THEY may be billed merely as ‘pre-season friendlies’ or ‘exhibition’ games, but make no mistake - this weekend’s two matches against Aalborg are hugely important for Sheffield Steelers.
Not necessarily the outcome, the results are immaterial. But with a season-opening Champions Hockey League clash against Sweden’s HV71 Jönköping less than a week away, the next 48 hours are crucial for head coach Paul Thompson and his new-look roster.
It’s been a busy summer for the Elite League champions’ boss, who has brought in 11 new faces. And, after working with them all together as a unit for the first time for only the past five days, he is keen to see them develop into an effective team unit as quickly as possible. This weekend, says Thompson, will help speed up that process.
“These two games will help blow some cobwebs out,” said Thompson, who coached Aalborg for one season before returning to the UK to take over at Sheffield Arena last summer. “You can’t really beat games for match fitness and timing and everything else. You can practice all day long, but games are what sharpen you up as a player.
“We haven’t had long to prepare, we’ve only been on the ice - all of us together - since Monday, while Aalborg have been at it for two weeks. I’m expecting them to be a little bit sharper than us, but we have to sort our systems, our plays, our fitness, our timing and get some chemistry going.
“We’re lucky in that we have players who did play together last year, certainly in terms of the forwards, so there is some chemistry and shared experiences there. We know we’re going to get a really good workout.”
Thompson’s players will have a day to recover after the weekend before heading out to Sweden on Tuesday, enabling them to fit in at least two on-ice practice sessions ahead of what is sure to be a stern test against hosts HV71, four-time champions of Sweden’s top division and who also reached the last eight of the CHL two years ago.
“It’s going to be tough, but it’s all part of pre-season,” added former GB boss Thompson. “Aalborg have eight weeks of pre-season, we don’t. We have 10 days before we play HV71 and that includes the travel.
“We’re deeper than last year though and we’re a four-line hockey club now. I feel the balance of our club is pretty good right now, but the proof will be in the pudding this weekend.”
We’re deeper than last year though and we’re a four-line hockey club now. I feel the balance of our club is pretty good right nowPaul Thompson, Sheffield Steelers head coach.