Elite League hockey may be back, just not as we know it. After months of false dawns and the abandonment of several proposed starting dates, UK ice hockey’s top-flight will finally be able to drop the puck.
Regrettably, only four of the 10 teams who would normally contest an EIHL season will take part, with Coventry Blaze, Nottingham Panthers and Manchester Storm joining the Steelers. It was only a month ago that EIHL bosses were left frustrated after being told that their application for some of the £4m funding on offer from the government’s Winter Survival Package had been turned down.
Although the details are being held back on how much and whether the money is in the form of loans or grants, what is clear is that a deal has now been done, one that will see the four teams camped at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre from early April.
Over five weeks they will play each other four times, behind closed doors in a Covid-secure venue with the event culminating in a best of three play-off final. All games will be available online for fans to watch on a pay-per-view basis.
Teams will be limited to eight imports while Fox, along with rival coaches Ryan Finnerty, Danny Stewart and Tim Wallace, will get a head start on their rosters by protecting or retaining five British players – including GB internationals expected to be in contention for this year’s squad for the World Championships in Latvia – who have previously played or signed for their team.
Steelers and GB captain Jonathan Phillips has already been confirmed by owner Tony Smith as being among Fox’s locked five.
Rosters will then be completed with each coach picking seven more British players in a unique Draft-style selection, which could be staged as early as next Monday.
Steelers’ head coach Fox is just relieved to get back to the day job, but realises the next fortnight or so is likely to be very hectic.
“The next two weeks will be frightening in one way, but very enjoyable,” said Fox. “I like a challenge and I’m stoked for it. Having less imports than normal won’t bother me, you take the roster regs you’re given and you make them work for you. With the five British guys that we’ve protected, it’s a good starting point for us.
“Now it is about finding eight imports that a) want to play; b) I can get in and c) don’t have any other opportunities in front of them at the moment. There will be some work there but it’s an exciting time.”
News of the Elite Series was quickly welcomed by GB head coach Pete Russell whose job it will be to knock his team into shape in time for the World Championships that are scheduled to take place in Riga in May and June.
A handful of regular GB internationals have found work in Europe – including Steelers’ Robert Dowd – while others have had short spells in Europe and are currently playing in the NIHL National Spring Cup with Sheffield Steeldogs.
With the Elite Series starting a week after the Spring Cup ends, it means some of the players expected to be on Russell’s roster will have had 10 weeks of competitive hockey ahead of joining his training camp in early May.
“Firstly, it’s great for ice hockey in the UK,” said Russell, who will swap Freiburg for DEL2 rivals Ravensburg Towerstars next season. “And, secondly, it’s great for the British players to be able to get back to some normality and get active before the up-and-coming World Championships.
“Many of the potential players in the squad will now get competitive ice time, it’s vital they have some competitive matches ahead of a massive tournament for us all.”
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