IF Gerad Adams could have hand-picked an opponent for his Sheffield Steelers team to play in tomorrow’s Challenge Cup final, it would have been Cardiff Devils.
Not because a game against the South Wales club is considered easy, but rather, the 36-year-old Canadian spent nine happy seasons at Cardiff Bay before a parting of the ways – not of his own doing – in December 2013.
Within two months, Adams found himself parachuted into the Motorpoint Arena by Steelers’ owner Tony Smith, who had dispensed with the services of Doug Christiansen after less than nine months when he became convinced the American’s approach was not going to deliver the club a first piece of silverware since the 2011 regular season championship under Ben Simon.
Fast forward three months and Smith was stood on centre ice at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham clutching the Elite League play-off trophy with Adams by his side.
This season, the stakes are even higher as Adams – allowed to stamp his own mark on a team he inherited from Christiansen in February last year – finds his players chasing silverware on three fronts.
Tomorrow’s final against his former club will determine whether they remain in the hunt for a possible treble which also has them in a three-way fight for the regular season title with Cardiff and leaders Braehead Clan. Then, of course, there are the play-offs.
Having beaten Braehead 2-0 on Wednesday night, Steelers moved to within three points of Ryan Finnerty’s team with a game in hand and six left to play. Before tomorrow’s final, Adams’s players have to take care of business tonight at home to Belfast Giants, while Braehead travel to Nottingham and third-placed Cardiff – two points off Steelers with a game in hand of their own – host bottom-club Dundee Stars.
In a quirk of the fixture schedule, Steelers have to face Cardiff three more times after tomorrow’s game, the Devils returning to South Yorkshire on Wednesday night.
But, for now, Adams is only focussing on that first meeting, success in which will deliver the Challenge Cup trophy to Sheffield for the first time in the Elite League’s 12-year history.
Adams has faced his former club already on a number of occasions while in charge of the Steelers, but tomorrow’s meeting will be slightly more special.
“It’s my old team and any time you’re up against an old employer you want to do your best and you want to get the right result,” said Adams. “I’m sure they are happy playing me – I hope they are happy playing me because I’m happy that they are there.”
During his nine years as player and coach in Cardiff, the Devils won the Challenge Cup and long-forgotten Knockout Cup. The closest Adams ever came to winning the league was in 2011, his team finishing level on points with the Steelers, but losing out to Simon’s team who had won more games in regulation.
Four times play-off runners-up was further evidence of Adams’s ability to produce teams that consistently punched above their weight.
But all good things come to an end, and while there is clearly a lot of affection for his former club, Adams is happier than ever in his current coaching role at a team he won the league and play-off double with in 2004. “There will always kind of be a little bit of home for me (with Cardiff),” said Adams. “It was my team – I make no bones about it. I didn’t want to leave but unfortunately I had to for various reasons but, to wind up here, I couldn’t be happier with the situation that I am in.
“I couldn’t be happier with the support from the Smiths (owners) and everybody involved in the organisation. It is great to be in an organisation where everybody wants to win and they just want the best for their team.
“I think you’d have to say the biggest difference between here and Cardiff is the expectation.
“The expectation here is to win – to win every game, to win trophies and with that comes pressure. But that expectation is good and it is something that I want at this point in my coaching career and I’ve tried surrounding myself with players that welcome that kind of expectation.
“Pressure is a made-up word.
“We went through a little bit of a lull (Christmas and new year) but we came through it and that’s a good sign that these guys have got the right attitude and that, for me, has been the biggest thing.
“The guys’ attitude and approach towards every game and training has been first class.”
Ever since the league announced last summer that the Challenge Cup final would be held at the Motorpoint Arena, Adams and his players have been determined to ensure they were involved on their ‘home ice’.
It did not look too promising when they lost 3-1 at home to defending champions Nottingham in the semi- final first leg, but they produced a rousing comeback in the second leg at the NIC, eventually prevailing 8-7 on aggregate after a penalty shoot-out in which stand-in goaltender Sam Gospel – signed only hours before the match – produced heroics.
“Our goal was to reach this Challenge Cup final – our goal was to win this game on Sunday and we’re on track to do that,” added Adams.
“We’ve possibly paid more attention to it than the club has in the past. Going into that second leg in Nottingham, it was killing our guys to even think that we might not be there on home ice for the final. Now, we just need to finish the job we started in September.”