JONATHAN PHILLIPS is convinced former Sheffield Steelers’ team-mate Ashley Tait is destined to go down in the history of the game as one of the all-time great British players.
The two friends come head-to-head once again as Phillips’ Steelers head to Coventry Blaze in the Challenge Cup on Saturday night.
Last season, Tait and the Blaze proved to be a major thorn in the side of Steelers, in one way proving to be their biggest obstacle on the way to a second successive regular season title.
A few months on and Tait has stepped up to combine playing with an assistant coach role, similar to the position he enjoyed during his second spell at Steelers between 2011-13 under Ryan Finnerty.
It sees him reunited with Coventry’s new head coach, Danny Stewart, with who he won the league and Challenge Cup double under Paul Thompson, now head coach at Sheffield.
Phillips himself counts himself lucky to have played alongside Tait in two spells at Sheffield Arena, the pair lifting two play-off titles and a league championship before Tait headed off to Italy for a season.
On Tait’s return, he and Phillips were part of the Steelers team which lifted the league title under player-coach Ben Simon in 2010-11. Two lean years followed under Finnerty before Tait returned to Coventry, helping the Blaze to prove a tough nut to crack for the Steelers on countless occasions since, leading them to the play-off title at the expense of the Steelers in 2015.
Tait is one goal away from becoming only the third player to score 250 goals in the EIHL in all competitions and while Phillips won’t want to begrudge his good friend reaching that landmark, he’d prefer it not to happen against the Steelers at the SkyDome Arena on Saturday night.
“He’s a special player and a special guy,” said Phillips. “The shape he keeps himself in and to be going this long and to still be producing is very impressive.
“He’s a smart player, he’s a team player and he’s a calming influence – a leader through and through. His numbers speak for themselves throughout his career and he’s a very intelligent hockey player.
“If you look back at any big game throughout his career, he will have had a major influence on the outcome of that game points wise or otherwise.
“He is a winner. I’ve learned plenty from him over the years, from watching him and then playing alongside him – his professionalism and his work ethic is second to none and he’s always been one of the hardest-working players on any given night and definitely somebody you look up to.
“He has to go down as one of the all-time greats in the British game – he’s achieved so much and is a great example to younger kids coming through.”
Phillips – who host arch-rivals Nottingham Panthers on Sunday (5pm) in another Challenge Cup encounter – is hoping the Steelers can enjoy better luck against Coventry this season.
“We kind of owe them as they had our number last year and they won the series between us and dominated us towards the end of the season,” added Phillips.
“We want to rectify that.”