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May, 2013:

Forgotten? Forgiven?

“Time Heals All Wounds”, so they say.  And how true that can be. Emotion in the moment can run raw. Sit and eat at you. They can affect you in many ways especially if it hurts something you have developed an emotional connection to. But as the Suns rise and set, the emotions and feelings, more often than not, fade or mellow.

You begin to contemplate your feelings in a more rational way, no longer obscured by the blanket of raw emotion.

For those present, Saturday 26th October 2002 holds a distinct place in the memory of Belfast Giants fans. A franchise in its infancy, yet already standing as the defending league champions, welcomed an established side that would continue to envy those in that championship position for another 11 years. The Nottingham Panthers arrived at the Odyssey Arena with the aim to hamper the chase Dave Whistle’s side were making on the Sheffield Steelers, 9 points their better.

This game, however, would mark as a watershed in many Belfast fans understandings of the game of ice hockey. To that point games at the Odyssey, though not lacking in physicality, had not seen a game with the rampant bite of toil and hatred that the game of ice hockey can sometimes ignite. Probably not since the opening explosions of physical attack from Paul Ferone on Darby Walker, not least in the handshakes following the 4-1 victory over the London Knights that first season, had the Odyssey crowd been shocked by what they saw.

This was all to change.

Until this point the Nottingham Panthers stood with little to no emotional response from Giants fans. With the Belfast team so embryonic in its existence, there had been little to no time to develop a hatred, a rivalry and no local adversary to properly establish a derby. What drew most emotion at that point were the battles with the Sheffield Steelers for the league titles. The Panthers were little more than also-rans, having finished 2nd from bottom in the Giants first season, and 4th in Belfast’s victorious ISL championship. Thus their visit was greeted with an apathy that can accompany a game against a team you are expected to defeat.

And defeat them Belfast duly did. However, the game was far from a straight forward victory.

Nottingham at that time, while in the more affluent ISL era, were not the high level spenders we know today. Yet with the struggles in previous seasons the focus had turned, to an extent, toward more “physical” entertainment. Eric Charron, Kristian Taurbert, Scott Allison, Barry Nieckar to name but a few, stood as big players whose physical play would try and dominate in road games. A set up that divided their own fanbase.

This game was fraught with physical play. An early goal from John Purves set the scene as Nottingham went out to prove a point. Onward went the tough play. In the middle for Belfast, Paxton Schulte. From the bench looked on Belfast’s Captain, Paul Kruse, unable to play through injury, a big loss in Belfast’s tough line approach and a gap the Panthers would look to exploit.

On the powerplay Ryan Kuwabarra pulled back a goal and from here the fireworks began. A line brawl that drew fighting majors for Kory Karlander and Briane Thompson, alongside 12 other minor penalties, mostly for Nottingham. These would lead to Belfast pulling ahead through powerplay goals by Kevin Riehl and Robby Sandrock. Antagonising the visitors further.

Karlander was to be kicked from the game in the second period. Kristian Taubert’s behind the play roughing up of Kevin Riehl would lead to Karlander spearing the Finnish defenseman in the corner of the rink, giving referee Simon Kirkham no option but to send the Giants’ #10 to the locker room.

The temperature was hot and getting hotter.

Mark Cadotte would keep the game in touch for the visiting Panthers. But as temperatures reached breaking point the final buzzer went. The Giants had won 3-2. But the night still wasn’t over.

Olympic Boxing Silver medallist, Wayne “Pocket Rocket” McCullough was the guest of honour that night, and none more suited given what broke out as the final buzzer echoed around the arena.

A scene long remembered by Giants fans as Taubert tussled with Schulte, Shane Johnson went toe to toe with Purves and many other players, leaving the bench for the games completion got involved. However the real criminal to those home fans in attendance, was the man who ripped off his black and yellow #44 jersey. Barry Nieckar would receive a hefty ban and the call of “Travesty of the Game” as he stood behind Paxton Schulte punching him repeatedly in the back of the head, despite the Giants enforcer being otherwise engaged in a fight with Taubert.

The atmosphere was one of anger, disgust, hatred and revenge. A team that had barely made a mark on Giants fans radar in the past, had suddenly blotted their copybook in an arena as yet unused to it all.

I stood on the bridge as a 21 year old student and watched as it all unfolded before me. Trying to comprehend where it would go. My team had taken the victory. The reaction of the Panthers seemed to be little more than a petty attempt to save face and make a mark. However they had done little other than to stoke up a disgust among Giants fans.

