Noodles and a sense of the odd; the 2011 EPL playoffs as a neutralPosted: 11/04/2011
This is going to sound really odd to some of you; I’d never gone to the playoffs before. I never went to the playoffs when the Bison were an EIHL side because 1. I couldn’t justify to myself as a poor guy post university spending loads of money to go to watch hockey that my team wasn’t involved with and 2. EIHL playoffs had a habit of falling around Easter which is a big deal to me and a time to spend with family. It was the reason I wasn’t about for last season’s playoffs as I was away.
Being in the EPL means the playoffs are at Planet Ice’s Skydome Arena in Coventry. Coventry is the home of some of my best friends so after umming and ahhing and a bit of help from some people I knew to get me a ticket, I came up for the Saturday. I could soak in a bit of the atmosphere, watch my final live hockey of the 2010/11 season, see my friends and still be home to spend time with my wife. Seemed like a good plan to me!
I hopped on the 10:22 train from Southampton so was in Coventry 2 hours later. 1st thing to do was head to the Skydome. I’ve been to Coventry enough times where I could find my way there in about 5 minutes whilst having everyone stare at me for wearing a #67 Lauko jersey on a really sunny day. I find my friend Paul and we do what all good hockey fans do on a hot sunny day with about 2 hours to kill before faceoff…we headed to the pub. The Windmill is a known pub in hockey circles and we got there to see it had been filled with Phoenix fans. Tambo was there dressed like Don Cherry for some reason and got to say meet The Angry Budgie. Only issue, The Windmill isn’t doing food and no other pubs are either…
Manchester Phoenix vs Milton Keynes Lightning
So after ploughing through Ikea meatballs and beer at The Windmill, it was time to head inside. I had a standing ticket so I did what I always do and headed towards the Bison fans who were seated in block 15. So I am standing against the plexi by block 15 and suddenly I hear a voice yelling “stay back everyone” and it seems that I’m stood by where the MK Lightning players are coming out of their dressing room. I resisted the temptation to kick Grant McPhearson in the shins, I’m a good loser folks.
The game itself ended up being dictated by MK. There was a hint of irony that MK, playing as the road team, played the ideal road game. They suffocated the Manchester top line (sounding familiar) and the other 2 lines became 1 line as Hand predictably shortened his bench. MK dug and scrapped and clawed their way into a deserved lead. For the 3rd period, there was a spare seat in block 3 next to my friend and his dad so I enjoyed an alternate view behind the Swindon fans which meant I was next to the MK Barmy Army. Time ticked down and the voices got louder and louder as the fans believed more and more. You could feel it on the ice as well, the players started to believe it. They’d shut down the most potent offence in the EPL and were heading to the final. And then they gave Manchester an inch of space, an inch more than they had all night. BOOM! Shutout gone. 25 seconds later, Hand fires over Hollyhead’s shoulder, Nick Poole calls a timeout and Paul, his dad John and I are laughing in disbelief.
That’s why Manchester are champions. The committee of 3 wise monkies in block 3 were all in agreement that Manchester had killed the momentum and with Fone pulling off some spectacular saves it looked like the Phoenix had done it. Then that MK team ethos kicked in again. A scramble in front of the net and Mr Consistency, Leigh Jamieson shovels the puck home. The team that would never say die knocked out the EPL champions.
Noodlebar! I was introduced properly to the noodle bar in Coventry on my visit in January. It was a warmup to a 15-0 Blaze win over Edinburgh where James Pease got so much ice time he got thoroughly confused. Now this place is awesome because they do the food quick, they do it cheap but it tastes amazing. I went a different route than normal and ended up paying for it a little. Normally I’d go the chicken in satay sauce route but went for duck (good choice), Szechuan sauce with veg (also good) but the udon noodles in soup is what killed me. It was like I’d added tons of massively tasty, fat worms which stuffed me. I did the done thing, I finished the meat and veg and left the rest.
Guildford Flames vs Peterborough Phantoms
So the evening game comes around and the lights don’t work properly before opening. Now Daren ‘Bavy’ Bavister, working in Basingstoke long enough knew exactly what to do. It’s why Bavy’s the best in the business and gets to do the EPL playoffs, the EIHL playoffs and the like. He managed to fill the time before the game began.
After his 64 shot shutout the week before in Slough, I was on board with the Phantom machine. I wanted the underdog victory. I don’t like the Guildford Flames and you’ll struggle to find many Bison fans that do, I wanted them to lose. (Flames players by the way, there are some very nice Flames fans I should say) Sadly fantasy hockey is played on the internet and ice hockey is played on the ice.
The Flames never really got out of 2nd gear and the game was effectively over when they were 3-0 up inside about 10 minutes. Sitting with 2 Blaze fans helped and we confused some of the Swindon fans by shouting a few “impolite but within the context of a family sport” quips at the Flames players. One person we couldn’t mock was Mark Lee. I said at the start of the season that Lee sitting on the bench backing up Hala seemed daft because he had all the makings of an EPL starter even if he was coming off an injury. Lee had taken the starters job by force and he was amazing. Phantoms didn’t trouble him massively but he made some pretty saves.
The sad thing was to see how fed up Stephen Wall looked by the end of the game. Also the season of Dwayne Newman to end in such a way is never great. I hope the big man is back for another year.
As I’m an old sod my party time Saturday night was heading back to Paul’s house with some Corona as an offering to his fiance Becky and watched Rangers vs Devils. What can I say? I don’t party like I used to.
The atmosphere that everyone talked about isn’t an understatement but the nature of the Bison loss the week before tempered the weekend a bit. Graham Bell tweeted on the Saturday that how frustrating it was to think it could have been the Bison out there and I agree. I can’t imagine what it’s like for fans of other teams but I struggled to really get into the games at times. The second game was tough to get into because the Flames essentially turned it into a training session and the first game was tough at times because it should have been someone like Mindy Kieras scoring the overtime winner.
That said the 1st semi final was a cracking game of hockey to watch. You could visibly see the Phoenix getting more and more frustrated. The issue for Manchester is, and this sounds really redundant as they won the league and all, talent only gets you so far in the big games. Very few of the Manchester players seemed up for the game. Stephen Fone was a credit to himself; a keeper I have criticised as being too easy to solve at times couldn’t have done much about the Lightning goals and made some top-notch saves. MK deservedly won over 64:41 minutes because they were the better team.
I watched 2 decent games of hockey. Would I go again? Yes. Would I go again if the Bison weren’t there? Probably yeah but I am blessed by having people to see and friends who love hockey as much if not more than I said. The thing is don’t feel bad if you can’t go or don’t want to go because your team isn’t there but I really recommend going for the experience. Coventry is a great building to watch hockey in and you can just have so much fun watching the sport we all love. The hope is next year, it’ll be our team that does it.
A massive thank you to Paul Shipman and Becky Morgan for (once again) opening up their house to me, to John Shipman for the lift in the land machine, Stu and Kerry Coles for being Stu and Kerry Coles and most importantly to the fans of the 10 teams of the EPL; people can say what they like about the standard of hockey, the people are second to none.