IT was a case of a step into the unknown when Andre Payette took charge at Sheffield Steeldogs almost a year ago - for both club and coach.
The 35-year-old Canadian-born forward - more famed for his role as an ‘enforcer’ after arriving in the UK with Coventry Blaze in 2004 - had been brought in by coaching predecessor Matt Darlow in November 2010 to provide some much-needed protection for his young, inexperienced team who were languishing near the foot of the English Premier League table.
Within two months, rookie coach Darlow was gone - replaced at the end of January by Payette, for himself a first move into coaching in a hockey career which as a player had seen him win a Calder Cup in the AHL, as well as a treble with Paul Thompson’s Coventry in his first UK season.
Fast forward 12 months and the Steeldogs, under Payette’s guidance, have been transformed. By far the surprise package of the EPL season so far, they sit fifth in the table – only eight points behind leaders Guildford Flames with 19 games remaining.
A combination of astute summer signings and Payette’s ability to get more out of the young squad he inherited have helped the Steeldogs thrive and delivered them a semi-final appearance in the EPL Cup.
Even Payette, whose enthusiasm for the game is as strong now as it no doubt was when first drafted by the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers back in 1994, admits to being surprised at his team’s achievements this season – particularly when it has been achieved on one of the lowest budgets in the league.
Such is the belief running through the club that owner Shane Smith granted Payette’s wish earlier this week to bring in a fourth import player – the maximum allowed under league rules but which, mainly for financial reasons, the Steeldogs had opted not to go with previously.
The arrival of Latvian forward Raivis Kurnigins is a statement of intent by the South Yorkshire club who are determined to push their title rivals – including Manchester Phoenix who they lost 3-0 to on Thursday – all the way to the finish line.
“I think I have helped change the mentality of a lot of our younger guys,” said Payette.
“I think you can see it has paid off. We were one of the worst teams in the league and we have only brought in four guys since. We wanted to prove a lot of people wrong and I think we’ve done that.
“If I’m being honest, at the start of the season I really didn’t expect us to be where we are at this stage. I thought if we worked hard, we would be the best “team” in terms of the effort, but I didn’t know how far we could take it.
“It’s hard to say whether we’ll win this year, but we are certainly making it interesting and the boys have to take great pride in what they have done. You have to remember that we are in a four-import league and have been running with three imports – that’s a tribute to how hard my guys have worked.”
Crowds are up and sponsorship – such a valuable resource for all ice hockey clubs in the UK – is also increasing, something which is music to owner Smith’s ears, who admitted he wasn’t sure how things would turn out when he appointed 35-year-old Payette.
Smith launched the Steeldogs as the successor to the city’s previous EPL representative, Sheffield Scimitars, after they folded. The first few months were difficult as the club tried to keep pace with its rivals on a limited budget and a rookie coach in Darlow.
Payette was able to secure a play-off spot at the end of that first season, but they exited at the first stage to Manchester. But the desire to develop a team that is largely ‘made in Sheffield’ to help provide future seasons with more homegrown players is starting to pay dividends for the club.
Smith said: “I have to say the team wouldn’t be here without Matt (Darlow), the club owes him a lot and I still have a lot of respect for him.
“When it came to Andre taking over the team I had a feeling it was something which could go either way, given the kind of character he is.
“Did I expect to it to be as good as it is? No. What he’s got the lads doing both on and off the ice is amazing. He has come in and given them so much more self-belief.
“The thing we are trying to push is that this is a team that is raised in Sheffield. You have to give kids coming through the system in Sheffield a chance. You won’t achieve that if you are bringing in people from miles away all the time.
“I think it helps with players coming from the area as they take a bit more pride in the team.”
And Payette’s ability to entertain – and his penchant for protecting his team-mates through a bit of on-ice physicality – is something that Smith feels has been missing in recent years.
“The entertainment seems to have disappeared a little bit in the sport over the last few years I feel and it has become, perhaps, a more technical game,” added Smith. “But you still have to keep the big hits and the physicality in there.
“That’s what has happened here, I hope. Andre has come in and they are grinding out results but, at the same time, it’s entertaining and that is what our fans are enjoying.”
And while some people may have dismissed the notion of Payette being an effective coach, it comes as no surprise to one of his former bosses - Tony Hand - who took Payette to Manchester Phoenix for the 2009-10 season, the club’s first in the EPL.
Hand, recently appointed as coach of the Great Britain team, said he had been impressed with how Payette had adapted to the twin responsibilities of coaching and playing in his first full season in charge at the Steeldogs.
“People think that because of his reputation as a player he wouldn’t work as a coach,” said Hand. “But you have to remember he has played at a very high level, he’s won some trophies including a Calder Cup in the AHL and with Coventry and Newcastle over here – you pick more stuff if there are better people around you.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all how well Sheffield are doing because Andre has put together a really good team. He’s got a lot of good British players and he’s got them playing really well – they’ll be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.”
As for Payette, he’ll continue to shape and mould a Sheffield-based team aiming to bring in silverware within the next two or three years, beginning with this weekend’s double header against Swindon Wildcats, the second of which will be on home ice on Sunday (5.30pm).
“I’ve a plan to win this league, not necessarily this year, not necessarily next season but perhaps the year after,” he added. “But here we are towards the end of January and we are eight points off the top so let’s just see what happens.
“This has been the most rewarding year of my career. The team has undergone the most dramatic changes in just 12 months and if we can do the same in the next 12 months there’s no telling what we can achieve.”