There had never been a real bench clearance in the Odyssey before that. And you never forget your first time.

So here we stand, 11 years later and it still remains strong in the memory of those who were there. It still draws ill feeling. It always will. It was the first time such wild aggression had raised its head. It would always leave its mark.

Some say it was a rivalry, it wasn’t, and it never has been. It is a dis-like, it is an anger, it is a constant want for revenge.

Sport thrives on these emotions. These encounters that can develop a tradition, an aggression and an atmosphere. They shouldn’t be ignored; to an extent they should be encouraged. This game is built on traditions. The dis-like of the Nottingham Panthers, one that boils down to 26/10/02, is just part of the fabric of our clubs fanbase.

Kim Williams’ very well written blog on The Cats Whiskers raised some interesting issues and understandings of it all from the Panthers side, but unfortunately she misses some key points.

The crux of my blog, as it is for Kim’s, is the appointment of Paul Adey as coach of the Belfast Giants. The man who was the architect of that 2002 Panthers team that drew so much disdain this side of the Irish Sea. Adey held a position in Nottingham then that Corey Neilson holds now. A Coach who stands below his own retired shirt. Adey’s position in Nottingham is unblemishable. He is their all time top points scorer, his record hold itself high among most others in the league not least on Lower Parliament Street.

But where Kim’s blog talks of the “final fulfilment of a, to this time, one-sided rivalry” through the appointment of Adey as coach, I argue quite the opposite. There has never been a rivalry. Or the belief of one.

The Giants have held fraught competition with many different teams over the years. But these have mainly been due to the fight for the title. Some disguise these, or mistake these for “rivalries”, where a tension and lasting battle is forged for these games over years to come. But as Coventry have risen and fallen, Sheffield likewise and now the dominance of the Panthers, Belfast have always stood there waiting for the next incumbent. No “rivalry” has lasted. Despite a PR battle to develop or promote one.

The Panthers were not, until recent years, in any fit position to sustain a “rivalry” however “one-sided” with the Belfast Giants.

The appointment of Adey may add a spice to a title race, should the Panthers be able to repeat last season’s strong showing. However more so with Doug Christiansen taking residence within Sheffield, the modern demographic of Giants fans will find reason to stand on the offensive upon the Steelers arrival on Queens Island.

My opinions on the Adey appointment are mixed. I remember that team, that night, that event. Some may see it as petty to have not let it go, but I see it as part of my make-up as a Giants fan. That night stands along the OT loss to Cardiff in our first season, the pre-season victory over Eisbaren Berlin, Kevin Riehl’s penalty shot past Joel Laing in the 2003 Playoff Semi Final and many other events through the years, as key moments in the history of the Giants. They won’t be forgotten, and neither should they be.

They are what made us who we are.

However I am no longer that 21 year old student who stood on the bridge shouting in 2002. That kid would have been outright disgusted at Adey’s appointment. Betrayed by it. Saddened by it.

But it’s 2013, I’m soon to turn 32, I’m balder, fatter and while I may still shout idiotically from the comfort of the other side of the glass, I’d like to think myself wiser and more diplomatic.

Todd Kelman was part of that 2002 Giants team, and remains the core of the fabric of our organisation. He took his time in recruiting the right man for the right job from a multitude of both public and privately held names.

To him, that right man was Paul Adey.

Initially the 21 year old student in me screamed with aforementioned disgust. Disbelief that the man whose team instilled such anger would actually be accepted through the doors of the arena as part of our own team.

But then the screams were drowned out by the time that has passed. The knowledge that these decisions are made for the good of the team. The good of the organisation and a future of success.

Adey’s experience in Italy and Switzerland have developed him as a coach. His CV stands strong among all in the league. He is currently the leagues most experienced coach. The team he builds may be a departure from those of Doug Christiansen, and as a fan base we must give him that chance regardless of his Panthers connections.

However, make no mistake, the expectations on Paul Adey are high. The Giants have consistently been one of the forerunners in the league title races.

Many things have changed since Adey last coached in the UK, but one thing remains the same: The Belfast Giants are still an organisation that demands success.

Adey’s first game at the Odyssey should be welcomed with anticipation of his abilities, while providing him with the awareness of what the Giants faithful expect of him. He is the coach of OUR team now.

Does this mean we should forget 26/10/02? That it should be cast aside into a closed history book and discarded forever more?

No. I know it was foremost in the events that stoked my and many others passion as Giants fans. While there will no doubt be plenty more, none will be forgotten.

Nor should they, because to forget them, to forget your history, would be to forget why you have loved your team for so long.