BLOG: Journeys to glory and the long drive home

Another season draws rapidly to a close and as I thought back over it the other day I was struck by something that really surprised me – I’ve not been to a single away game all season.

I have to say that when I realised that I’d only seen games at the National Ice Centre I felt a little sad and possibly disappointed in myself.

This has been a season of disappointments for Panthers fans, but they’ve mainly been because of the team not because of yourself.

I’m disappointed because by and large I love an away trip – there can’t be many fans who don’t. There’s nothing wrong with home games, they’re the sat in front of a cosy fire with your pipe and slippers games.

You’re in familiar surroundings, the same rink or arena, possibly in the same seats with the same people around you.

You can indulge all your pre-match rituals – drinking in the same pub before or after the game, buying your fifty-fifty tickets from the same seller in the same way you do every week.

Away games though, they’re something different. There’s an additional excitement to away games. I don’t want to come over all Saturday Night TV but you’re out of your comfort zone, your surroundings are different, you’re outnumbered and all that changes the way you watch the game.

Being away from home changes you. I don’t mean we become different people necessarily, but it changes how or who you are whilst you’re watching the game. Or, at least, I know it does me.

I’m far more vocal at away games. I’m far more likely to join in chants, sing and clap than I am from the comfort of my own season ticket seat at the NIC. I think the reason is simply that you’re away from home and that triggers something within you that you just don’t get when you’re in a home crowd.

You’re all clustered together in the same block or blocks and that brings together all the people who want to sing and that’s infectious. The phrase ‘birds of a feather’ is never more apt than when it comes to away crowds.

The feeling of all being placed together in one area surrounded by people who all have one fundamental disagreement with you brings out a pride you might not normally have for your team. You want to show people that pride so you make more noise than normal.

You might cheer the goals, applaud a good shift or jump to your feet for the odd fight when you’re at home, but at away games you’re clapping and shouting for everything. Every tame shot, every bit of handbags, every penalty killed can raise the crowd.

I’ve seen plenty of people over the years wondering why our home crowds can’t be more like the 100 or so fans from team x ,y or z who came and sang their hearts out all night and I think they’re missing the point. You’re almost never going to get a home crowd like that. At least not in places like the NIC.

The noisy people, for want of a better phrase, are dispersed throughout the arena. Someone singing in block 4 is unlikely to have much effect on me sat at the back of block 13 simply because of the distances involved.

Add to that the fact that we don’t have the same factors I’ve listed above and the home crowd is never going to be as noisy and creative as away fans are. They may drown them out through sheer volume of numbers, but being in a home crowd and being in an away crowd are very different things.

Or at least that’s how it starts. Enthusiasm is easy when things are going well or even if they’re not going that well but they could. I’m far less likely to have a go at my team for being a goal down if I’ve travelled a couple of hours or more (or less I suppose) to watch them.

A prime example of this is Panthers pretty tame exit from the play-offs at the quarter-final stage the season before last. We couldn’t deal with Coventry for a lot of the first game in Nottingham and we were extremely lucky to come out of it with a draw – extremely lucky.

I was pretty down on my team in the pub that night, desperately trying to work out why I’d already paid for a ticket for the next night’s game. Come game time in Coventry I was a bit more positive, we could do this, we’d have worked them out. You know, all the usual lies you tell yourself to keep yourself going.

A couple of quick Coventry goals later and I was still encouraging the Panthers but as the game went on and it became more and more difficult as it became more and more obvious that we weren’t going to get the outcome we’d hoped for. By the end of it I was pretty silent, filled with an anger I rarely feel these days.

In an odd way I think it’s moments like that when things really aren’t going your way that travelling fans can come into their own. There’s a gallows humour that so often comes to the fore in adversity and gives you a bit of a lift if only to take your mind off what you’ve travelled for hours to watch.

If you’ve spent your hard-earned money travelling to Hull to watch your team get spanked then what better way to lift the spirits than a few choruses of ‘Here for the chip spice, we’re only here for the chip spice, here for the chip spice, we’re only here for the chip spice’ sung to the tune of Guantanamera? It might not change the scoreline or encourage your team, but it makes you feel better for a few minutes.

