For the love of the game - how lockdown has impacted on Sheffield Steelers’ Aaron Fox and Aaron Johnson

This weekend marks a year since sport began shutting down due to Covid. In a new series looking at the impact on players and coaches who have been sidelined, Phil Harrison starts with ice hockey.

END GAME: Sheffield Steelers will take to the ice in April in the behind-closed-doors Elite Series - their first action since winning the Challenge Cup in March last year. Picture courtesy of EIHL.

WHEN owner Tony Smith called his Sheffield Steelers players off the ice from their practice session on Friday, March 13 last year to tell them the 2019-20 Elite League season was over, nobody thought we would still be waiting for top-flight hockey to return in the UK.

As it happens, earlier this week, news finally came that four EIHL clubs would, in fact, get together in April to contest a one-off, behind-closed-doors tournament.

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Billed as the ‘2021 Elite Series’, the Steelers will be joined by Coventry Blaze, Manchester Storm and Nottingham Panthers, playing each other four times before the whole thing culminates in a welcome best-of-three play-off final.

Aaron Johnson, centre, in the Steelers' locker room last season. Pictures: Dean Woolley.

It remains to be seen which players head coach Aaron Fox brings into the fold for the five-week event, which faces off on Saturday, April 3 but it is safe to say most of those players will step onto the National Ice Centre ice keen to put more than 12 months of frustration behind them.

Some of those Steelers players receiving the news from Smith almost a year ago have managed to find work – albeit in a very hit-and-miss way – others have not played at all.

It has been no easier for Fox. Still relatively fresh to the coaching game, he admits his development behind the bench has been hampered through being unable to build on the success he brought to the Steelers in his first year at Sheffield Arena, ending their 17-year wait for a top-flight Challenge Cup.

That game, against Cardiff Devils in their own rink saw the Steelers prevail in a thrilling 4-3 encounter. This Monday will mark the one-year anniversary of that triumph – the last time the Steelers played.

Concerns about the coronavirus pandemic that were unfolding started to take hold in a bigger way, not only in the UK, but around the world.

Within a week of their memorable on-ice celebrations in South Wales, many of the Steelers players were scrambling to get home before borders were shut as the pandemic caused deeper panic and fear.

Veteran defenceman Aaron Johnson was coming towards the end of his second season in Sheffield when it was cancelled and was one of a number of players who had agreed terms to return for a 2020-21 campaign everyone still hoped would go ahead.

That has not proved to be the case, leaving Johnson back home in Texas with his family.

Sheffield Steelers head coach, Aaron Fox. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

Initially, he was able to treat his days like any normal off-season, his time filled in part by completing his dissertation for his MBA in business administration at the University of Sheffield, part of the deal that brought him to the Steelers in 2018.

But as the hoped-for start date of September came and went, again in October and the same in December and January, the frustration for Johnson grew further.

Having been drafted 85th overall in the 2001 NHL Draft by Columbus Blue Jackets, Johnson has known only one life since turning professional in 2003.

His career has seen him make 291 NHL appearances, play over 450 games in the AHL as well as spend two seasons in Germany’s top-flight DEL.

SWEET TASTE OF SUCCESS: Steelers' head coach Aaron Fox toasts his team's Challenge Cup success in March last year. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“It’s been a whole new world, but I guess everyone is going through something that they’ve never experienced before,” said 37-year-old Johnson.

“For myself, this time of year is hockey. It was weird at Christmas not having to worry about games. All these new situations throughout the year that you find yourself in, but then not being able to enjoy those because you can’t see your family anyway, so you end up being stuck in between two situations.

“It’s not a good time, right now, for anyone. But, as a player, you just miss waking up and going to the rink.”

Thankfully for Johnson, he has found a way to get back into the game while home in Dallas, picking up work as an assistant coach in the ECHL for the Allen Americans.

It has allowed him to continue developing himself behind the bench, something he first started doing in his second season with the Steelers, for which he had returned as player/assistant coach.

Bad luck with injuries in his second year at Sheffield Arena meant he probably spent more time behind the bench with Fox and fellow assistant Carter Beston-Will than he originally intended. But it was an experience which enabled him to hop on board with the Americans, allowing him to return to some kind of normality, even though he has no intention just yet of hanging up his skates.

“My heart and mind has missed the daily hockey life, my body, however, is probably thanking me every single morning,” added Johnson, who has not ruled out a return to the Steelers. “Waking up without back pain, or the knees hurting, that is the one positive side of lockdown.

“But, in all seriousness, there is no question that going to the dressing room and being around the guys, talking hockey, putting a game plan together for the next game has been a big miss.

“You just can’t do that anywhere else and it’s tough to replace that, you miss it enormously.

“I think that’s why a lot of guys have issues when they do retire or stop playing for whatever reason because this is a great life that we get to live and when it is gone you definitely miss it.”

For Fox, the frustration has been as bad, equally so because of the various abandoned start dates for some kind of season which have passed by over the past 12 months.

“It’s everything to me this game, the whole environment,” he explained.

“I’m a competitive guy and I love being in the thick of it. I love showing up to the rink. I’ve got a great staff and back-office staff and you miss the banter, the relationships with the players and there is just a great vibe about being at an ice rink and it is a great way to earn a living.

“While I’ve been in hockey a long time as a player and a manager, the coaching is something I haven’t actually done a ton of.

“That’s the side of my job that is still relatively new to me so to take a year off that when I still feel that I have lots to learn has been hard, because I know I need to improve on certain things.

“That’s why I’m so grateful that we have now been able to find a way, even if it is only for five weeks. Just to get that blood flowing going again, to be competitive and get that mindset back will be great.”

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