of the season, despite the five minute brain fart in the third period.

So now – the Islander head on a five game road spell.  Their next match at home is not until Super Bowl weekend.  I have to wait another 10+ days until I get to see the team live and in person.  From April to early February is a tough thought for me. But thank goodness I have had the Sound Tigers and even my other favorite team, the Sheffield Steelers to keep my fix.  Thanks UK for a nice weekend, despite the loss and the white stuff on the ground.  Thanks to the Taylors for putting me up.  They are top-notch friends.  Great to see all my other friends over on the other side of the big pond; and if you decide to come over to our side and see the NHL and you are heading to New York, please let me know.

Well – as I am about two hours from arrival at JFK, I put the computer on Eastern Time and get back to thinking about the meetings I am going to have on my job at the end of the week.  I am thinking about my wife, and how much I missed her.  We have been together for 20 years, and you think that I could deal with a few days without her.  I cannot!  So it will great to be back in my own home with my beautiful wife, and my four little fuzzy cats.  Yes, back to covering the Islanders on this site.  Thanks John, Toby, Paul and Ben for keeping the ship afloat while I was gone.  All that is in my head is that Michael Bublè song called “Home”.  I cannot wait to get there. 

C’mon You Islanders!