It’s been a week of turmoil in South Yorkshire, starting on Monday when head coach Paul Thompson resigned citing ‘personal reasons’ with player-assistant-coach Mark Matheson stepping up to oversee the team’s preparations for this weekend.
A little over 72 hours later, Thompson’s last signing for the club, forward Ryan Martindale, was also on his way out, just five days after arriving in the UK and scoring on his debut in the Challenge Cup win over Nottingham Panthers.
Martindale cited ‘personal reasons’ for his swift return to North America, although some pverdue good news quickly arrived when it was revealed former Steelers forward Jonas Westerling was returning to the club.
Like Westerling, who left after just one season in Sheffield, defenceman Fitzgerald was a big hit with Steelers’ fans during his three years there.
He and Westerling were among of a number of players to move on in the summer, with the 33-year-old blue liner returning to captain Glasgow, who first brought him to the UK back in 2014. After one year, Thompson brought him to the Steelers, where he won an Elite League title and a playoff trophy.
Back on familiar ice in Scotland and having recently become a father for the first time, Fitzgerald is more than happy with his current situation but, like any ex-player, would love to put one over his old club.
“I hope the Steelers get straightened out and I think they’ll be fine because they’ve got guys who know what it takes to win,” said Fitzgerald.
“I had three great years there and had a great relationship with the fans. I made a lot of friends there – some lifelong friends – but you always want to beat a team that you’re going back to and get one over on them – it’s natural.
“I’m excited to hopefully lead our team to a win, while also showing my respect to the Steelers’ fans.”
On the resignation of his former boss Thompson, Fitzgerald said it was “unfortunate” that he had felt it necessary to leave in such circumstances, adding: “You never want to see anything come to a conclusion like that for the guy. I was there with him for three years and people are quick to forget that we won a league title and a play-off trophy.
“But there is a pretty big amount of pressure down there at the Steelers and it is an everybody-expects-to-win type deal and, unfortunately, the league is just not like that now. Every team has a chance.”
Ahead of his first return to the club after leaving in April, Fitzgerald was keen to clear up a misconception about his exit.
“I wasn’t committed to coming back and the club weren’t committed to giving me a new deal,” he said. “But it was portrayed that I and all the other players had been ‘released’ by the club.
“But I was not released from anything, I was a free agent and exploring my options anyway.”
The Clan will arrive in Sheffield on the back of a 2-1 Challenge Cup group B win on Friday night over Fife Flyers, who Steelers head north to face on Sunday.
Steelers’ interim player-coach Matheson is well aware of the threat posed by both former colleague Fitzgerald and his Clan team-mates.
“Zack should get a good reception and rightfully so,” said Matheson. “The amount of work he did here just off the ice shows you the kind of guy he is and that isn’t easy because you have to work hard at that as well. It will be great to see him again.
“The thing is, it’s been such a hectic week that I’ve just been so focused on getting us ready to go because this is a league game and therefore these are big points for us.
“We’re aware of how tough a character Zack is, but their whole team will be. I think we’ve shown signs, however, of what we are capable of, particularly last week against Nottingham. We’ve obviously had some troubles offensively but I think we’re starting to find our identity and string some good performances together.
“If we can carry on doing that, the results will follow.”