Sheffield Steelers and Elite League closing in on decision over whether 2020-21 season goes ahead

SHEFFIELD STEELERS’ owner Tony Smith admits the last few months have presented him with one of the most challenging periods of his time in charge at the club - but he is confident the Elite League outfit will come through it.

Sheffield Steelers' players and staff celebrate winning the Challenge Cup Final against Cardiff Devils in March. Picture: EIHL.

It remains to be seen whether the Steelers and the Elite League go ahead with the 2020-21 campaign, one that has been cast into huge doubt because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The arrival of Covid-19 brought an early end to last season - the Steelers winning the only available trophy in March when beating Cardiff Devils 4-3 to win the Challenge Cup - but it’s not clear whether any silverware will be on the line in 2020-21.

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As it stands, the EIHL - of which Smith is chairman - still intends to start the season in early December, but the chances of that happening seem less likely with each passing week.

Sheffield Steelers' owner and Elite League chairman Tony Smith Picture: Dean Woolley.

In order for it to happen, spectators would have to be allowed to attend games and in significant enough numbers to make it viable for EIHL clubs to operate.

If that proves impossible, the likelihood is that fans will have to wait until the 2021-22 campaign to see their teams in action, although some of the 10 EIHL clubs may still put together some kind of competition from as late as February next year.

Speaking earlier this month to The Yorkshire Post, Smith said: “It has been a big challenge, but then we came to the Steelers at a very tough time at the very beginning when bringing the club out of liquidation back in 2011.

“That was a hard start but we’re in a stronger position now. We’ve been very cautious and very careful to build the business back up over a period of the last nine seasons and to be quite honest, if we have to take a raincheck for 12 months we’ll come through it absolutely fine. We’ve got a Plan A and a Plan B.

Cardiff Devils' manahging director, Todd Kelman. Picture courtesy of Scott Wiggins/EIHL.

“Plan A would be to start around November and then launch the league in December and Plan B is to take rain check for 12 months and start again next August.

“We’ve all already agreed that without crowds there is no way we will start (the season) - unless somebody comes along with a massive cheque and says ‘there’s a few million quid, play in front of no crowds for the rest of the season’ - that is obviously not going to happen.”

On Thursday, however, it seems a Plan ‘C’ has since emerged, at least for some of the clubs. Cardiff Devils’ managing director Todd Kelman stated that some kind of a shortened competition may take place, even starting as late as February. It was unlikely, he suggested, that all 10 teams would be involved.

Kelman also revealed that September 15 was the key date for the league in deciding whether a December start was going to be possible.

Sheffield Steelers' head coach and GM Aaron Fox has signed 15 players to his 2020-21 roster, by far the most by any club. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

“We are still at the mercy of Government policy on indoor events with crowds,” said Kelman in a live Twitter Q&A with fans. “The vital date right now is September 15 when we will likely have to make a decision on the 2020-21 season.

“I am very certain all 10 teams will come back strong. I seriously doubt any team would have to fold.

“If the December start date does not work, we will try our best to have some sort of hockey at some point even if it starts as late as February and runs to late June.

“I don’t think all teams would be up for that, but some would want to try.”

Kelman also revealed that the Devils had recently told their players the club would not stand in their way if they wanted to explore options of playing elsewhere for the 2020-21 season.

Long-serving forward Joey Martin is the first to depart, signing with Stavanger in Norway.

As it stands, it is not thought any of the 15 Steelers players already signed up for 2020-21 are set to do the same, although that would be likely to change quickly if the EIHL doesn’t go ahead with December start.

Smith and Fox are set to take part in a live video discussion on the club’s Facebook page next Thursday (September 3) at 8pm.

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Thank you, James Mitchinson. Editor.