DEFENCEMAN Ben O'Connor says an opportunity to become the first British player to play in the KHL was one he could not pass on.
The 29-year-old has joined Kazakhstan's Barys Astana, one of the founding members of the highly-regarded league.
It will come as a huge blow for Steelers' head coach Paul Thompson as he continues his rebuild of the team after a trophyless 2017-18 campaign.
But he won't begrudge O'Connor what is an excellent opportunity to play at a higher level, particularly with Great Britain's promotion to the World Championship elite group in Slovakia in 12 months' time.
With Steelers' teenage apprentice Liam Kirk also heading off to pastures new with a chance of being drafted by an NHL organisation, it leaves Thompson short on his talented British contingent, although the signing of goaltender British Jackson Whistle means Thompson will look for a qaulity import to fill O’Connor’s skates.
“It’s an incredible opportunity, the opportunity of a lifetime and one I could not pass up," said O'Connor.
“It’s not just about the salary, it’s the chance to play in one of the best leagues in the world. To test my self at the highest level. It is what all players want to do
“Tony (Smith) and Paul (Thompson) have both been brilliant with me. I had a year left with the Steelers but they have done everything possible to assist this move to.
“With Liam Kirk off to North America and the chance of being drafted in the NHL and now me heading to the KHL, it tells you that the British game is moving in the right direction."
O’Connor has spent time in Kazakhstan before, playing two-and-half seasons for Arlan Kokshetau before returning to the UK to play for the Steelers under then coach Gerad Adams.
It’s an incredible opportunity, the opportunity of a lifetime and one I could not pass upBen O’Connor
But following talks with several Kazakh-based players during the recent World Championships in Budapest, further talks led to O’Connor being offered to return to the region – but playing at a much higher level, the KHL being regarded by many as second only to the NHL in terms of quality and which, last season, housed Russian legends Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Thompson said it would not be easy to fill the gap left by a player of O’Connor’s quality, but he is relishing the challenge of trying to do so.
w”Obviously, we’re gutted that we will be losing one of our key players,” said Thompson. “But we wish him nothing but the best with this opportunity.
“The KHL is perhaps known as the second best league in the world after the NHL, the chance to play there is an incredible and deserved opportunity.
“Fortunately, the club have covered the position of British players with the recent signings of Jackson and Brandon Whistle. This means we can look for a quality import defenceman to fill Ben’s place on the team. He will have to be a hell of a player because that is what we are losing in Ben.”