TRCH

Left Panther: 2018/2019 Season Preview

5 September 18 words: Ally Porter
illustrations: Adam Poole

The puck has dropped on the 2018/19 ice hockey season, and for the Nottingham Panthers it’s the start of a new era; anticipation levels are high.

The end of the 18/19 season brought with it the departure of two long standing Panthers in Head Coach Corey Neilson, and free scoring forward David Clarke. For many it will seem odd not seeing Neilson behind the bench, or Clarke looking to rifle the puck into the top corner.

Neilson will embark on a new challenge this season in Germany, having spent the last twelve years in Nottingham, initially as a player before transitioning to Coach. His time at the club saw a plethora of achievements, including multiple cup wins, the 2012/13 league title and European success as Panthers become the first British winners of the Continental Cup, in addition to some superb performances in the Champions Hockey League, with Panthers topping their group last season, despite being the lowest ranked team in the competition.

Clarke has decided to hang up his skates, moving away from hockey and concentrating on other business opportunities. His final on ice act as a Panther was to score in last season’s 3rd/4th place game at the playoff weekend, in front of an appreciative crowd. He will be honoured before the home league opener on Saturday 8th September as his number 5 jersey is retired, an plaudit also bestowed on Neilson a few years ago.

Following the announcement that things were changing there was a lot of speculation as to who would be the next Head Coach after ten years of the Nielson era. A number of former Elite League coaches were rumoured, but in the end it’s a coach new to the league and to the UK who will lead the Panthers into the 2018/19 season, Canadian Rich Chernomaz.

A former right winger, Chernomaz spent time playing in the American Hockey League (AHL) and the top German League (DEL), as well as playing 51 games in the NHL, where he picked up 16 points. After finishing his playing career as a player-assistant coach, he moved into his first Head Coach role for the 1999/2000 season, taking the reins at Schwenninger Wild Wings in the DEL.

His coaching career includes a six year stint as Head Coach of Frankfurt Lions (DEL) and a time as the Hungarian National Coach. The last few years have seen Chernomaz in the German second tier with Löwen Frankfurt, as both Head Coach and Team Manager. Chernomaz brings a wealth of experience to his new role as Head Coach, and he will be assisted in his first year in Nottingham by returning assistant Rick Strachan and former backup goalie Dan Green. He has built a new look team ready to challenge for silverware and it appears to have a mix of size, speed and skill and lines up as follows;

Netminders

Panthers goaltending duo for the season are returning pair Michael Garnett and Sam Gospel. Garnett showed his undoubted talent in last season’s Champions Hockey League, where his stellar performances against some of the top teams in Europe were a driving force behind the teams results.

Whilst only playing in a handful of Panthers matches last season, Gospel showed why he is so highly rated, and has a bright future ahead of him. If the duo can perform to their potential throughout the season, the team in front of them will have a chance to win every night.

Defense

This seasons Panthers defence is a big, strong looking unit, yet it has the mobility, speed and skill that suggests it will be effective at both ends of the ice. Returning for another season are youngsters Josh Tetlow and Joe Hazeldine, Canadian Tim Billingsley and last years Captain Steve Lee. This season marks Lee’s tenth with the club, and the 27 year old will celebrate with a well deserved testimonial match, and a number of events throughout the season.

Joining the returnees are new signings Tommy Hughes, Jaynen Rissling and Dylan Olsen, whose father played for the Panthers in the 96/97 season. Completing the D corps is fan favourite Gui Lépine, who has been announced as this seasons captain. Since his successful three year stint during which he played a key part in Panthers league success, Lepine has spent 5 years playing in the AHL and ECHL, before rejoining the team on a two year deal in the summer.

Forwards

The forward lines comprise of seven new signings, and six returnees. Fresh from a phenomenal World Championship Division 1A tournament where, along with Steve Lee, they picked up Gold Medals, GB forwards Robert Farmer, Robert Lachowicz, Ollie Betteridge and Brett Perlini have all returned. Youngster Jordan Kelsall has signed up on a multi-year deal, although will spend this season on loan at the Dundee Stars, giving him an opportunity to play regular Elite league hockey. The final returnee is Luke Pither, who scored at over a point a game after joining the club mid way through last season.

The forward lines are completed by new signings Tyler Biggs, Jacob Doty, Alex Guptill, Kevin Henderson, Mark Hurtubise, Justin Kovacs and Jon Rheault. Fans may be familiar with both Doty, who iced last year for the Braehead (now Glasgow) Clan and Hurtubise, who racked up 89 points in 54 league games for the now defunct Edinburgh Capitals in the 08/09 season.

The organisation has set themselves up well for the new season, with the players having played six pre-season games throughout August, alongside an intense training program. With a lot of new faces and a new coach at the helm, people were not sure what to expect, but if pre-season is anything to go by, the season will be one to watch!

Panthers have gone undefeated in all the pre-season games, starting with a 5-5 draw against last seasons league champions, the Cardiff Devils, before picking up a win against them and defeating German teams Dresden Eislowen and Fischtown Pinguins, Stavanger Oilers from Norway and MAC Budapest from Hungary. The games haven’t been short on excitement where a mix of relentless forechecking, hard hitting, crisp passing, fast movement and clinical finishing has seen the fans in attendance treated to some excellent hockey. The team have hit 29 goals in the six games, split across the players, suggesting that this is a team with depth, and one that other teams will have to work very hard to keep at bay.

On Saturday 1st September, Chernomaz’s birthday, the new look Nottingham Panthers began their 2018/19 campaign with a Challenge Cup group game against old rivals Sheffield Steelers in front of a packed out crowd at the Motorpoint Arena. Despite missing Alex Guptill through injury, Panthers picked up where they left off in pre-season, and goals from Robert Farmer, Mark Hurtubise, Tommy Hughes, Jaynen Rissling and Brett Perlini saw them skate away with a thoroughly deserved 5-2 victory. It was a great performance from a team that is showing a lot of early promise, and only added to the building anticipation for the league season ahead.

This weekend, the league campaign kicks off with a home and away series against Manchester Storm, last seasons surprise package. Panthers have shown a bit of everything so far - they can hit, they can move, they can score and they just don’t seem to stop. The new era has begun.

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