The Panthers following a previous win at the Motorpoint Arena

Nottingham Panthers take on the ZSC Lions tonight at the Motorpoint Arena in what might be the biggest game in the team’s history. I spoke to Mario de Baseggio, a Lions fan ambassador about what the game means to the visiting fans and for European hockey.

It is probably fair to say no one expected them to make it this far. A UK team rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest teams in European ice hockey. Tonight’s Champions Hockey League (CHL) second leg sees the Panthers trailing by two away goals, a win could see a giant killing usually the preserve of the FA Cup. The CHL brings together the top 32 teams from across Europe and pits them against each other in a traditional tournament format, until one team is crowned champions.

I spoke to Mario de Baseggio, a ZSC Lions fan ambassador, about what the CHL means to his team and the impact the Panthers are having in Europe.

ZSC Lions Fan Ambassador Mario de Baseggio

For the Panthers making it to the final 16 is an incredible, almost unbelievable, achievement, but what does it mean for the ZSC Lions?
Mario tells me the CHL doesn’t have the same recognition at home in Switzerland as here in the UK, but the league’s presence is growing. He says that although Zurich fans were a little slow on the uptake, momentum soon began to build.

“Zurich fans love the team, they just take a little time to get going,” he said.

Fans are also unsure of how the CHL will impact domestic tournaments at home, winning the play-offs is still the top priority for Swiss teams, but Mario is optimistic, maybe in another two, maybe three, seasons the Champions Hockey League will be up there.

“Lions will need to play on their top level, it is not going to be easy.”
Mario de Baseggio – ZSC Lions Fan Ambassador

How are the Lions expected to perform? Is winning a realistic target?
The team should do well, the expectation is to get far, that’s for sure. Zurich won the tournament back in 2009 and with their recent NHL roster additions they have cemented themselves as one of the top four teams in the Swiss league. However fans knew they would face tough competition from Swedish and Finnish teams, we knew it was going to be tough, on paper it is clear, fortunately hockey is played on ice, not on paper!

Ice hockey still has a relatively small profile here in the UK, how does it stack up against the European teams?
Sadly, but as expected, UK ice hockey is an almost unknown entity on the continent. When Mario saw the Panthers on the tournament’s list of teams and mentioned it to his work colleagues, many of them didn’t even know ice hockey was played here in the UK. In fact, Mario went on to tell me, he has spoken to many here in the UK who were unaware ice hockey was played professionally.

The all important match day tickets!

How does ice hockey compare to other sports in Switzerland? 
Football is still the number one sport, for sure, but ice hockey is clawing back ground. Another Swiss team in the CHL, Bern, sell out their arena every game, with ZSC selling between 9-11 thousand tickets per game. Mario tells me that many fans switch between football and ice hockey, dependant on the time of year, which isn’t something that happens here in the UK.

Travelling as far as Zurich is quite the commitment for a fan, so why make the journey?
Hockey is close to the heart. I love my team, but I love hockey, says Mario, I am here for the love of hockey. This is something that is mirrored by hockey fans the world over: “I’m a Chicago Blackhawks fan, but I’ll watch any game of hockey”, said 24 year old Jess Cunningham. She started following ice hockey at university in Leeds, so when she moved home it was a “no brainer” to start attending Panthers matches.

It all takes place here!

Finally Mario, are you confident of a win tonight?
Oh yes! When they play like I know they can, they are one of the best teams in Europe, the potential is there. But don’t be disheartened Panthers fans, Panthers have a great chance to win too.” Mario raised his concerns that if Zurich play like they did at times in the first leg then Panthers could steal the win, we didn’t get dots connected. Can Corey Neilson’s boys capitalise on those missed connections? Only time will tell.

“Lions will need to play on their top level, it is not going to be easy.”

Nottingham Panthers face off against the ZSC Lions tonight at 7pm, at the Motorpoint Arena. The game is expected to be a sell-out, with very limited tickets still available.