WHEN Sheffield Steelers’ owner Tony Smith plumped for Aaron Fox to be his new head coach back in April this year, it was clear he was not looking for a quick fix.
A three-year deal for the 43-year-old American pointed more towards a long-term project, suggesting that something sustainable was being built at the FlyDSA Arena.
Two seasons without silverware had left the Steelers wounded, particularly after the second of those campaigns saw them just scrape into the playoffs in seventh place before exiting at the first time of asking at the hands of rivals Cardiff Devils.
With Paul Thompson gone barely a month into the 2018-19 season, he was replaced by two-time Stanley Cup winner Tom Barrasso, the hope being some of his NHL ‘magic’ would rub off on the misfiring roster he inherited.
But it was a campaign littered with inconsistency under a coach who was unwilling to commit to a second year until he saw what alternative positions were available in Europe.
That was no use to Smith and, within days of the first round playoff exit, Barrasso was gone and Fox was being introduced to the club’s fans.
Consistency on the ice remains an issue that frustrates current head coach and GM, who stated from the off that his main aim in his first season in charge would be to close the gap that had opened up between the Steelers and the likes of Belfast Giants and Cardiff Devils, the two teams to lift the regular season Elite League championship trophy since it was last brought back to South Yorkshire by Paul Thompson in 2016.
But, given that Fox’s free-scoring Steelers’ team – which underwent a major overhaul in the summer – goes into the short Christmas break top of the regular season standings, with Cardiff and Belfast close behind, is it too early to suggest that the project outlined at the start of his tenure may be slightly ahead of schedule?
“Where we stand right now, I’m happy with. Am I satisfied? No, I feel like we’ve left some points out there,” said Fox, who switched to the Steelers after six years as sporting manager at Medvescak Zagreb, his last season there seeing him have to double up as head coach as the club ran into off-ice troubles following five years competing against bigger, more-monied organisations in the KHL.
“There have been some games we should have won, where we didn’t take care of business. But, at the end of the day, if it is Christmas time and we are in a position to fight for the title during the second half of the season that was realistically my goal at the start – to close the gap on Cardiff and Belfast.
I hold myself accountable. There have been times when I’ve come into the room and owned up in front of the guys to the bad decisions I’ve made. That is the way it should be. I’m not perfect, the players are not perfectSheffield Steelers’ head coach, Aaron Fox.
“And I think we’re right there, I know they have a few games in hand, but even if Cardiff wins all those games in hand, we are still within striking distance.
“As long as we are competing here down the stretch, which we’ve put ourselves in a position to do so now, that is satisfying.”
Fox admits to plenty of frustrations during his first season in the UK’s top-flight and admits he perhaps initially underestimated the quality across the league, a viewpoint he has quickly adjusted.
“You are always micro-managing and looking back and are left disappointed some nights where you felt you should have got better or deserved better,” added Fox, whose team host Manchester Storm on Boxing Day (face-off 4pm). “I feel like we could be five or six points better off than where we are.
“There have not been many games that we’ve won that we didn’t deserve to win, but I feel like we’ve lost a few that we probably deserved better from. But that is just the nature of the business we’re in.
“This is a good league. That’s the one thing that surprised me a little bit – how good it is throughout all 10 teams.
“If you look at some of the lower-budget teams, a team like Manchester, you go into that building and it’s hard to play in, it doesn’t matter what team you have, that isn’t an easy venue to go into
“We’ve seen, Dundee have beaten Belfast, Coventry have beaten Cardiff – any team can beat any other team on any given night, there are no nights off.
And despite his vast experience of European leagues as a player and that five-year stint at Zagreb in the KHL, Fox admits that, while his recruitment skills were well-established from his stint in Croatia. as a head coach, he is still learning on the job.
“I hold myself accountable,” said Fox.
“There have been times when I’ve come into the room and owned up in front of the guys to the bad decisions I’ve made.
“That is the way it should be. I’m not perfect, the players are not perfect – we’re all going to make mistakes, but we stick together as a group.
“I think the guys like playing for me.
“My effort is always there and I’ve kind of been learning on the job this last year and a half.
“I’ve been around some really good coaches who I have learned from and I’ve tried to implement some of the positives I’ve found from those guys.
“I feel as if I’ve got better as a coach every day and believe that I will continue to get better.”