Boxing Day is head and shoulders my favourite day of the year. Christmas Day, birthday, anniversary... you can keep them. Nothing is as good as the feeling of your team, the Sheffield Steelers, playing the Nottingham Panthers at home in front of almost 9,000 fans.
It’s against ‘them’, isn’t it. I love the Steelers, I hate the Panthers. So this great game, great occasion is sporting theatre. It’s also local rivalry at its best. It’s less than an hour down the road to their barn from ours. There is a crossover of fans halfway. Supporters of both the Steelers and the Panthers work in the same factory or offices. Kids go to the same school. The Steelers and the Panthers are about local bragging rights.
The Steelers, like the Panthers the following night when we play in Nottingham, will feel proud and exhausted when they see the building full. For months this game has been selling. The biggest and most talked-about 60 minutes in the hockey calendar. The club has grafted to get the message out there. Sheffield v Nottingham - it’s proper. It’s not manufactured. It’s real and that’s what makes it so special. Christmas Day is for kids, I just want Boxing Day to come quicker.
The history of this game makes the hairs on your arms stand up. For years, Steelers and Panthers teams have battled out this great game on this special day. Last year the Panthers embarrassed us, beat us badly, shut us out 4-0.
Two years ago we hammered Nottingham, put nine past them. We still talk about that game inside the Sheffield Arena. You can become a legend on Boxing Day if you do your duty.
We might stuff ourselves daft on Christmas Day; too much turkey, too much Christmas pudding. On Boxing Day, we won’t eat breakfast. We can’t eat breakfast. Our stomaches won’t allow us to eat breakfast. What’s the matter with our clocks and watches on Boxing Day? We keep looking at them, wishing the time away before we leave the house. What seemed like an hour was just 10 minutes. We better leave the house early – the traffic. We know there won’t be traffic until we get to the car park but it’s an excuse to get out, get going, get to the Arena.
The second biggest crowd of the year in British hockey is for the 20 minute warm up on Boxing Day, so early have fans arrived, so anxious to be a part of this special afternoon. The final thousand or so are in their seats well before the 4pm face off.
Hearts pounding, you feel sick - whether a Steeler or Panther fan. The puck drops and you can at least breathe. You want that first goal. “Shoot it, Mathieu,” you scream, even though Roy is in an impossible position to score. Your emotions are in full flow, your mouth and brain have lost all timing and sense.
“Great save, Pinc” greets the most standard glove save of the year. Hearts at 150 - this isn’t good for you. This game should come with a Government health warning.
The reality is, though, it’s all out of your hands. It’s down to Paul Thompson and Corey Neilson, it’s down to Jonathan Phillips and David Clarke, it’s down to the warriors. Ours and theirs.
It doesn’t matter a hoot what Santa bought you the day before... your Christmas will be judged on whether the Steelers beat the Nottingham Panthers. Win and that jumper your Mum bought you will look a million dollars. Lose, and that gorgeous watch the wife took weeks to find and months to save up for will just be a timing device on your arm. Win and your Ford Fiesta will feel like an Aston Martin DB10 driving home. Lose and it will feel like a delayed number 28 bus.
That’s sport, isn’t it. I guess United or Wednesday fans feel the same when your teams meet. This is our Man Utd v Liverpool, our Celtic v Rangers.
For the last 20 years, the Steelers v the Nottingham Panthers has been my life and this the Boxing Day game my day of the year.
Face off is at 4pm - I will be at the Arena for 10am. There will be nothing for me to do at 10am, but I will feel the need to be there. I will want to be there. The Arena is my home, my church. “Our” place of worship.
I like this Sheffield Steelers team. I look in the eyes of our boys and I think they understand. They don’t understand me; they think I’m crackers. I’m sure they do. They understand enough, though, to know what it means, to understand how much we are rooting for them.
Those 20 blokes can make a difference, to our Christmas and to our lives.
Please boys – beat them.