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Ice Hockey: Blaisdell puts the bite into Panthers

Nottingham's Canadian coach has managed to put their city on the ice hockey map.
THE NUMBER of men from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, who have made a mark on Nottingham's cultural heritage over the years is hard to quantify precisely, but in Mike Blaisdell, the 38-year-old coach of the Nottingham Panthers, the city knows it has at least one who is determined to blaze a trail.

Blaisdell, a veteran of nine seasons in the National Hockey League with Detroit, Pittsburgh, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers, is acknowledged as one of the most astute and inspirational coaches operating in the British Super League and tomorrow night at the Sheffield Arena he will be attempting, against the odds, to lead the Panthers to their third Benson and Hedges Cup triumph in five seasons.

Blaisdell took over as player-coach at Nottingham in 1992, after winning the championship as a player with Durham. After so much success, especially in this competition, he might be forgiven for taking it lightly this time around, but at last week's pre-final dinner in London, Blaisdell was having none of that. "It's important for any sporting club to have real success," he said. "Last year was devastating for us because we finished fourth in the league and didn't win a trophy. I'm nervous thinking about the final already.

"Sheffield is only 45 minutes away so our fans will be coming in droves, the tickets just went and that's all people have been talking about. We've got two games in the Super League this weekend [they beat Newcastle and lost to Cardiff] but no one even mentions them. I don't even think most of our fans know where we're playing in the League - they're just thinking, "Ayr, the Cup, December 5th."

Blaisdell's own passion for ice hockey is as difficult to convey in printed words as the speed and excitement of the game itself. "There's so much to ice hockey," he said, "but you've got to go to a game to appreciate it. Get as close to the ice surface as possible and you'll get a new respect for it. You've got big, strong guys, turning on a dime, skating like figure- skaters and playing a very physical sport.

"There's skill involved, grace and there's vision - that's the thing. Everything happens so fast but it's that player who, out of the corner of his eye, spots a man open and puts it right on his stick. Then there are the big hits and the fights. The fights aren't bad for hockey because no one ever really gets hurt. If you're at a hockey game you can see why it gets to boiling point and they have to let off some steam - there's an intensity that's hard to duplicate."

Although the game in this country is still struggling to secure a place in the consciousness of the average sports fan, with the advent of the Super League, increased television coverage and sponsorship, Blaisdell believes it is on the right track. However, when it comes to the thorny issue of imported players ice hockey seems no clearer about its direction than football, rugby union or cricket. While Nottingham should, injury permitting, have one home-grown player in tomorrow's line-up in Simon Hunt, Ayr will have none.

"The sport has progressed since I've been here in that there's a higher level of talent on the ice," Blaisdell said, "but I feel it's hard for the British kids to get their foot in the door. There are some very good British players but I don't see too many up-and-comers getting the opportunity to show what they can do. There's a thought process that says these guys have to be exceptional to get a chance, whereas there are imports that I don't feel do a better job than the British kids."

The other side of the coin is that British players like Hunt and Jonathan Weaver who have been given a chance are playing to a better standard.

"It used to be that you'd get the puck and think 'OK, there's five British guys on the ice, I'm just going to score a goal'. That would never happen now. The Super League has isolated a select number of British players and they're forcing them to play at a higher level than they ever thought possible, which brings great benefits to our national team and it's really showing."

Blaisdell's own playing days are numbered now, despite returning to the ice to help with the injury crisis that Nottingham have endured since their epic semi-final victory over Manchester. With only 13 fit players out of 20, and having lost the away leg 3-2, they went a further goal behind during the first period before winning 3-1.

The task tomorrow is an even harder one. The Ayr Scottish Eagles, hoping to become the first side to retain the Benson and Hedges Cup, won all four domestic trophies last season and on Tuesday in Mann-heim came within a minute of becoming the first British side to qualify for the second round of the European Cup.

Blaisdell and his players, though, have their sights set: "They hand out these really stupid looking baseball caps to the winning team and I was talking to some of the guys and one of them said: 'I just want to wear that yellow, felt hat again. It's something that you'd never, ever wear again but you put it on, look stupid in front of 7,000 people, and it's great."