Saturday Interview: Ambitious Thompson happy to play the long game

FORWARD THINKING: Sheffield Steelers' head coach Paul Thompson, on the bench last weekend against Braehead Clan. Picture kindly supplied by Dean Woolley.
FORWARD THINKING: Sheffield Steelers' head coach Paul Thompson, on the bench last weekend against Braehead Clan. Picture kindly supplied by Dean Woolley.
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DEALING with high expectation levels has never been a problem for Paul Thompson.

The most successful British ice hockey coach in recent memory, the 50-year-old has taken on perhaps his biggest challenge yet as head coach of Sheffield Steelers.

Whoever had replaced Gerad Adams – sacked by owner Tony Smith despite winning an Elite League championship and a play-off title in his 15-month reign – would have come in knowing the pressure was on to at least match what the former Cardiff Devils coach had achieved.

In Thompson, Smith believes he has the man who can take the South Yorkshire club on to the next level, making them a consistent force in the sport, not only in the domestic game but, possibly, eventually, in Europe, too. The first steps of which were taken earlier this week when they made their Champions Hockey League debut.

Whereas Thompson will be expected to ensure Steelers challenge on all fronts in the domestic game, there are few expectations in the CHL.

Indeed, it was a tough baptism of fire for Thompson’s players at Frolunda Indians in Gothenburg on Thursday night as they suffered a 9-1 defeat.

Up against one of Europe’s top teams and last year’s runners-up in the inaugural CHL – a competition this year expanded to 48 teams from 12 countries – it was always going to be a tough assignment for Thompson’s players.

After two periods it was 2-0 to the Swedish hosts, Steelers having held their own and having had a number of chances to get on the scoresheet. But the visitors ran into penalty trouble and conceded five goals in six minutes. It will not be any easier tonight when they face another highly-regarded opponent in the shape of Finland’s JYP Jyvaskyla.

It is not the first time Thompson or the Steelers have played in Europe, but the South Yorkshire club’s occasional forays into the Continental Cup have never before pitted them against the kind of elite teams they are now facing. Tough it may be over the next three weeks – they host Jyvaskyla on August 30 and Frolunda on September 5 – it is for nights like at Frolunda’s Scandanavium Arena that Thompson came to Sheffield.

“It was a big pull for me to come here – absolutely,” he said. “The CHL is just starting out, but it is growing and the attention on it is growing and we want to be a part of that – on a regular basis.

“I think it’s a fantastic concept and the Sheffield ownership here want to be a part of that. You’ve got to be successful in your own domestic league and, thankfully, the Steelers were last year and that has given me and the team the opportunity to go into this competition.”

The only British-born coach in the Elite League, Thompson first cut his coaching teeth at Solihull Barons, eventually helping build Coventry Blaze into one of the most successful clubs in recent years, winning four league titles, one of which came as part of a memorable treble in 2004-05.

Difficult days followed at Blaze, a time that coincided with them stepping in to take over Hull Stingrays, who had fallen on hard times, but the signs of recovery were in place with a play-off semi-final spot before Thompson headed off to try his hand out coaching in Europe.

Thompson had been visiting Scandanavia for a number of years for coaching clinics and study trips and took the plunge two years ago to take up the position of assistant coach at Troja Llungby in the Allsvenskan league, Sweden’s second tier.

He became head coach during the course of the season and accepted a similar role the following summer to take over Aalborg Pirates in Denmark’s top flight. It is the experience of his time in Scandanavia and his knowledge of international hockey gained through being Great Britain coach between 2006-11 that persuaded Steelers owner Smith to bring him to the Motorpoint Arena.

The UK domestic game has long been regarded as the poor relation of its European cousins.

But the Elite League – self-governed by its 10 clubs – has seen its stock rise in the past three years producing a more widely competitive league since the introduction of a Conference system.

There are still problems to overcome – the sad demise of Hull Stingrays in the summer was publicity the game could have done without – but, the fact two teams from the United Kingdom’s top flight are involved in this year’s CHL is a sign of further progress being made.

While Thompson’s priority will be bringing silverware to the Steelers, there is also a burning desire to improve the standing of the UK game in Europe, both at club and international level.

“Coaching is a journey – it’s no different to playing – and I felt that I needed to go away and have a look at what these different countries were doing,” added Thompson.

“Predominantly here in the UK, we have a North American style, with North American imports, with North American coaches. But I wanted to go away and have a look what they were doing in Europe.

“Why are Sweden so strong? What do they do and how do they do it? And why are there so many players going into the NHL from a country that is so relatively small.

“And it was the same with Denmark – Sweden, to be fair are on another plain altogether – but Denmark is a country that is very similar to us and I think they only have something like 14 ice rinks. Yet their national team are in Pool A.

“What Denmark did was rebuild eight years ago on how to go forward and how they were doing things, with their youth systems and their programmes – at both a club and national level, they work together.

“That is the biggest difference (between them and us).”

In order for the UK to attempt to emulate what has happened in Denmark in recent years, Thompson says a major rethink is required with all the disparate parts of the sport throughout the UK coming together.

“You’re talking about a major programme,” he said.

“The governing bodies in these Scandinavian countries run hockey. But what you have here is Ice Hockey UK running the national teams, then you have the Elite League, then you have the English Premier League and they are kind of all run in their own way. There is a kind of umbrella but they each have their own powers within their own areas.

“In Denmark, for example, they went up to 12 imports. But clubs were going bust every year, they were spending too much money. Then, eight years ago, they changed it all and changed how they produced their kids.

“In Sweden, for instance, every first team has to have an Under-18s and Under-20s attached to it, so there is that filler there.

“They now have eight imports in Denmark. One of the teams in Denmark – Rodovre – I think they had one import last season and he was a Swedish kid that was brought up there. They actually didn’t need it (imports) because they were producing their own – and this is over an eight-year cycle.

“There is going to be some finance required (to replicate that over here) but when you look at the bigger picture – and I don’t know whether the bigger picture ever really gets looked at – and if you do look at it, it can happen very quickly. Like everything with UK hockey, you have to chip away at it. There is never really a broad decision made – you just have to keep chipping away at it bit by bit.

“But I’m sure, if the national teams keeps progressing the way they are and if the Elite League starts to make inroads in the CHL, it might change the focus a little bit.”