Sheffield Steelers v Fife Flyers - Emergence of young talent remains key as Dowd returns to fray

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ONE of the biggest success stories of the Paul Thompson regime at Sheffield Steelers was his belief in the development of young prospects.

An apprenticeship scheme was launched by Thompson shortly before the end of his first year as head coach in March 2016, with Liam Kirk and Cole Shudra the first youngsters to benefit from the initiative.

Both would go on to feature for the Steelers on a regular basis by the end of the 2016-17 campaign, although it was Maltby-born Kirk who would go on to make the bigger headlines when he became the first English-born and trained player to be selected in the NHL draft as a seventh-round pick for the Arizona Coyotes.

Kirk is now attempting to make himself a genuine prospect for the NHL by playing in the OHL for the Peterborough Petes, while Shudra was loaned out to Steelers’ EIHL rivals Milton Keynes Lightning in the summer.

Last summer saw forward Kieran Brown added to the scheme, followed 12 months later by defenceman Jordan Griffin who, like Brown, came through the Bradford Bulldogs youth system.

And while Thompson may no longer be in place to oversee the player scheme, his successor Tom Barrasso is also a keen advocate of promoting youth where possible.

CRUCIAL: Kieran Brown is one of three Sheffield Steelers players currently going through the club's 'apprenticeship' scheme. Picture: Dean Woolley.

CRUCIAL: Kieran Brown is one of three Sheffield Steelers players currently going through the club's 'apprenticeship' scheme. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“It’s very important to have players like that coming through the system,” said Barrasso, who last week switched to become the Steelers’ head coach after two seasons with Italian side Asiago, who play in the AlpsHL, itself regarded as a development league.

“It’s the key for hockey in the UK moving forward - for the national team development those players need to play with and against the best players available because if you expose them to the best players on a regular basis, their game is only going to improve tremendously.

“It’s certainly something I believe in. I witnessed it in Italy and I think there is value to it here as well.”

Barrasso began his Steelers’ reign with a 5-2 defeat at Nottingham Panthers on Saturday night but his team have a chance to end a run of four straight Elite League defeats and lift themselves off the foot of the table when Fife Flyers visit Sheffield Arena tonight (7.30pm).

HELLO AGAIN: Robert Dowd is expected to return to action for Sheffield Steelers against Fife Flyers after six weeks out with an upper-body injury. Picture: Dean Woolley.

HELLO AGAIN: Robert Dowd is expected to return to action for Sheffield Steelers against Fife Flyers after six weeks out with an upper-body injury. Picture: Dean Woolley.

The Steelers were last night handed a major boost when Robert Dowd was declared fit, the 30-year-old forward having been on on the sidelines with an upper-body injury since the opening league encounter at home to Milton Keynes on September 8 which the hosts lost 3-2.

“I’ve hated watching," said Dowd, who helped out behind the bench at times while injured. "I’m not a good watcher, especially when the team hasn’t been doing well and is short handed. You just want to get out there and help your team-mates out."

THE CHOSEN ONE: Made headlines around the world when he became the first English-born and trained player to be picked in the NHL Draft. Picture: Dean Woolley.

THE CHOSEN ONE: Made headlines around the world when he became the first English-born and trained player to be picked in the NHL Draft. Picture: Dean Woolley.