Thompson gets early chance to face off in familiar surroundings

Paul Thompson, Sheffield Steelers' head coach.
Paul Thompson, Sheffield Steelers' head coach.
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After taking over as head coach at Sheffield Steelers, Paul Thompson has often thought about what it will be like to return to his former club Coventry Blaze with another team. 
Tonight he finds out.

Thompson was an integral part of the Blaze’s dominance in the early years of the Elite League, winning four league titles, one of which came as part of a treble in 2005.

The 50-year-old then spent two years coaching in Sweden and Denmark - while retaining close ties with Coventry as their general manager for the first year - before returning to the UK when appointed by the Steelers as Gerad Adams’s successor in April.

While he now spends the majority of his working week in Sheffield, Thompson’s home is in the West Midlands, allowing him to take his son for hockey practice sessions at Blaze’s Skydome Arena, the place where he coached Coventry for 13 years.

But tonight he will be patrolling the visitors’ bench and he admits it will be a strange feeling.

“It would have been tougher to leave Coventry to come straight to another Elite League team - but I’d left two years before in all honesty,” said Thompson.

“I had wonderful times there, wonderful memories - we dominated the British leagues for a number of years and they are a club who are right back up there now.

“I don’t know if emotional is the right word, but it will certainly be very different when we play there and I’m standing on the opposing bench.

“When you’ve been involved in the club for around 18 years, it’s certainly going to be different when you go back in there as coach of another team. And I realise I’m probably going to cop some flak when I go back there with the Steelers, but that’s life.”

Towards the end of Thompson’s reign, Coventry fell on some lean times both on the ice and, for a short while, financially.

The on-ice situation failed to improve in his absence with Matt Soderstrom and Marc LeFebvre unable to produce teams capable of competing at the top end of the Elite League.

The arrival of American Chuck Weber, however, has had the desired effect and Thompson believes - on the back of last year’s play-off final success against the Steelers – his former club will be up among the top teams again this campaign.

“They are a club who are right back up there now,” said Thompson. “They are certainly not the club I left. They’ve got a fabulous head coach in Chuck Weber and are a real player again.

“I think the smartest thing the league ever did was bring in the Conference system.

“But it has hurt Coventry over the last few years and it’s been tough that they haven’t been the dominant team they once were – but they are certainly coming back up again now.”

HULL PIRATES get their English Premier League season underway tonight by retiring the No 83 shirt of Sylvain Cloutier, the player-coach who led the now defunct Hull Stingrays for five seasons.

Cloutier’s time at the club was ended last year after Stingrays’ owner Bobby McEwan opted not to offer him a new deal.

The two had been instrumental in keeping the club going through a number of troubling times but their relationship had broken down.

The Stingrays folded in the summer, leaving the way for Sheffield Steeldogs’ owner Shane Smith to step in and launch the Pirates, playing in the EPL.

Prior to tonight’s opening game against Manchester Phoenix, Cloutier - who played under Paul Thompson at Coventry Blaze for two seasons – will be honoured by Hull’s ice hockey community in the sport’s traditional way of honouring outstanding achievement and loyalty by having his shirt retired.

“It’s an honour to see my shirt retired,” said Cloutier, who now coaches at Coldwater Falcons back in North America. “It could not be in a better place.

“I’m sure it is going to be an emotional time.”