The 2023/24 season has been unprecedented for all the wrong reasons. The death of Adam Johnson rocked the hockey world and the city of Nottingham. This team of young ice hockey players has endured more than any other group in the world and the fact we, in Nottingham, still have a team to watch, support and cheer on every week is a miracle. Although, the recent run of results hasn’t fallen in our favour, the guts and strength this Panthers side has shown has been extraordinary. As the team push forward towards playoff contention let’s look back on the season so far.
The mood around the Nottingham Panthers in the summer 2023 was one of excitement and hope. New coaches, Jonathan Parades and Kevin Moore joined Rick Strachan who was starting his twelfth year behind the Panther’s bench. The roster they constructed had been what Parades had manifested from day 1, it was built on speed, offence and work ethic. This was evident from the early season success, after 7 games the Nottingham Panthers were tied with rivals Sheffield Steelers with 12 points apiece. After the tragic passing of Adam Johnson on the 28th of October the Panthers took a much needed month break from playing games. During this time, I think I speak for every hockey fan in the world when I commend the Panthers’ organisation for how well they handled the unprecedented situation. Every step of the process was taken with the upmost respect for everyone involved and as a fan I felt incredibly proud to support such a first-class organisation. On November 18th the Nottingham Panthers played against the Manchester Storm in the Adam Johnson memorial game. In which, the number 47 jersey was retired in honour of Adam and a touching tribute was put on display for all.
The next Saturday the Nottingham Panthers made their return to competitive action when they took on last year’s treble-winning Belfast winning. Although, the Panthers were eventually beaten 4-2 (with two empty net goals) to hear the roar from the fans when Jake Ryczek walked in from the point to score only 1:05 into the game. You could see the raw emotion from all the players and fans which is a moment as a fan will live with me forever. The first win since returning to competitive action came the next weekend against the Cardiff Devils with a 4-2 win in Wales where Hugo Roy and Alexander Lunsjo stole the show with 3 assists and 2 goals 1 assist respectively. A shootout loss the next day to Dundee Stars would foreshadow the next few games for the Panthers, A series of narrowly bitter losses with games that could really go either way unfortunately end up the way of the opposition. A 4-3 loss to the Belfast Giants and a 3-1 loss to the Coventry Blaze would be followed up by a dominant 3-0 win against the Guildford Flames. Goals from Tyler Welsh, Jordan Kelsall and Joe Hazeldine on his home return would cement an extremely professional win for the Panthers. I remember the elation, excitement and hope in the arena and on the ice after that performance, it really felt like the Nottingham Panthers were back for good.
Unfortunately, they would fall to the same opposition the next night 6-2 after another brave and battling performance. Unfortunately, this would start an 8-game losing skid in which Panthers picked up 3 points from overtime losses. Including their first trip back to the Utilita Arena in Sheffield since the accident. Once again, the players in black and gold left it all on the ice and were warmly welcomed by the home fans in a touching moment of respect within the EIHL. At the end of the game the players did a lap of the Sheffield ice to a standing ovation from every fan. A moment that still gives me goosebumps to this day. The next win for the Nottingham Panthers would come on the 7th of January away in Kirkcaldy against the Fife Flyers, who are also struggling for form. Again, the Nottingham side shown huge resilience to come back from a two-goal deficit twice to leave Scotland with a 4-3 victory as Mathieu Lemay would score two powerplay goals with Otto Nieminen and Hugo Roy getting the other two goals. Unfortunately, the Panthers couldn’t build from this huge win and would lose the next 5 games including three games to the Belfast Giants and most recently a loss to the Glasgow Clan on the 24th of January where the Panthers sprung to a 3-0 lead but would regrettably lose 6-3.
One positive you can take from this season is how good the Panthers’ recruitment has been. The initial roster Parades and the rest of the coaching staff constructed was full of talent, speed and work ethic and during the early parts of the season, were a joy to watch. Even the midseason recruitment has been superb. Most notably, Simon Després who came in with an impressive resumé with 193 NHL games under his belt and a wealth of experience in the top leagues in Europe. His calmness on the puck resonates with the whole team and his passing is some of the best I’ve seen. Joining Després as a mid-season acquisition was hometown boy Joseph Hazeldine who last played for the Panthers in the 2019/20. Hazeldine left to join the Manchester Storm for 3 years and moved this season the play in the topflight Hungarian division for Fehérvár Hockey Academy 19. Since his return Hazeldine has been nothing but solid for Panthers and has been a much-needed cover for the number of injuries the Panthers have had this season. Infact, Simon Després, Didrik Henbrandt, Westin Michaud, Jake Ryczeck, Oliver Betteridge, Tyler Welsh, Myles McGurty, Austin Farley and Josh Tetlow have all missed time through injury and most notably is Josh Tetlow whose arm was broken after a hit in Fife only 6 games into the season.
Since the season restart the Nottingham Panthers have a record of 2 wins 14 losses and 4 overtime/ shootout losses. Despite, the seemingly poor record I have never been prouder of a Nottingham Panthers side. Every game they show up, leave 100% on the ice and never back down. They play with speed, skill and are genuinely a fun side to watch play hockey. The Nottingham Panthers currently sit 6 points out of the playoff positions with 3 games in hand on the 8th place team. Regardless of how the season end, everyone should be immensely proud of this team and everyone who is a part of it and despite the lack of wins the biggest result is still having a team to cheer on in Nottingham.
*Article provided by Joe Maciag (Ice Hockey Correspondent).
*Main image @PanthersImages Anthony Luciani in action.