Sheffield Steeldogs coach Ben Morgan keen to grow homegrown talent as Dogs enter rebuild mode

WHEN it comes to being ‘Made in Sheffield’ there is probably nobody else who epitomises that more than Ben Morgan.

Born and bred in the Steel City, Morgan has been a staple of the Sheffield ice hockey scene – an EPL championship-winning season at Manchester Phoenix aside – for his entire career.

It’s in his DNA. It was therefore, perhaps, little surprise when he was recently announced as the new player-coach at Sheffield Steeldogs.

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It’s a role he has fulfilled before, but this is a new era for the Steeldogs and 36-year-old Morgan has been entrusted with playing a major role in rebuilding the team, allied with a renewed commitment to the development of local talent.

PLANNING AHEAD: Ben Morgan has been installed as the new player-coach at Sheffield Steeldogs ahead of the 2024-25 NIHL National season, with a remit to make the team competitive again, while also helping nurture the city's homegrown talent. Picture: Tony Johnson.PLANNING AHEAD: Ben Morgan has been installed as the new player-coach at Sheffield Steeldogs ahead of the 2024-25 NIHL National season, with a remit to make the team competitive again, while also helping nurture the city's homegrown talent. Picture: Tony Johnson.
PLANNING AHEAD: Ben Morgan has been installed as the new player-coach at Sheffield Steeldogs ahead of the 2024-25 NIHL National season, with a remit to make the team competitive again, while also helping nurture the city's homegrown talent. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Essentially, the commitment is to provide a clear pathway from the Sheffield Ice Hockey Academy right the way through to the Sheffield Steelers in the Elite League.

Last summer was a tumultuous time for the Steeldogs, players, coaches and fans alike unsure of whether the team would even ice in NIHL National in the 2023-24 season.

But, after much back and forth, the move by Steelers’ owner Tony Smith to take over the team was eventually given the green light.

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A difficult season followed, one that saw Greg Wood’s successor as coach, Jason Hewitt, replaced mid-season by Stephen Weeks between Christmas and New Year.

BRIGHTER FUTURE: Sheffield Steeldogs' player-coach, Ben Morgan. Picture courtesy of RDG Digital/Steeldogs Media.BRIGHTER FUTURE: Sheffield Steeldogs' player-coach, Ben Morgan. Picture courtesy of RDG Digital/Steeldogs Media.
BRIGHTER FUTURE: Sheffield Steeldogs' player-coach, Ben Morgan. Picture courtesy of RDG Digital/Steeldogs Media.

For the first time since the NIHL National became the UK game’s second-tier back in 2019, the Steeldogs failed to make the play-offs.

Given the takeover didn’t complete until late last summer, it was clearly a case of just getting through the first season for the new ownership.

Now, with a full close-season to plan ahead, it promises to be a summer of change at the Steeldogs.

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Some familiar faces won’t return next season – veteran defenders Tim Smith hung his skates up before the end of last season and was joined by fellow blue liner and former captain Lewis Bell in retirement once the campaign concluded.

BRIGHT PROSPECT: Forward Finlay Ulrick has signed on a two-deal between the Steelers and the Steeldogs. Picture: Dean Woolley/Steelers Media.BRIGHT PROSPECT: Forward Finlay Ulrick has signed on a two-deal between the Steelers and the Steeldogs. Picture: Dean Woolley/Steelers Media.
BRIGHT PROSPECT: Forward Finlay Ulrick has signed on a two-deal between the Steelers and the Steeldogs. Picture: Dean Woolley/Steelers Media.

Elsewhere, Jason Hewitt has headed back to East Yorkshire to join Hull Seahawks, following in the footsteps of Steeldogs’ long-serving, much-loved and highly-rated goaltender, Dmitri Zimozdra.

The primary aim in 2024-25 for Morgan is to make the Steeldogs competitive again, but the ethos is clearly also on development. It will be a fine balancing act.

The more local talent that can be developed, the better. The less local talent that feels the need to head elsewhere to further their careers, the better.

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As Morgan stressed, it will take time before the efforts of himself and Weeks – back in the player development role he had before succeeding Hewitt – bear fruit, but there is a determination to ensure that the ‘Made in Sheffield’ tag becomes the norm, not the exception.

FAMILIAR FACE: Forward Nathan Ripley came through the Sheffield IHA, spent two years with Coventry Blaze in the Elite League and is now on a two-way deal between the Steelers and the Steeldogs. Picture courtesy of Coventry Blaze/EIHL Media.FAMILIAR FACE: Forward Nathan Ripley came through the Sheffield IHA, spent two years with Coventry Blaze in the Elite League and is now on a two-way deal between the Steelers and the Steeldogs. Picture courtesy of Coventry Blaze/EIHL Media.
FAMILIAR FACE: Forward Nathan Ripley came through the Sheffield IHA, spent two years with Coventry Blaze in the Elite League and is now on a two-way deal between the Steelers and the Steeldogs. Picture courtesy of Coventry Blaze/EIHL Media.

“It’s going to be hard in the first 12, 24, maybe even 36 months, trying to strike that balance,” said Morgan. “But if we commit to that early doors then, in three years’ time, it should be a hell of a lot easier for us to retain that talent, to nurture that talent.

“Then you can continue to see that conveyor belt of talent coming through the Academy where they can legitimately see a pathway for themselves through to whichever senior team or standard they want to get to.

“We’re going to have to be patient, of course. There is no quick fix but we are committed to this pathway.”

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Talks are ongoing to establish closer links with the Academy but, allied to that, is a need to take the Steeldogs back to being the kind of competitive force they were just over two years ago when they won the National Cup and the play-offs under former head coach, Greg Wood.

The addition of Finlay Ulrick on a two-way deal with the Steelers is an indication of the team’s ambition, as is the return of Rotherham-born forward Nathan Ripley, who came through the Sheffield junior system and has jus spent two years in the Elite League with Coventry Blaze.

But while closer links with the Academy are vital at one end of the pathway, a close affiliation with the Steelers will be as important at the other end.

“It’s symmetrical,” added Morgan. “Everything we’ve been doing and discussing over the last few weeks has been aligned with what their vision is and what ours is.

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“And we’re hoping to continue that further down the pathway so that we are effectively affiliated to the Academy. Those are talks that are ongoing.

“We’re aiming to establish that clear pathway that all youngsters can recognise and aspire to and one their parents can see as well.

“But we need to remain competitive in the league and cups and we can only do that if we bring in a little bit of experience and a little bit of quality elsewhere.

“There are a couple of key positions that we’re still looking to fill and we’re in negotiations with a few people – but the top and bottom of it is that we want to be competitive in every single game next season.”