NOTTINGHAM, Great Britain – In Nottingham, there’s a feeling that history is in the making. Eight months after winning the IIHF Continental Cup and a spot in the Champions Hockey League, the Panthers had strong showings in the top European club competition as well and are on top of Group F. The British club’s success has been one of the talking points of the season so far.
Victory over HC Mountfield in Hradec Kralove saw an Elite League team claim a road win in the Champions Hockey League for the first time. That was followed by victory at home in the return game and a spectacular shock against SC Bern, the Swiss champion and fourth seed in the competition. Suddenly, with a home-and-away match-up against TPS Turku to come in early October, qualification for the knock-out phase is well within reach.
It's an unprecedented position for a British club in this competition. In previous seasons, the Elite League’s CHL representatives have struggled to make an impact. But the Panthers are changing the script.
Corey Neilson, a one-time Oilers prospect who has been in Nottingham since 2006 as a defenceman, player coach and – since 2013 – head coach, looked to change tack in the summer, masterminding a new recruitment process that is paying dividends.
“We recruited really hard, and we changed the way we did things a little bit,” he said. “We didn’t go after the big resume guys so much and got in some good young kids. It’s a hungry group, but it’s a group who can skate. We’ve got a competitive team, and we can give people problems.”
Despite that, and his pre-season pledge to spring a few surprises, Neilson added: “We probably didn’t expect to do this well.”
Josh Shalla, 25, newly arrived from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel, is one of those new recruits. It’s been a steep and exciting learning curve. The forward, who leads Panthers’ scoring in Europe with four goals and an assist, didn’t even know he’d be involved with the Champions Hockey League until he got to Nottingham last month.
But he’s fitted in fast, and is enjoying life in England. “The level here is pretty equal with back home,” he said. “Maybe it’s even a little higher, we’ve got some good players who have been at higher levels around the world.
“Nottingham’s a great city and I had no idea about the fans here! I’ve not been used to that kind of noise, the singing and chanting all through the game. It’s pretty cool, and it brings a lot of energy on to the ice for us.”
Shalla is very much part of the ‘young and hungry’ blueprint that coach Neilson is seeking to follow. A one-time Predators’ prospect, he saw action with the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL but admits that he was getting caught in a rut. Coming to Nottingham offered a chance to expand his career – and he’s confident that his new club can finish the job in Group F, beat TPS Turku and become the first British team to reach the knock-out phase.
“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” he said. “It seems like this team is heavily under-rated on the European circuit. If teams keep taking us lightly, we will keep on surprising people.”
It’s not just about eager young players, though. Goalie Mike Garnett, who ended last season at SC Bern, has a wealth of experience. Twice a Gagarin Cup finalist in the KHL, he was called up for Canada’s World Championship roster in 2013. As an experienced figure, he’s trying to encourage the right mindset in the locker room.
“Right now, I’m trying to get across the attitude that it’s OK for us to win, that it’s a good thing for us!” he smiled. “Especially in the Czech Republic, when we were up at Mountfield with 10 minutes to play, it was like some of our guys almost didn’t know if it was OK to go on and win it. That’s the attitude I’m trying to bring, that success is great and that if you upset someone, that’s great too.”
As the buzz builds in Nottingham, Garnett is keeping his feet on the ground – but believes there is more to come.
“I’m not looking at it as really accomplishing anything yet,” he said. “Maybe I’ve a little bit different view than some of the guys, winning a couple of games is great but our goal is to move to the next round. I think we can do it. If we can beat Bern, we can beat Turku.
“I’ve been hearing from some of my friends in the game, and they’ve been surprised by the quality we have here. I had a couple of beers with some of the guys from Bern after the game on Saturday and they were really complimentary about how we played. It wasn’t like they felt we stole the game or anything, they had a lot of respect for us and that’s something we’ve earned.”
While the Panthers’ success is a big boost for Britain’s Elite League, there’s a temptation to assume the team’s achievements rest largely on the 14 imports allowed to skate in games in that competition. But Neilson, who is also on the coaching staff with team GB, insists that everyone plays an important role.
“GB has to take a back seat during the Panthers’ season, but I’m really proud of my Brits,” he said. “They’ve all shown that they can compete and earn their place alongside our imports. Now they’re starting to play some roles as well, some on the power play, some killing penalties. They all contribute something and they are progressing.”
With a month to wait for the next European games, the focus switches to the start of the Elite League season and a home game against Coventry Blaze on Saturday.
“The League season is going to be different. Up to now we’ve been huge underdogs, now we’re the team that everyone wants to prove a point against,” Garnett added “But we’ve earned that. We want to be a team that everybody respects.”
“The group worked very hard in training this week and I anticipate they’ll be playing just as hard this weekend,” added Neilson. “These are players who really want to push themselves, to get big jobs in the future, maybe playing in the DEL or another big European league.”