IT was former Sheffield Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson who, back in 2016, described the fact that GB international goaltender Ben Bowns had escaped the club’s clutches to end up playing for Elite League rivals Cardiff Devils as “criminal”.
Born in Rotherham and a childhood Steelers fan, Bowns was a product of the city’s junior system, going on to play three seasons in the UK’s second tier, first with the Scimitars before they were replaced by the Steeldogs.
But, whether it was down to personalities involved at both clubs or simply timing itself, Bowns’s future in the game was to lie outside of South Yorkshire, making the step up to the Elite League first with Hull Stingrays in 2012 before a move to an ambitious Devils organisation came to two years later.
Thompson’s Steelers prevailed that year in the race for the regular season title - just - but Cardiff went on to lift the next two championships, Bowns playing an integral role in a dominant spell for the club which also coincided with him solidifying his position as GB’s No 1.
By contrast, Liam Kirk is an example of where co-operation can work, the 19-year-old winger coming through the Sheffield system, having half a season with the Steeldogs before being whisked off by the Steelers on an apprenticeship and loaned back the following season.
A year later, Kirk was selected in the NHL Entry Draft by the Arizona Coyotes. An earlier example was that of Steelers’ Robert Dowd, getting his first taste of senior UK hockey with the Scimitars before quickly making his step up to the top-flight across the road at Sheffield Arena.
Now, as a result of an agreement announced on Friday morning between the two clubs, it is to be hoped there will be more players like Kirk and Dowd, while no repeat of what happened with Bowns.
By forging a closer working relationship, the aim is that young players will have the best chance of progression and development - with the ultimate goal being to play for the Steelers - by getting the ice time they need.
In essence, it means Steelers’ apprentices Jordan Griffin and Alex Graham will be on two-way deals with the Steeldogs for the 2018-19 season and only likely to be called back by their parent club to provide injury cover.
It also means that the likes of Kieran Brown and Cole Shudra, likely to be fighting it out for ice time on the Steelers’ fourth line, will also have the chance to gain valuable minutes in NIHL National, instead of warming the bench during EIHL matches, something Brown spent too much time doing last season under Tom Barrasso.
Talks were first held between the two clubs back in May, the idea being driven initially by new Steelers’ head coach and GM Aaron Fox, before the owners came on board to draw up the agreement.
“It was just conversations that we had had early on in the process when we talked about us having a few extra players and what we could do to make sure they are here with us, but also getting the type of development that they need,” explained Fox.
“I’m a firm believer that I don’t need to sit guys on the bench and possibly play a minute or two night to just mop up time.
“If I’m going to use a guy, they’ll come dressed and they will play. If not, I would prefer them playing 20-25 minutes a game at the next level available to them. It just seemed like a natural fit with the Steeldogs.
“Ben (Morgan, Steeldogs’ player-coach) is a really good guy. We agreed on a lot of things from day one and, if I’m honest, it hasn’t been a hard deal to do.”
As for Morgan, Fox’s initial overtures were music to his ears, developing a process he feels is long overdue for the city’s hockey programme.
“From day one since he came over here, Aaron has been a massive advocate of there being a clear pathway for development,” said Morgan.
“He’s got a big squad, he’s got young, aspiring players who he wants to be in and among their camp and training with them - but he also wants them to get valuable ice time elsewhere.
“For him, the obvious question was ‘Why are we not working with the Steeldogs?’ For us, it was like a breath of fresh air for somebody to come in with a clean slate and a fresh perspective.
“He’s kind of been the catalyst in getting people talking and meeting up. He’s been fantastic all the way through.”
Today's agreement gives a clear signal to youngsters that there is a clear path for them to take of they wish to realise their dream of playing for the city's most senior hockey club. And, maybe, just maybe, Bowns may one day return to realise his own dream of stepping out on the ice for the club he followed so avidly as a child.