Jonathan Phillips and Sheffield Steelers prepare to make up for lost ice time in EIHL Elite Series

IT was a moment Jonathan Phillips had almost given up on, at least until experiencing until much later in the year.

NOW HEAR THIS: Sheffield Steelers' head coach Aaron Fox gives his players some instruction during on-ice practice on Monday. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

But, yesterday, 381 days after he last stepped on the ice as a Sheffield Steelers player, the 38-year-old captain was back where he should be, preparing for a new campaign – albeit a much shorter one in the shape of the five-week behind-closed-doors Elite Series which gets underway at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham on Saturday.

The gathering of Aaron Fox’s roster at Ice Sheffield might have amounted to little more than an induction day for some, one which included going through the Covid protocols that need to be adhered to during the competition, while introducing new faces to those returning who, alongside Phillips, had played during the 2019-20 season. But it was still an important moment.

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It was Friday, March 13 last year that the Steelers’ players were gathered together at the side of the Sheffield Arena ice by owner Tony Smith to be told that the season was over due to the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Steelers' players take a breather and a drink during Monday's practise session at Ice Sheffield. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

After the incredible high experienced just five days earlier in Cardiff when the Steelers had ended their 17-year wait for a Challenge Cup trophy, it was a crushing blow.

Not that anybody really knew at the time, but the decision by the Elite League to end the season was just the start of a nightmare period for the sport.

As imports made a dash to get home before borders were firmly shut, the attention of team owners switched to August and preparing for the 2020-21 season.

It was a campaign which never came, as lockdown restrictions prevented fans from attending games, in turn making it impossible for teams to operate.

Sheffield Steelers' captain, Jonathan Phillips. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Several start dates came and went, teams outside of England dropped out, while on and off talks were held with officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Sport England over a financial support package acceptable for all parties.

Eventually, an agreement was reached in order for the Elite Series to be staged and, although it will represent nothing like a normal EIHL season for many, it is a case of better late than never. Better something, than nothing at all.

Phillips has been able to find ice this season, eight games for Passau Black Hawks in Germany’s third tier back in November, before more recent exertions in the Spring Cup for Sheffield Steeldogs, alongside fellow Elite Series Steelers Davey Phillips, Liam Kirk, Jason Hewitt and Alex Graham.

“It certainly seemed like it was going to be next season at one stage,” said Phillips. “I managed to stay positive, but there are only so many times that you can hear it’s going to happen, then it isn’t – especially in January when everyone thought it was a done deal. When it is your career, your livelihood, it means everything. You just want to be on the ice every day, that is one thing that you’re used to so when you aren’t able to do that, it messes with you, it messes with your routine.

GOOD TO BE BACK: Rob Dowd, right, shares a joke with fellow forward Tanner Eberle. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

“It has obviously been very frustrating but, I’m just glad we’ve finally got the go ahead.”

Some faces will have been familiar to Phillips at Ice Sheffield yesterday, others not, head coach Fox having worked tirelessly in recent weeks to put a competitive roster together in time for Saturday’s opener against Nottingham Panthers.

With a non-stop schedule of at least 14 games in 26 days – plus a potential three-game play-off final – there will be little time for rest, meaning the amount of work Fox and his players can cram into the next four days is vital.For Phillips and several others in the Steelers’ camp, the next few weeks will offer vital preparation for the World Championships which follow in Latvia, building on invaluable ice time gained in the past few weeks with the Steeldogs.

“Obviously we’ve got to be as ready to play Russia in that first game,” added Phillips. “With there being three-four games a week and being on the ice every day, this is going to raise that intensity another notch.

Alex Graham, second left, and Brendan Connolly take a breather during Monday's first pre-Elite Series training session. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“We’d prefer to be playing games anyway. With the amount of time we’ve had away and then with it just being a five-week tournament, the way this is scheduled is almost perfect.”

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