Booty for Steelers

Sheffield Nottingham Panthers 2 Sheffield Steelers 5: Hand the inspiration as the glamour side of British ice hockey lift the Cup for the first time
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The Independent Online
IN FRONT of the largest and almost certainly the most excitable crowd ever to witness an ice hockey match in Britain, the Sheffield Steelers last night confirmed their status as the team of the moment and probably of the future. The Johnny-come-latelies of the sport, in only their fifth season, won the Benson and Hedges Cup for the first time. It joins the Premier League titles and the play-offs cup in a showpiece cabinet which, it seems, will need expanding.

Steelers were on their home ice to beat their arch-rivals, the holders of the Benson and Hedges Cup, Nottingham Panthers. The Panthers have a much longer history than the Yorkshire club, but what they did not have when it mattered last night was a sense of occasion.

Steelers effectively ended the match with an astonishing burst of three goals in 19 seconds towards the end of the second period. Until then they had struggled to assert their authority, let alone the glamour which has provoked the envy of many rivals. But in that bleak, heady spell in which most of their 8,000 supporters among the 10,136 present seemed to be auditioning as cheerleaders, all the money they have spent in assemblimg their team must have appeared worthwhile.

Tony Hand, the highest scorer in the league and by common consent the most gifted player ever to emerge from Britain, scored his first and their second goal with some mazy dribbling from behind the Panthers' goal. Barely had the face-off taken place than Andre Malo, one of the expensive Canadians whose signing attracted flak, squeezed in the puck at the near post for Sheffield. But Hand's second goal in 30 seconds delivered all the glamour and polish expected of the Steelers. Receiving in his own half he dribbled down the ice and in a trice had the puck through the narrowest of gaps.

There was some speculation that he had meant to pass. Whatever, his colleagues swamped him and the Nottingham net-minder, Scott O'Connor, was left to reflect that an 89 per cent save record was by now meaningless.

How different it might have been for the Panthers. They were marvellously disciplined at the start, they developed attacks with a bewildering array of movement and were denied only by the spectacular Wayne Cowley in the Steelers' goal. His nimble solidity allowed his side to sneak into the lead in the 10th minute of the first period when Ken Priestlay, a man with two Stanley Cup winners' medals gave an assist for Nicky Chinn to score.

Throwing caution to the wind in the third period, and with nothing to lose but their hold on the Cup, Panthers deservedly pulled one back through Darren Durdle and then their leading scorer, Mike Blaisdell, reduced the arrears further. The last word, however, went to Hand, who completed his hat-trick with an empty net goal. By now the crowd had long since passed boiling point, as they seem destined to be again in seasons to come.

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