BARELY two weeks into the 1991-92 season and the signs of something special taking shape were already becoming obvious to those working at the recently-opened Sheffield Arena.
A month or so earlier, the Sheffield Steelers had been born, the brainchild of businessman David Gardner-Brown and driven forward by Scottish international forward Ronnie Wood, a former coach at the Solihull Barons, who had been enticed to South Yorkshire to act as general manager with a remit to sell the new concept to an unsuspecting city.
Starting out in what was then known as English Division One, the Steelers began life with a roster comprised mainly of players from the Sheffield Sabres, a largely amateur team who had played for a number of years out of the city’s Queen Street rink in front of an average 200 spectators.
Some of the players – including netminder Andy Havenhand and forward Bernard Serafinski – had been quickly persuaded that the newly-formed team based at the new 7,000-seat arena was where their immediate futures lay.
For the first season, Wood also brought a number of players up from Solihull with him, most notably Phil Lee, Paul Thompson – now the Coventry Blaze and Great Britain head coach – and import defenceman Ron Shudra.
The temporary demise of the Barons had left Shudra without a club and, although he initially wished to remain in the top-flight, one look at the Arena and some convincing sales patter from Wood persuaded Shudra that his future lay in Sheffield.
Along with Steve Nemeth and Mark Mackie, Shudra’s was one of the team’s three imports that were permitted at the time.
The first-ever game at the Arena saw the Steelers welcome the Durham Wasps for an exhibition match played in front of 2,300 fans. The North East giants were one of the game’s most successful clubs and easily overcame a roster comprising Wood and the old Sabres team 7-1.
It was the first away game against the Sunderland Chiefs that offered a glimpse of what was on the horizon for ice hockey fans in South Yorkshire, when a team now boosted by Shudra and his fellow imports returned home on the back of an emphatic 13-2 victory.
The first league game at the Arena enticed around 1,000 spectators who witnessed a 3-3 draw. By the time the Steelers had thumped the Streatham Redskins 13-2 at home in early November the crowds had reached more than 3,000. Two weeks later more than 5,500 saw Sunderland thrashed 14-0.
The size of the gates seen at Sheffield Arena was a stark contrast to the attendances seen on the road, with a re-launched Solihull and league leaders Medway Bears the only teams to bring in more than 1,000 when the Steelers were in town.
The first sell-out came early in the New Year when more than 8,000 people turned up to see Medway edge out the Steelers 9-7. After that the attendance figure never dipped below 7,500 as the club went on to win promotion at the first attempt via the end-of-season play-offs.
To a city addicted to its football, the arrival of the Steelers quickly provided a refreshing alternative – helped in large part by match-night announcer David Simms and his approach to providing match-night entertainment.
The reasonably-priced ticketing policy also meant it compared favourably with its more traditional outdoor competitors.
Shudra – who still holds the record for the number of appearances made in a Steelers shirt at 385 – admits the lure of hundreds of free tickets in the early months certainly helped get got people through the door. But by January, the first sell-out was an all paid-for affair and tickets for games at the Arena were soon regarded as the hottest in town.
“Free tickets certainly helped in the early days,” said Shudra.
“I think if you ask anybody around, the first time they went in those days was probably on a free ticket and it grew from there. People told other people who then came down. We always had requests from schools and other organisations and we did literally give away hundreds of tickets to start with – I mean whole schools, not just classrooms.
“It snowballed up until just after Xmas when we had our first sellout – and by that I mean a proper sell-out.
“It was an exciting time to be involved in something like that from the start – nobody really knew what was going on.”
Andy Akers, a one-time defenceman for the Sabres who played a handful of games for the Steelers in that first season and is now the team’s equipment manager, added: “You could tell that it was the start of something pretty big fairly early on,” said Akers. “It started out with lots of tickets being given away but eventually you couldn’t get a ticket anywhere because the Arena was packed.”
During a remarkable debut season that saw winning margins for the Steelers of more than 20 goals on occasion, the three imports plundered points at will. Nemeth – who had played a handful of games for the New York Rangers in the NHL – scored an amazing 92 goals and 94 assists in just 25 games. Shudra himself accrued 148 points, including 78 goals.
Wood lasted only a couple of seasons before moving on to pastures new, his shirt being ‘retired’ a few years later.
For the last few years he has been coaching in South Africa and is busy preparing the national team – ranked 42nd in the world – for the World Championship Division Three tournament that will be hosted by Cape Town in April.
Seen by many as the main driving force behind the club in those early weeks and months, Wood has fond memories of his spell in South Yorkshire.
“Sheffield and the Steelers had the biggest effect on my professional life and gave me memories and emotions that I will never experience again,” said Wood.
“I met some of the most amazing people in my short time there.
“I still smile when I think of ‘Rocket Ron Shudra’, ‘Magic Mark Mackie’ and my favourite player of all time ‘Stormin’ Steve Nemeth’ who was a royal pain in the ass but an amazing athlete.”