Blaisdell fires Panthers' ambition

A Canadian coach is inspiring Nottingham's home-grown talent to cup glory. Andrew Baker enjoyed a final rehearsal
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NOTTINGHAM'S fans were in good voice on Tuesday night. They taunted the referee, sang their team's praises to the skies and jeered "What a waste of petrol" at the opposition. They had plenty to be joyful about: five goals at home against top opposition. No, not Forest at the City Ground: they only scored one. The fans having all the fun - 3,000 of them - were Panthers devotees crammed into Nottingham Ice Stadium for the vital game with Sheffield Steelers.

It was an important Premier League match: the 5-2 victory moved the Panthers up to second place and demoted the Steelers to fourth. And it was an important warm-up for Saturday's Benson and Hedges Cup final, in which the two teams meet again. But most of all it was a snap-shot of the present state of British ice hockey: two top teams riding waves of popularity, performing in a venue that is charming and dated and small.

Over the past couple of seasons the Panthers and the Steelers have developed a rivalry as intense as any that ice hockey fans remember. The Sheffield side are a new team, and owe their fanatical support to the novelty of the sport in their city. Nottingham are a revitalised side, drawing strength from their roots in the local community.

Sheffield are the brash big boys, who have spent a lot of money on imported players to entertain crowds of 9,000-plus in the biggest rink in Britain, the Sheffield Arena, or the "House of Steel". Nottingham's team is largely home-grown, and although not all the fans can get into the Ice Stadium, those who do make up in volume for what they lack in numbers.

The key man at Nottingham is Mike Blaisdell, the player-coach, a genial Canadian who leads by example. On Tuesday he scored twice, and the second, a mesmerising, weaving slalom around three Steelers culminating in a bullet shot, was worthy of his days in the NHL. He was voted Man of the Match, and mobbed by his team-mates. "Mike's a very good player," the Sheffield coach, Alex Dampier, generously admitted. "He plays with a lot of heart and emotion, he's a good team leader - and if you give him the puck and half a chance, he'll score."

Blaisdell was less keen to talk about his own performance ("I still get the odd goal"), but warmed to the subject of his home-grown squad. "It's the only way we can compete," he said. "A lot of young local talent mixed with good leaders, good veterans. Over the last few years here we have invested a lot in developing younger players, more British talent, and they have rewarded us for that."

There are all sorts of benefits in growing a team from local roots. Players from the neighbourhood bring supporters with them, they ensure local media interest, and they are cheap, and not just in wage terms: unlike imports, they don't need to be bought houses and cars. "At least all our players actually live in the city," Blaisdell said.

But the real joy lies in anticipating the talents on their way through the system. "We're going to have to wait a couple of years for the next wave to come through," Blaisdell remarked, "but I know there are some really good players in the system, like Warren Tait, whose brother Ashley played tonight. Warren is only 14, yet when he played a match for my team he got an assist on his first shift, which isn't a bad start."

Sheffield's Alex Dampier is a Nottingham veteran, and watched many of the young stars on the way up. "I was at Nottingham for seven years," he recalled, "and I saw a lot of those local kids coming through. Those boys are talented. They are a gritty team, they work hard."

Dampier doesn't have a similar seam of youth to draw on. But he has used a resource of a different kind, the wallet of a Sheffield millionaire called George Dodds, to build a powerful team around imported talent such as their Canadian captain, "Rocket" Ron Shudra, a former NHL team-mate of the great Wayne Gretzky when he was at Edmonton Oilers. The process has inevitably drawn comparisons with the activities of Jack Walker and Sir John Hall, and earned the Steelers the jealousy-inspired dislike of fans of smaller teams.

Such tensions don't affect the players. "I think a lot of that has been exploited for propaganda purposes," the Nottingham defender Darren Durdle said. "I think we respect the Sheffield players and enjoy coming up against them on the ice."

Durdle tells a similar tale of good fellowship in the Nottingham dressing- room, where the few imported players get on well with the British youngsters who are in the majority. "The coach makes sure that we all have a good time," Durdle said. "The British guys are really easy to get along with."

But it is the coach Blaisdell's form as a player that has been the most important factor in Nottingham's rise. Plagued for years by a chronic back injury, he twice retired as a player. "It got so bad that some days I couldn't even drive the car," he recalled. "But over the summer I got some specialist treatment, a fitness routine of abdominal stretches and stuff that has really worked well, and I'm feeling just fine." And playing just fine too. Blaisdell knows that, sweet though it was, last week's victory will have little bearing on the outcome of the Cup final. "We got one over them," he said. "I felt that Sheffield were a bit lethargic, a bit fatigued, like maybe they had a virus going round. But I don't expect them to be like that for the Cup final."

Dampier admitted to some "internal" problems last week, but says the defeat was "a good wake-up call" for his team. Both coaches agree that the final is too close to call, all down to the bounce of the puck.

But Blaisdell is already looking forward. "There are plans for a new arena," he said, "a centre of skating excellence which will draw in more spectators. When this happens the Panthers could be not just a contender, but the best team in the country."