Former Sheffield Steelers coach Paul Thompson happily embraces the challenge at Schwenninger Wild Wings

THROUGHOUT his coaching career Paul Thompson has never been one to shirk a challenge.

Paul Thompson gets his message across on the Schwenninger Wild Wings bench against Red Bull Munich. Picture courtesy of Wild Wings Media.
Paul Thompson gets his message across on the Schwenninger Wild Wings bench against Red Bull Munich. Picture courtesy of Wild Wings Media.

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Whether it be putting together teams at Coventry Blaze who regularly punched above their weight to land championships at the expense of bigger and more monied Elite League rivals or, as has been the case in more recent years, stepping out of his comfort zone and moving abroad to broaden his coaching horizons.

BENCHED: Paul Thompson observes his Schwenninger Wild Wings team in a DEL clash with Fischtown Penguins in December last year. Picture courtesy of Wild Wings Media.

It is as a result of the latest of those moves that the 54-year-old former Sheffield Steelers’ head coach is back in Germany this week beginning preparations for the 2019-20 DEL season with Schwenninger Wild Wings.

This time last year Thompson was starting out on putting together the roster for the Steelers’ 2018-19 campaign, his fourth in charge at the club.

There is no way he could have imagined that six months or so later he would be coaching in Germany’s top flight instead. But it is a move typical of a man who rarely looks back, choosing instead to focus on the next challenge in his path.

HAPPY DAYS: Paul Thompson, celebrating Sheffield Steelers' play-off success against Cardiff Devils in April 2017.

A bad start that left the Steelers close to the bottom of the standings had some fans calling for Thompson’s head.

Early roster changes were made after Thompson realised some of his signings were not up to scratch, but just 11 games in he decided it was time for him to move on and he resigned.

“I enjoyed my time in Sheffield,” said Thompson looking back eight months on from his departure having led the Steelers to a league title and a play-off triumph in his first two seasons.

“I helped build the club up from a 4,000 fanbase to one having regular 6,000-6,500 crowds. We changed the structure and I’m proud of the work we did there.

“But it was the right time for me personally to move on, it had run its course and I have no hard feelings. I met a lot of great people up there, we won championships, we lost in a couple of finals and I have many fond memories. But everything has its timeline.”

That timeline did not have to wait too long before another entry appeared when, just five weeks later, Thompson found himself on an aeroplane bound for south west Germany.

Inheriting a team rooted to the bottom of the table, Thompson had clearly made a big impression during the interview process to become the first British coach to be appointed by a club in the DEL. Rob Wilson, a close friend of Thomspson’s and classed as a dual national, worked at Strauberg and Nurnberg between 2014-18.

Now finding himself working at a higher level compared to the EIHL, Thompson could not have got off to a better start when his new charges beat then leaders Red Bull Munich 4-3 in overtime.

But after that initial high there were tougher times ahead and, while there seemed a brief chance of flirting with the play-offs after the turn of the year, untimely injuries saw the Wild Wings tail off again, eventually finishing bottom.

Preparations for next season began a long time ago for Thompson and his GM, Jurgen Rumrich, with the Wild Wings roster almost filled and players back in at the Helios Arena earlier this week for the first of a number of close-season assessments.

“There were two or three options for me once I’d left the Steelers,” said Thompson. “But once we had started negotiations at Schwenninger it all happened very quickly.”

Even for somebody with 25 years’ experience behind the bench that saw him start out with Solihull Knights before going on to coach around Europe and at world championships with Great Britain, Thompson admitted to some nerves in those hours leading up to that first face-off.

“You just throw yourself into it,” added Thompson, whose team regularly command 7,000 crowds, while games on the road in Munich and Mannheim can be double that. “I’d watched 12 or 13 games numerous times on video so I had a good feel about the team and I had a good feel about what I wanted to do when I got there.

“But you don’t know the team, you don’t know the area, you don’t know where you’re going to live – so that’s all new to you.

“So there was a lot for me to evaluate in a short period of time because four or five days later we were playing Red Bull Munich.

“That was the day when I was in my office four hours or so before the game and there were a few butterflies at that point – coming out onto the bench for the first time, the arena was full. But we ended up beating them in overtime, so it was a great start.”

Despite being unable to avoid finishing bottom, results and performances did improve under Thompson to the extent that he was offered a year’s extension before the season’s end. Now, with a clean slate and a major overhaul of the roster, Thompson has a team he believes are capable of challenging for the play-offs.

“Our big problem last year was scoring and we think we’ve addressed that,” he added.

“I thoroughly enjoy being at the club, the people at the club are great – it is a great place to be around,” he said. “I am fully focused on the team and the coaching. I have a goalie coach, a video coach, a strength and conditioning coach – that is where it is different to the UK.

“It was so refreshing to be just a hockey coach again and be evaluated for that. I’m where I want to be right now and the key for me is to stay here and advance.”