ALTHOUGH he has vague recollections of playing Nottingham Panthers in an exhibition game many moons ago, Sheffield Steelers head coach Paul Thompson is eager to get his first real taste of battle between the fierce rivals tonight.
The two Elite League teams come head-to-head at Sheffield Arena for the first of at least eight meetings this season as they battle for leadership of Group B in the Challenge Cup.
Much like last weekend when the Steelers went into a double header on home ice with the Belfast Giants, tonight’s encounter in South Yorkshire sees the UK game’s two form teams lock horns.
And Steelers will be keen to repeat the success they enjoyed against Belfast last weekend when they emerged with a maximum haul of four points.
The Challenge Cup may be the poor relation of the regular season Championship, but Thompson – who briefly played for Steelers in the early 90s before returning to his native West Midlands and embarking on what has been a long and successful coaching career – is not prepared to accept any drop in intensity from his players or, indeed, the fans of both teams.
“I think I might have played against Nottingham in a one-off game in pre-season or something, but that was a long time ago ... a very long time ago,” said Thompson. “So this is really my first experience of what is the biggest rivalry in the British game and I’m really looking forward to it.
“Some people say you should treat it as any other game but I’m fully aware that isn’t the case.
“At the end of the day it’s Nottingham Panthers that we are playing – it matters immensely.
“Some people say it is not as intense as it was a few years ago but I beg to differ.
“We’re expecting about 6,500 on Saturday – that tells you how much the fans care about this fixture – of both clubs.
“It helps that we are the two form teams at the moment and I think people are excited about the kind of hockey we are playing here in Sheffield – I know I am.”
The four points Steelers took off Belfast extended their winning streak to seven games, although Nottingham – unbeaten in four – come up the M1 as Group B leaders, one point ahead of their fiercest rivals, having played a game more.
Tomorrow sees the Steelers return to Elite League action when they pay a second visit of the season to Cardiff Devils.
Their first trip to South Wales ended in a 5-3 defeat in what was their opening game of the domestic season having earlier been involved in Europe’s Champions Hockey League for the first time.
“We did lose down there last time, but it is always tough playing in their building,” said Thompson. “But I was still pleased with our performance that night and I’m confident going down there.”