To me away trips will always be about more than the games. The memories I’ve got from the away trips I’ve been on are always more about what happened outside the games than the games themselves.

The hilarious chirp from the stands, the jokes you’d shared on the journey there or the post-mortems on the way back add so much to the whole experience that they can sometimes eclipse the game themselves.

A couple of years ago I was travelling back from a pretty mundane game in Hull that I can remember absolutely nothing about apart from the fact that we were so absorbed in discussing what we had just seen that we ended up missing our turning and having to take a long detour that saw us coming back via Ferrybridge services on the A1.

The same Ferrybridge services that was part of a strange culmination to a night back in late 1994 when a Panthers fan suggested that short-lived Wasps import Tony Cimellaro’s eyebrows were too bushy because he was a werewolf.

After that every time he touched the puck the Panthers fans would howl, they were howling after the game as they walked back to their cars and they were still howling at Ferrybridge. Who says hockey fans aren’t totally sane individuals, eh?

I wrote an article a long time ago that contained the phrase ‘Arena Generation’. That phrase caused quite a bit of consternation and discussion amongst some of the people who read it.

How did I dare besmirch the people who hadn’t been watching as long as I had with such a phrase? So what if they hadn’t been going as long as I had – I wasn’t in a position to call them names!

I wasn’t – it was just a case of that all too prevalent trait we see these days of people reading what they want to read rather than what is there to be read.

The article itself was a fairly light hearted look at what they had missed by not watching the sport through the 80s and 90s rather than an admonishment for not being there.

A lot of that article centred around things that I’d seen or experienced at away rinks over the years and how some of those idiosyncratic rinks were being lost and their places in our calendars were being replaced with trips to other arenas like Sheffield, Belfast and (at the time) Manchester.

Every rink and arena is different, but at times it can feel like there are a lot of similarities between those big venues. What’s on offer on the ice may be different but off ice? It can all feel quite samey. One of the appeals of going to Edinburgh or Whitley (back in the day) was the stovies. Tell me they still do them? Please?

Those old rinks have a charm of their own that the arenas simply can’t match. My seat at the NIC is far more comfortable than anything I ever sat on at the Nottingham Ice Stadium, but I’d swap my padded luxury for that uncomfortable plank any day of the week just to get some of that atmosphere back.

I’ve mentioned Durham already so I won’t go on about how run down it was, but when I think back to visits to places like Whitley Bay, Solihull, Peterborough with its hedgehog flavour crisp and PA system that could only be heard properly in the toilets at the cafe end or Billingham with its mural and 10 pence extra charge for a padded seat, they’re the places I have the fondest memories of going to because they were different. Not necessarily better but different.

That’s the best way I think to describe away games – not necessarily better but different. There’s no better feeling than walking away from your opponent’s rink with the points or more.

Panthers’ league victory in Belfast in 2013 is a great example. Was it all the more special because it was won away from home? Probably not. Would I have preferred it to be won at home? Probably but going there and getting the points we needed was sweet indeed.

I think moments like that, those you had to be there moments are as sweet as they are because there are so many times when you see the other side of the coin.

I’ve spent many a Sunday (mainly) night travelling home from one ignominious defeat or another, but it’s those games good and bad and what happens on those journeys that keep you going back.

In a way away trips are a crystallisation of what it means to be an ice hockey fan. You’re together with your friends and families sat with people you might not know but who share your hopes and dreams. The game becomes more of a focus for me than at home games. I’m not sure why that is but it’s true.

Home games can feel like a habit but away games never do. They’re where hockey watching comes alive for me.

I’ve still got time this season I guess. There’s one more weekend of the regular season and then the play-offs. It looks like Panthers will get Steelers in the quarter-finals and I gave up going there a long time ago, but I can still make an away game if I try.

Maybe I’ll take a trip up to Manchester on Sunday. Just to see if away trips are still as much fun you understand.

(Image permissions: Al Goold Photo, Scott Wiggins, Press Eye)

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