Losing My Religion

The end has come for this season and Paul Balm writes about it beautifully.

Well, it looks like we’ve reached that other season. The season that as ice hockey fans we’re supposed not to like. The one that doesn’t contain ice hockey. We got here sooner than we hoped, later than some and quicker than others. We don’t want to be here now but can we really say that we expected anything else? I know I can’t.

The events of Sunday night, although they’ll definitely flavour the mood of this, have been covered by others so I’ll not go over that. It looks like you can’t say anything about it anyway without someone or other over-reacting. There’s been right and wrong from both sides of the Woodall Services. That’s what happens at times like that, the glasses are always going to be tinted and it’s only the hue that changes. It can, and usually does go too far but that’s not the fault of sport, that’s the fault of the people. Sport creates passion and that’s as it should be. Sport at its best or worst can stir feelings and emotions within us all that we’d sometimes rather not see, words can get said in the heat of the moment and maybe they’re right or maybe they’re wrong but they’re said. The thing is in this day and age it’s not just a case of letting off a bit of steam in the pub after a bad defeat (and lord knows if it was there’d have been clouds forming just below the ceiling in Bunkers for most of this season). It’s not that simple now. Modern technology provides no better tools for those who only want to stoke the fire than the search tool or the screengrab. Words that previously had drifted off into the ether unreported are there for all to see. I remember watching a game in Coventry a couple of seasons ago where it looked like a Blaze player had put a high check on Jonathan Boxill who got up and tried to fight him straight away. We said at the time the check was dirty but talking to Boxill afterwards he said he’d watched it back and it was clean, it was just that in the heat of the moment we all reacted in a similar way. I suspect that anyone from any team who claims the have never done the same is lying, or should become a high court judge. Sometimes you have to use a bit of caution, the problem is knowing when those times are.

I was walking home by the side of the canal last night and as I tried to avoid the joggers and the cyclists I was mulling over the events of the last few days and weeks and if I’m honest the emotions were mixed. Mainly I was thinking about the fact that Panthers’ season was over and how I felt about that. I’ve written a lot over the last few weeks and, if I’m honest, years (you only have to look back at articles like this to see how life is repeating itself) about how this season has let me feeling. That flat, disillusioned greyness is still there and I doubt it will ever go away when it comes to this season. We’ll look back at 16-17 and remember the Continental Cup and little else, there’ll be flashes of brilliance – McGrattan’s goal on Saturday is likely to be one of the few stand out moments that will remain with us for longer than most of this team hopefully will. There’s a large part of me that’s glad it’s all over and that doesn’t really surprise me at all. We’ve been poor this year, really poor at times and we can’t sugar that particular pill and neither should we.

There’ll be some of you that disagree with that statement. You only had to look at the people tweeting Matt Carter wishing him a deserved rest and hoping to see him here next year to see that. I don’t agree with those people but that’s their right. If the people who want to jump all over the enthusiastic for their enthusiasm are bad, those who want to put people down because they disagree with their point of view are worse.

Getting back to the hockey though there’s one thing that is indisputable and that is that the season is over and, regardless of how bad it’s been, you can’t help but feel at least a little dejected about that. No matter how bad a season has been, no matter how much you want the whole sorry three ring circus to finish you’re never really prepared for when it does. OK, there’s the playoffs this weekend and they’ll see the same fans that were arguing a few paragraphs above provide the usual carnival of conviviality as they mingle together and show everything that is good about this sport, but that doesn’t feel like much of a consolation right now. I keep saying to myself that it’ll be a stress free weekend and it’ll be great to catch up with friends and every word of that is true but there’s a shadow hanging over it as well. I like a little stress in a playoff weekend, I like there to be at least one game that I want to make sure I’m out the pub and back in my seat in time for it to start. I want a throat that is useless on Monday morning from chanting my team or player’s name rather than shouting along to Oasis songs in the Legend at 11 on a Sunday night. I like my Romeo & Juliet moment (albeit a little less intimate than the one shared by those two star crossed lovers) as hundreds of people chant “sign him up” to players on a balcony, the same players they were moaning (possibly on social media) about and wanted cutting in December. You don’t always get moments like that and we have been lucky of late (although one play off weekend appearance in four seasons might say different) but, regardless of what they’ve thought of this season I doubt there’s a single Panthers fan who wouldn’t have wanted their team to be there next weekend. For fans of three of those teams the stress will be for nothing but I’d swap with them in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?

As you watch your team on the ice in that final game you know that it will be the last time you’ll see that particular group of players in the same place. That might be a good thing, it might be bad but it’s the truth and if it’s the latter you want to hang on to it for as long as you can. I hate leaving the stands after we’ve won a final. It feels so, for want of a better word, final. As soon as you walk down those stairs and through those doors part of it is over, you can’t rush back in and try and soak up some more of the atmosphere, the moment has gone. Our team has probably already started to drift apart with players going home and if it hasn’t it soon will. I was very tempted to sell my ticket today if I’m honest. I had to weigh up whether the money I’d already spent combined with what I will undoubtedly spend wouldn’t be bettter spent on something else and I don’t feel like I’ve got a huge appetite for the playoffs at the moment, but as I dodged the goose droppings and the slightly aggressive Canada geese (they scare me more than most of our imports this season to be honest) I thought of those teams that break up and it made me realise that it’s a similar situation with me and my “hockey friends” (oh, that sounds lame). We’ll drift apart for the summer and I probably won’t see most of them again (I’m a man remember, we’re rubbish at such things) until we come back together drawn by the irresistible force that we call ice hockey.

At the start of the season I wrote Take Me To Church. If that article was about what the start of the season feels like, how it draws you back in to making those long journeys to sit and watch your team lose in places you wouldn’t normally go to then this one is, I guess obviously, about the end of the season. Reading it now “Take Me To Church” seems like the moment when you reach the top of the first hill on a rollercoaster and you wait, seemingly weightless, for gravity to drag you into the exhilarating peaks and troughs of a season. If that’s the case then this is the final few bumps designed to slow the car down and return you to normality as you reach the final station.

That’s it I’m done and not just for this article. The end of season review is written, the player evaluations are done. Neither are especially complimentary but I doubt any of us were expecting them to be. All that’s left is to thank you all for taking the time to read the confused ramblings of my mind over the past few months. I’m off now to have a walk through this funfair we call ice hockey. I’ve had enough of rollercoasters for a while, I think the tea cups are more my thing at the moment.

You can follow Paul on Twitter @NotMrBalm

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