CLINCHING the Elite League play-off championship in Nottingham last weekend was undoubtedly a memorable occasion for all connected with the Sheffield Steelers.
Drew Fata’s rasping overtime winner which gave Gerad Adams’s team a 3-2 win over Belfast Giants in Sunday’s final was the culmination of a campaign which again showed a marked improvement in the quality of ice hockey on offer from all of the league’s 10 teams.
Clear evidence of the promising state of the game – at least in terms of entertainment and competitiveness – was the fact four teams had gone into the last night of the regular season two weeks earlier fighting for the three remaining play-off places.
In the end, it was the Cardiff Devils who missed out on the post-season along with an Edinburgh Capitals side who had long been out of the play-off picture, eventually finishing 23 points adrift of the eighth and final play-off place which, at the end of a dramatic evening, was taken by Hull Stingrays at the expense of their South Wales rivals.
Cardiff finished on the same number of points as Hull, but missed out due to not winning as many games in regulation as Sylvain Cloutier’s team.
It was clear by February who would be finishing bottom of the pile and it was the same story at the other end of the table, Belfast winning the title by a staggering 23 points from Sheffield.
The contrasting fortunes of the Giants and the Capitals gave a slightly distorted view of the overall table, effectively stretching the standings at both ends. Look more closely, however, and that could not take anything away from the battle in between among the remaining eight teams that made it such a compelling campaign for their loyal fans.
In the end, only 14 points separated league runners-up Steelers and Cardiff down in ninth – the closest it has been since the Elite League replaced the Superleague in 2003.
In that first season of the newly-formed league, the Steelers also won the play-off title, completing the double shortly after they had sewn up the league championship.
Not only did the Steelers’ latest play-off success come at the National Ice Centre, home of their greatest rivals, Nottingham Panthers, but, far more importantly, it ended a three-year wait for silverware for a club seen as one of the British game’s handful of big hitters – their longest period without a trophy.
It was the organisation’s ninth top-flight play-off success since its formation in 1991, although unlike North America where the post-season is king, it is the regular season league championships that still carry more weight in the UK game.
The Steelers have proved no slouches when it comes to lifting the more sought-after trophy either, though, their 2011 success under American player-coach Ben Simon being their seventh league title.
The club and the majority of their fans expect success, so by ending their unusually long wait for silverware in such dramatic fashion in Nottingham will have produced a mixture of relief and joy.
The long trophy trail in the top flight for the Steelers began in 1995, a double being delivered by coach Alex Dampier in what was only the club’s second season in the British game’s top league.
A third-placed finish in their first season in the British Premier League a year earlier was followed by them finishing as play-off runners-up after they were thumped 12-1 in the final at Wembley by Cardiff, themselves on the way to clinching the double.
But it was the following year that the dream became reality for the South Yorkshire club, just four years after they first opened for business.
The disappointment of finishing empty-handed 12 months earlier clearly acted as a spur to Dampier and his players, winning their first top-flight league title by six clear points from Cardiff and third-placed Nottingham.
The Steelers’ play-off campaign got off to a poor start with defeats at Nottingham and Fife Flyers, but they quickly rallied and won their next four games to book their place at the play-off weekend at Wembley and a semi-final with Cardiff, which they won in dramatic fashion 5-4 after a nervy shoot-out.
As reported in the Yorkshire Post at the time by Martin Searby, “the highlight of the weekend was the semi-final with Cardiff, a magnificent match which will stand as one of the British game’s most outstanding contests.
“The Steelers won it on penalties with the excellent Martin McKay stopping three of Cardiff’s first four efforts, while Ken Priestlay, Steve Nemeth and Les Millie netted for Sheffield after the match had ended 4-4.”
Less than 24 hours later, in front of a crowd of more than 8,800, the Steelers enjoyed a comfortable 7-2 victory over an Edinburgh Racers side containing the likes of Tony Hand to complete the double, with Searby lamenting: “The final, judged in comparison, was an anti-climax which was further marred by a referee who had no control over the game and was out of his depth.”
Defenceman Ron Shudra, with the club since its formation, played an integral part in the Steelers’ success that season, scoring 13 points in eight games during the post-season, including five goals.
He left the club after the 1999 season, returning twice, including a further three-year spell between 2003-06 before turning to coaching.
But it is those first few years at Sheffield Arena that Shudra most fondly remembers, with the club’s first play-off success being a particularly favourite time.
“It was pretty special winning those play-offs,” recalled Shudra, who was also part of the team that went on to win the grand slam the following year.
“We knew the kind of team that we had and what we were capable of and how well we could play and the guys did a fantastic job all the way through the season.
“We carried that form through into the play-offs and when we got through to the finals weekend and got drawn up against Cardiff we knew it would be tough.
“But we did the hard work on that Saturday afternoon and in the final we tried to relax, while still playing as hard as we could.
“The ability went all the way through the team and we had some great British guys to push us along as well.
“When I look through my time with the club, those first five or six years was a really, really great time to be there.
“I think for that play-off final, being there and losing the way we did the year before to Cardiff gave us such an added incentive to make sure that we finished it off when we went back that time and saw the job through against Edinburgh.”
Steelers’ roll of honour down the years .....
1992-93: Won promotion from Division 1.
1994-95: Premier Division title; play-off championship.
1995-96: Grand slam of Premier Division title, play-off championship, B&H Knockout Cup.
1996-97: Play-off championship.
1998-99: Challenge Cup.
1999-2000: Challenge Cup.
2000-01: Grand Slam – Superleague title, play-off championship, B&H Cup, Challenge Cup.
2001-02: Play-off championship.
2002-03: Superleague title, Challenge Cup.
2003-04: Elite League title, play-off championship.
2005-06: British Knockout Cup.
2007-08: Play-off championship.
2008-09: Elite League title, play-off championship
2010-11: Elite League title.
2013-14: Play-off championship.
League titles: 7
Play-off titles: 9
Challenge Cups: 4.