‘We are the champions, my friends’
Leeds Gryphons 6-4 Nottingham Mavericks C
At 21.30 on Wednesday 16 March, we arrived at the Nottingham National Ice Centre. This was the real thing; we were ready to play what seemed so unlikely in the beginning of the year, our first final. Thus far we had been undefeated in our league, and usually with a quite impressive score difference, but today we were all expecting it to be different. The Mavericks had only suffered only a defeat against us in the league and their scoring matched or in some cases surpassed ours. A quick look at their statistics easily shows that this team scored plenty and got a lot of penalty minutes due to their rough physical play. The winner would win the league tonight, everybody knew that. This would not be an easy one.
We were nervous, but I could see that everyone wanted to go on the ice and play their best. The DJ played ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by Guns and Roses and soon after the puck dropped for the first time that evening. Immediately it was clear how hard our task would be, as our opponents were pressing everywhere, and the tactics we had discussed earlier had gone out the window. It would be a game for tough nerves and strong lungs. Nottingham clearly planned to play rough and they started by getting six penalty minutes in the first half of the first period. It was during a power play with a person on the ice in hand that Jacob Flowers opened the score for us from point-blank range, assisted by Matty Burnham and Joshua Irish. Everyone screamed and jumped in the air cheering in a way that only building tension can cause. Shortly after, once more on power play, Sam Stagg, assisted by William Tate and Josh, doubled our goals and our bench turned to a massive hug. We were winning but Nottingham kept pressing hard, and in a split second they defeated our defenders and goalie and scored their first goal. We were being attacked furiously from the flanks and our players were running out of breath, but our defenders stood up to the occasion and cleared the puck over and over. Four minutes before the end of the first period our captain, Josh, like a wrecking ball on a counter attack, broke loose and sent the puck into the top-left corner to send the score to a two-goal difference to our favour. The ref was allowing rough play occasionally by Nottingham, but they were getting many penalty minutes, and we played on that. The first period was over and we were twenty minutes closer to the title.
The second period was slightly different. Nottingham closed its spaces and tried not to play as rough. However, the captain had different plans, and in another counter-attack, Josh scored again. Our opponents reacted by showing their teeth immediately and scored less than a minute later. Both teams were playing in a disorganized fashion but with everything they had. Endurance was what kept us standing and the steely resolve of our players to win this title. Five minutes before the end of the second period Josh scored his hat-trick for the evening assisted by Jacob Flowers. Just as before Nottingham counter-attacked wave after wave and scored two more goals before the ref sent us to the second break. We were winning 5-4, but everyone knew that those last 20 minutes would be long.
The third period started and it was clear that all players were tired but not quitting. The puck went up and down, and you could see the tension in everyone’s eyes. Half way through the third period, and after a contested play in the opponent area I saw Tom Wilson, one of our top players, dropping his gear and quickly skating to the bench after falling. ‘This is not good’ I thought and my heart was racing. Tom came towards me holding his wrist, and I called for a time-out. He was clearly in pain but did not complain or grimaced for a moment. His arm was broken. All of his teammates were shaken but tried to help by scraping ice and holding it on his arm. No-one else was helping, the ref was clueless, and some of the Nottingham players asked us to hurry up. I was furious, our players were furious. Sam Stuckless, who was not playing on the night, took Tom to the hospital. We are not losing this now; we are doing this for Tom!
In the last ten minutes, all the fatigue, all the opposing rough play, did not matter. Our players were out there hungry and ready to win. Six minutes before the end, Ciaran Lennon screened the enemy goalie, Evan McKinney passed, and Jacob Flowers scored with a long-shot from an angle. People cheered and shouted with all their strength. Suddenly all the fear was gone. We played tactically and stormed their goalie time after time. The ref whistled for a face-off and I looked at the clock. We were winning 6-4 and there were seven seconds left. I looked down and Nina Brown, one of our defenders had done the same and then looked at me with a massive smile. I looked back to the ice and breathed out. We had done it for us, and for Tom. We are champions.
It is hard to describe what followed but it will stay on my mind as one of my best memories. The first year of the team, and what a year it was. We won the league, undefeated, in our first year, always on the lead. It has been a fantastic experience. Everyone on this team is a champion. We all learned things, and connected to others, but I only see this victory as the journey’s beginning not the end. Just as the captain told me after we won our first game, ‘onwards and upwards’.