Ben O'Connor and Sheffield Steeldogs keen to make up for lost time in NIHL National Spring Cup

BEN O’CONNOR admits he feared there would be no more hockey at all this season having been part of the Sheffield Steeldogs’ success in the ‘Streaming Series’.

Ben O'Connor, celebrates with Sheffield Steeldogs' team-mates during the Streaming Series. Picture courtesy of Cerys Molloy.
Ben O'Connor, celebrates with Sheffield Steeldogs' team-mates during the Streaming Series. Picture courtesy of Cerys Molloy.

The coronavirus has effectively scuppered the sport taking place at all levels in the UK since it began to wreak its deadly havoc on these shores last March.

The impact of several lockdowns and various government social distancing measures have prevented any meaningful activity for juniors right through to the full-time professional ranks.

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READY FOR ACTION: Ben O'Connor, in action against Swindon during November's Streaming Series. Picture courtesy of Cerys Molloy.

Last week, the Elite League’s hopes of staging a four-team, behind-closed-doors mini-series - including O’Connor’s former club Sheffield Steelers - bit the dust when it transpired, somewhat belatedly, that government funding would only be available in the form of loans.

To book your pay-per-view online ticket to watch the Steeldogs take on Swindon Wildcats on Sunday (5pm) head HERE

As for O’Connor, he had fortunately already seen some action having signed up for NIHL National outfit the Steeldogs, one of three teams to take part in November’s successful Streaming Series.

Along with Milton Keynes Lightning and Swindon Wildcats, the Steeldogs staged a series of behind-closed-doors games across three weekends, with fans buying tickets to watch live online.

LEADING MEN: Greg Wood, right, officially took over as head coach for the Steeldogs when Ben Morgan stepped down at the end of November. Picture courtesy of Peter Best.

In the immediate aftermath of the Series - which saw the Steeldogs finish top of the group - there was talk of potentially staging another event before Christmas, with the hope then being all 10 NIHL National teams would be able to start a belated league campaign in January.

But a third national lockdown and an increase in the number of deaths and infections from Covid-19 put paid to that.

However, hockey is back this weekend, finally, the Steeldogs and Wildcats launching the five-team Spring Cup with back-to-back games, the first one being on the road for Greg Wood’s team in Wiltshire on Saturday before the return fixture at Ice Sheffield on Sunday (5pm).

HELLO, AGAIN: Defenceman Davey Phillips is one of a number of former Sheffield Steelers' team-mates to be lining up alongside O'Connor for the Steeldogs in the Spring Cup. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

“To be honest, there was always that worry that we wouldn’t get hockey back at all,” admitted O’Connor. “Given the uncertain times and the way things seem to be changing from week to week, there’s not much we could do apart from wait.

“But now we’ve got the games this weekend, we’ve managed to get on the ice a couple of times this week to step up preparations and it’s just great to get back out there working on the systems that Greg (Wood, head coach) and Ben (Morgan, player-assistant coach) want to put in place for us.

MORE - Steeldogs staying loyal and local as they return to ice for NIHL National Spring Cup“It’s exciting and the buzz is back at being around the dressing room again and being around the boys.”

Like a number of players competing in the tournament - which also involves Bees IHC, Raiders IHC and 2019-20 NIHL National champions Telford Tigers - O’Connor is keen to use the game time and practise sessions over the coming weeks to prepare himself for the World Championships in Latvia across May and June.

It looks likely the event will go ahead, probably inside some kind of bubble similar to the way the IIHF staged the world juniors in Edmonton back in December.

Playing the likes of world-class teams such as Russia and Sweden was going to be tough enough for Pete Russell’s team, even if they had gone into the tournament in Riga on the back of a normal season.

To book your pay-per-view online ticket to watch the Steeldogs take on Swindon Wildcats on Sunday (5pm) head HEREBut the pandemic has not been kind to those expected to be on the GB roster, with around half of those involved in last February's Olympic pre-qualifying tournament unable to secure regular or sustained ice time in the leagues across Europe that have managed to stage some kind of campaign.

Due to work and family commitments, O’Connor was always staying in the UK no matter what this season and, along with the rest of the Steeldogs’ team, he is relieved to get the chance to play again.

“I had to do what was best for my family and if there wasn’t going to be any hockey going ahead in the UK, then I wouldn’t have been playing prior to the World Championships,” added O'Connor, who will be joined on the ice by former Steelers' team-mates Jonathan Phillips, Davey Phillips and Liam Kirk, who will also be hoping to put themselves in the frame for Riga.

“That is a daunting enough task in itself when you are going up against the world’s best, especially when you’ve got Russia in your first game.

“So it is great to have that game time, to be on the ice 2-3 times a week and get the thought process going, get the brain kicking and the legs going again and getting everything as it should be.”

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