Unedited version of January’s #OnFire article
There are only two players on our current roster who were with us ten years ago as Blaze swept the board with trophies – the Grand Slam season. With the Challenge Cup in the bag, the team had the confidence to go on and win both the league and the Play Off final.
Both Ashley Tait and Russ Cowley have played at least one season away from the Blaze in the past ten years – Russ had a spell in Cardiff with the Devils and Ash spent time in Sheffield with the Steelers and also in Italy.
They have fond memories of that season though, of the trophies, the goals and most importantly of all, of their team mates.
At that time, Tait was 29, in his third season with the Blaze following a long spell in Nottingham with the Panthers and was the Captain. Russ was 21 and in his fourth season, having spent some time in Swindon.
Tait explained how the team that year got on. “The Grand Slam season would have been my third year here. Obviously we’d gone from BNL (British National League) to the first year in the Elite League and it took us a year to figure out what it was about. I think it was the same for the club and Thommo. With the team he put together that year he knew where we needed to be. He found some guys who fit the bill and we gelled together quite early on, which makes a huge difference. I think when we started we were waiting on a couple of guys for the first couple of weeks. I ended up on a line with Chris McNamara and Joel Poirier. The lines didn’t really change all season – we had Adam Calder, Dan Carlson and Andre Payette and then Russ Cowley, Tommy Watkins and Graham Schlender. It was pretty well balanced, everyone had a role and knew what that was. It helped playing on the same lines, you get used to the way people play. It makes life a lot easier and becomes second nature. There were one or two disagreements – you get that one every team every year. Put twenty guys in a room not everyone is going to get along. As quickly as it starts it’s over and you move on.”
Cowley added “I was on the third line with Tommy and Schlender. I’d been playing professionally for four or five years at that point – it was fun.”
The first title that the team won that year was the Challenge Cup, but they didn’t make it easy for themselves. Ash explained, “I think that was quite a big thing. We did well in the first round, we knocked Nottingham out in the semis and once we’d got through that stage we thought ‘we’re in with a really good chance here’. I remember the first leg against Cardiff here and it ended up 6-1 and we went into the second leg with a really good lead. The old Cardiff rink was small and had a really good atmosphere. They went a couple of goals up quite quickly and it was a case of ‘we’ve got to start playing boys’. The game got quite feisty and some of the guys got kicked out. That was the first – we won that trophy and everyone thought ‘this is a really good feeling’ and it gave us a taste of what it was all about. I think that was quite a big step. Of the three trophies that’s the smallest one, but it was huge stepping stone for us as a team. It gave us the belief that we could do it.”
Russ added, “It was nuts. We threw away a lead, went 1-4 down and then got it back again to win 5-4. We went into their place with a four goal lead. You couldn’t have scripted it any better. That game had everything – fights, hits, goals. The atmosphere – the old Cardiff Rink was great, as was the Skydome back then, the atmosphere was amazing.”
The Play Off final took place in Nottingham, against the Panthers. Russ said, “My biggest memory from the play offs was Ash’s overtime goal, when it went in. We were at 1-1 with the goals scored in the second period. That was amazing, knowing we’d won the play offs and the treble, it was great. I think that’s everyone’s best memory of that game!”
For Russ, his best memories of the season are possibly the same as the majority of the fans. “Every single cup win, all three of them, it was amazing. We had a great group of guys and we had a lot of depth that year. It is fun when you are winning, but at the same time that group we had was great. There was an element of everything in that group, we all had a purpose and chemistry wise it all came together. It was incredible. I’m still in touch with most of the guys from that year.”
As for Ash, there can only be one highlight. “The best memory of that year was hands down scoring the winning goal in the play off final. To score against Nottingham, in Nottingham, I used to play there and I grew up in Nottingham. It’s still, probably, the highlight of my career.”