Home comforts can help provide Sheffield Steelers with flying start

FAMILIAR FACES: Eric Neiley, Tim Wallace and Andreas Valdix were all in a Steelers' jersey last season. Pictures: Dean Woolley/Hayley Roberts.
FAMILIAR FACES: Eric Neiley, Tim Wallace and Andreas Valdix were all in a Steelers' jersey last season. Pictures: Dean Woolley/Hayley Roberts.
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HE has been there, done it – maybe even got the T-shirt several times over – but Sheffield Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson admits he still gets a special kind of excitement for the opening home night of a season.

The Steelers’ 2018-19 campaign actually began last weekend in slightly disappointing fashion with a 5-2 defeat to Nottingham Panthers at the National Ice Centre.

But that was in the group phase of the Challenge Cup. This weekend, if everybody is being completely honest, is where it really matters – the start of the regular season of the Elite League, the winning of which all 11 clubs competing covet more than any other trophy.

Naturally, the Steelers would take great delight in lifting the Challenge Cup for the first time in the EIHL era but, when you break everything down, over the course of the next seven months, Thompson and his players will be chiefly driven by a desire to lift the league title for the sixth time and the first time since 2016.

Milton Keynes Lightning are the obstacle both tomorrow and Sunday, with the Steelers first playing host at Sheffield Arena (7pm) before making the trip down to Buckinghamshire a little under 24 hours later.

Since training camp began almost five weeks ago, Thompson has learned plenty about his new-look team, probably more than ever in the Cup defeat against the Panthers, the first time his players had gone toe-to-toe with domestic opposition in a pre-season schedule that saw them play host to two top Swedish sides in Leksands IF and Timra.

Thompson was in Milton Keynes on Wednesday night to see the Lightning – under new head coach Doug McKay – put Coventry Blaze to the sword 9-4 in what was the final exhibition game for both sides.

Among McKay’s charges were three former Steelers from last season and one player on-loan in the shape of 20-year-old Cole Shudra.

Andreas Valdix and Tim Wallace were not asked back by Thompson after a trophyless campaign, while Eric Neiley – who Thompson was keen to sign again – retired only to quickly change his mind and eventually find his way to the Lightning. It will give tomorrow night’s opening encounter some added spice, although Thompson is only concerned with the players currently in his charge.

“I dare say the first time you go back to an old club you always want to prove a point,” said Thompson. “But I have no control over that – all I’m concerned with is making sure that we do what we need to do to get the win, on both nights.

Sheffield Steelers head coach, Paul Thompson.''Picture: Dean Woolley.

Sheffield Steelers head coach, Paul Thompson.''Picture: Dean Woolley.

“Vally (Valdix) was a big part of our play-off championship winning season just over a year ago and he was a good player for us, but in my 25 years of coaching I’ve had hundreds of former players that have come back to play against my teams – that’s just the nature of the game.”

With all pre-season games being played at nearby Ice Sheffield, tomorrow will be the first time Thompson’s 16 summer arrivals will have chance to experience playing at the Arena, in front of a near sell-out crowd.

“I still get excited about the first home game of the season – 100 per cent I do – but we’re all looking forward to it,” added Thompson.

“Don’t get me wrong, Ice Sheffield is a fantastic venue to have so close to the Arena, but we can’t wait to get back to the main place – that’s where we want to be. It has been a long and tough five weeks for everyone here and the icing on the cake would be two points on Saturday.”

I dare say the first time you go back to an old club you always want to prove a point,” said Thompson. “But I have no control over that – all I’m concerned with is making sure that we do what we need to do to get the win, on both nights.

Sheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson