PAUL THOMPSON admits he has had a few ‘run-ins’ with Nottingham Panthers counterpart Corey Neilson over the years – but insists he has the utmost respect for his coaching rival ahead of today’s Elite League Play-off semi-final showdown.
Both Thompson’s Sheffield Steelers team and Neilson’s side are without silverware this season, suffering stop-start campaigns until the past couple of weeks where some kind of consistency seems to have been discovered.
It will be a particularly emotional weekend for Neilson and his club after he signalled his intention to leave after the conclusion of the play-offs following 10 years at the helm – initally as player-coach – during which time he has delivered silverware on a regular basis.
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Among his achievements are a staggering six Challenge Cups, four play-off titles and a league title which formed part of a grand slam in 2013. Last year he led the Panthers to being the first-ever British team to win the Continental Cup in Europe.
It is an impressive cv, but one that is more than matched by Thompson, who has five league titles to his name, four of which came with former club Coventry Blaze, two play-off titles and one Challenge Cup.
Neilson’s arrival at Nottingham in 2008 came towards the latter spell of Thompson’s time in charge at Coventry and while the rivalry never matched that of Steelers-Panthers games, there was little love lost between either bench with some fiery, tempestuous games being staged before Thompson’s departure to try his hand at coaching in Sweden in 2013.
Thompson’s return to the UK in 2015 to take over at the Steelers saw the two resume their rivalry, but it is one which will end at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre tonight.
“I hope it is Corey’s last game on Saturday,” said Thompson.
We’ve had our run-ins over the years because we’re competitors and we’re very competitive – but I’ve got nothing but respect for the guy ... but we want to beat him and his team on Saturday night.Sheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson
“And that is by no means meant as any kind of disrespect to Corey, who has been a fantastic servant and coach of that club.
“It just that if it is his last game it means we’re going to the final and that is the only thing we are focused on right now.
“Corey has had a big impact on the Panthers and the league.
“He’s a good coach and they’ve had some good teams. He turned that franchise around and made it a winning organisation and he should be totally applauded for his efforts.
“We’ve had our run-ins over the years because we’re competitors and we’re very competitive – but I’ve got nothing but respect for the guy and what he’s done at that organisation.
“You only know what it is like to coach a big club when you’ve coached one and the pressures that come with that and he’s delivered. So I congratulate him on that at Nottingham – but we want to beat him and his team on Saturday night.”
Thompson has a virtually fully-fit roster to choose from ahead of today’s second semi-final – Cardiff Devils take on Fife Flyers earlier in the afternoon – and is pleased to be left with a selection headache ahead of a season-defining match against his club’s fiercest rivals.
The last time the two teams met at this stage was back in 2011 when the Panthers won 4-3 in overtime before going on to win the final against Cardiff.
A more recent encounter – and one no doubt favoured by the Steelers’ fans – came last year, at the quarter-final stage. Trailing 5-2 from the first leg, the Steelers sealed a memorable comeback with an overtime winner from Guillaume Desbiens.
Thompson’s team then went on to salvage their season after losing their league title to Cardiff by beating Andrew Lord’s side 6-5 in the second period of overtime in the final.
“Confidence is good,” said Thompson. “We’ve got healthy, so that gives me decisions to make and they are the kind of decisions I want to make for the benefit of the team.
“We’re the current champions of this competition and we want to retain that trophy and we’re two wins away from doing so.
“But it’s time to show up. We finished in third place in the league and we don’t want to be a third-placed team – we want to be a first-placed team.
“We’re gearing up the right way coming into this weekend and we have to make sure we’re the best team this weekend – that is the only way we will win this thing – by being the best team.”