Sheffield Steelers coach Aaron Fox explains picking his five protected British players for Elite Series

LIAM KIRK is set to return to play top-flight hockey in the UK again after being one of five players locked down by Sheffield Steelers for next month’s EIHL Series.

FAMILIAR FACES: Liam Kirk, far right, celebrates winning a World Championship gold medal with Davey Phillips, Jonathan Phillips, Robert Dowd and Ben O'Connor. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

The 21-year-old winger, who after two seasons with the Steelers was a seventh round draft pick for the Arizona Coyotes in 2018, has seen his bid to make it in North America hindered by the Covid-19 pandemic, as he has been unable to return for a third season in the OHL with Peterborough Petes.

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Along with Kirk, the Steelers have also protected fellow British players Davey Phillips, Jonathan Phillips, Robert Dowd and Brendan Connolly.

AIMING HIGH: Liam Kirk, in action for Peterborough Petes in an OHL game against Hamilton Bulldogs in November 2018. Picture: Claus Andersen/Getty Images

There are doubts over the availability of forwards Connolly and Dowd due to their current commitments with teams elsewhere but, like Kirk, the two Phillips’s are currently playing in the Spring Cup with neighbouring Sheffield Steeldogs.

Later this evening the Steelers will join EIHL Series rivals Nottingham Panthers, Coventry Blaze and Manchester Storm in picking at least seven more British players through a one-off draft, in which 70 players are registered.

Steelers’ head coach Aaron Fox admitted there was a risk in choosing to secure Dowd and Connolly for his roster, but he remains confident his picks will come to be realised.

“It’s been good fun – after the last few months, it’s gone from zero to 100 real quick, but that is alright, I like it,” said Fox.

THE CHOSEN ONES: Jonathan Phillips and Robert Dowd, in action for Great Britain. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Hopes of the world’s top junior league getting underway this season seem to be as far away as ever and, with the World Championships looming large on the horizon, Kirk has agreed a deal with the Steelers for the 2021-22 Elite League season, making him eligible to be picked for next month’s behind-closed-doors tournament at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre.

Despite a frustrating 12 months or so, Kirk has in no way given up on his dream of making it to the NHL and, should an offer to continue his career in North America next season materialise over the summer, he has a get-out clause in his contract with the Steelers.

“With the NHL ending in late July and Kirky too old to be in the OHL, there’s a scenario where he could start the year with us and then go to a NHL training camp when they, if that option is out there,” said Fox when explaining the thinking behind the deal with Kirk.

“We would never hold a player back from that dream but it’s also important for us to know that if he is back in the UK next year he’s back where he belongs.

HEADING BACK?: Brendan Connolly could be back in a Sheffield Steelers' jersey for next month's Elite Series. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“Dowdy is a no-brainer and it’s great that he’s been playing. There’s a little bit of risk there that he might not be back but we’ll play that out how we need to - everything is possible but I definitely wasn’t going to leave him open for the Draft.

“Both Davey and Jonno were quick, easy decisions, they both bring so much to the team and it’s good that they have seen some action this season. I’m delighted to have locked them in.

“With Conns, like Dowdy, there’s a little bit of risk there in that he might not become available but, once I found out that the British dual nationals counted as Brits for this, I opted to take this opportunity to lock him in.

“He’s first line centre that counts as a Brit for this, so that gives us a big advantage.”

PROTECTED: Defenceman Davey Phillips, in action for Great Britain. Picture: Dean Woolley.

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