After one of their longest-ever pre-season schedules, the Sheffield Steelers finally get their 2017-18 campaign up and running.
Paul Thompson and his players will have to wait until next weekend for the main business of the Elite League programme to start when
2016-17 champions Cardiff Devils visit Sheffield Arena.
For now, the Steelers will busy themselves with the Challenge Cup – the trophy that has so far eluded them in the EIHL era.
First up is a trip across the Pennines to Manchester Storm with arch-rivals Nottingham Panthers – already so impressive in their Champions Hockey League campaign – paying an early visit to Sheffield 24 hours later.
And while a longer-than-normal pre-season schedule is what head coach Thompson always wanted, it hasn’t come without its problems.
After last weekend’s exhibition double-header with Coventry Blaze, the Steelers found themselves with four key names on the injury list – forwards Matt Marquardt, Mathieu Roy and Levi Nelson, along with defenceman Zack Fitzgerald. At best Thompson is expecting only one - maybe two - to have recovered in time for Saturday night.
The situation was bad enough for Thompson to go to owner Tony Smith to ask for permission to bring in emergency injury cover, a request which was granted with the arrival of experienced Finnish forward Juha Koivisto, who arrived in Sheffield on Thursday.
“It was good to spend such a long time together but, in all honesty, we were ready to get the season going last week,” said Thompson. “From a coaching perspective, the longer you have to prepare the players the better.
“There’s a good vibe in the locker room. It’s been a long month and there’s been a lot of hard work involved – but we feel we are ready.”
Manchester got their Cup campaign underway last weekend, with former Steelers coach Ryan Finnerty’s team splitting a double head against another of his former clubs, Braehead Clan.
“Finner knows the league, he knows what type of team he wants in there, he wants a bigger, more physical presence,” said Thompson, whose team shared honours with the Storm during a pre-season double header a fortnight ago.
“But he seems to have complemented that well with skill and he’s done a good job of putting that team together.”
As for Nottingham, Thompson briefly puts the intense rivalry aside to acknowledge the success the Panthers have had in the CHL, sitting top of their groups with three wins from four, including victory over top Swiss side SC Bern.
It was good to spend such a long time together but, in all honesty, we were ready to get the season going last weekSheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson.
“They’ve had a fabulous start to the CHL and hats off to them for that,” said Thompson. “They’ve got a good skating team and have started really well. But, you know what? I’ve got a good team here too.”