The Final Reckoning

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It wouldn’t be a Nottingham Panthers trophy victory without Paul Balm writing a perfect summary of a great day

It’s been a strange old weekend one way and another. We had already decided months ago to go on a boys’ weekend but Panthers getting to the Challenge Cup final put a bit of a spanner in the works. To be honest I’d forgotten when the final was. Fortunately Leeds was our final destination of choice and some swift use of thetrainline.com told us what we wanted to know. We were going to the final. I shudder to think what would have happened if we’d stuck to our original destination, Cardiff.

Being in Leeds meant we had to travel south for the final, something I don’t think I’ve done since the days of Wembley or Leyton Erratt scoring the winner at the NEC. After a hearty breakfast and a quick photo outside the wrong arena it was time to head for Sheffield. The journey south consisted mostly of poor game chat and me checking where the rest of my family were. I did feel sorry for my wife (not for the first time) while I was doing this. She was going to spend Mothers Day alone without her kids or husband ( I’d forgotten when Mothers Day was as well).

When we got to Sheffield there was only one place to go. The pub. As we sat in the Sheffield Tap I was amazed at how calm I felt. It might have been the alcohol from the previous two days coursing through my system keeping me subdued but I didn’t feel all that nervous. I wasn’t confident but I want nervous either.

I wasn’t alone. Although we hadn’t seen Friday’s game we’d obviously heard what had happened and there was a general consensus that we really didn’t know if beating Cardiff 6-1 was a blessing or a curse.

Ice hockey throws up some strange situations if you watch it long enough and when we headed off for the tram we found ourselves in one of them. Here we were in Sheffield and at least 90% of the people waiting for the tram were Panthers fans.

After getting off the tram someone asked me if I was confident. It’s nice to have as catchphrase but why do people call me Mr Balm? That’s my Dad. Within minutes we’d picked up our tickets and we were in the arena.

One of the things that struck me as we wandered the concourse talking to friends and family was that there weren’t many neutrals there. Having thought about it though it’s not really a day for neutrals it’s about the two teams and their fans. That’s one of the things I like about a one off final compared to the playoffs. Don’t get me wrong I love the playoffs but whoever is playing there are always going to be large numbers of people who aren’t as invested in what’s happening on the ice.

What a game the final was though. I just wish we didn’t have to get put through the wringer every time. Close games are always tense but finals are something different. You feel everything, you applaud everything. Every shot just wide, the stick that doesn’t quite make the tip & the clenching of the stomach every time they cross your blue line are what finals are all about.

You have to take you hat off to the Cardiff fans, they were out numbered but they weren’t out sung. I thought both sets of fans were great and I loved the way the whole place stood up for the final minute. Overtime was a bit different. The tension seemed to almost subdue the singing as knowledge that one strike, one bad bounce, one dodgy giveaway could bring an end to the whole proceedings.

I know we were all over them in overtime but the longer it went on the more convinced I was that we’d lose. After a couple of magnificent saves by Bowns & we hit the posts twice in a single shift, you start to think that it’s not your night, that despite all the pressure they’ll somehow get a breakaway or a lucky bounce in front of the net and just nick it.
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And then Evan Mosey scores and everything changes. One side of the arena erupts, the other side crumbles. Did we go mad? Yes. Those few minutes of sheer unalloyed joy and pandemonium are indescribable mainly because you have no idea what you’re doing. You jump about, you grab people (whether you know them or not) and just let the moment sweep you up.

I do want to say at this point how impressed I was with the fact that almost to a man our fans applauded Cardiff off the ice. I’ve applauded Panthers less after they lost far too many times to remember. Moments like that make you proud to be a hockey fan

And then the trophy is held aloft and you cheer and they stick on We are the Champions and you sing along. Each player holds it aloft and you cheer. David Clarke climbs the plexi and you cheer it never gets old.

Then you get the bit I hate, having to go back out into the world again back to reality albeit it one tinged at that point with elation. You get out there and you don’t know what to do with yourself. The adrenaline is still flowing

And so, eventually to the pub for more beer, discussion and free Wi-Fi to watch the GWG again and again (and again) before a late train back to Leeds & a last pint served by, you couldn’t make it up, a Steelers fan. We weren’t too hard on him, honest.

And so the morning after. I’m writing the first draft lying in a Premier Inn bed listening to Jono snore in the other bed (it’s a twin room, we’re not Bert & Ernie never mind Morecambe and Wise). If leaving the arena was back into a kind of reality then this is the real thing. Back to work, back to the league, but days like Sunday hopefully put that bit of a spring in your step for a while.

All in all it was a great day. It wasn’t without it’s flaws. I could go on at length at the problems with the presentation, the lack of medals (shocking, just shocking) an ribbons on the trophy or someone from the league to present that trophy, the is it/isn’t it shambles over continuous overtime, or the live 50/50 draw on the screen during play but that would just be churlish after a day like that. At the end of the day it’s the game we go for not all the other trappings. The players should have had medals though.

As I sit on the train back to Nottingham (coincidentally it’s in Sheffield station as I write this) finishing off the final draft I’m left with one question: How do you get a life size cardboard cutout of Robert Lachowicz past arena security?

Photographs kindly supplied by Panthers Images

You can follow Paul on Twitter @paulba

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