Sheffield Steelers coach Aaron Fox hails character of 'special group' after players make emotional return to competitive action
Saturday night marked the first time the Steelers had played a competitive game since the tragedy that unfolded at the Utilita Arena on October 28 when Nottingham Panthers’ forward Adam Johnson lost his life.
Both the Steelers and the Panthers’ subsequent games were postponed as staff, players and fans came to terms with the freak accident that saw Johnson’s neck slashed by the skate of Steelers’ defenceman, Matt Petgrave.
The Panthers will play again for the first time in a special Memorial Game in honour of Johnson next Saturday when they take on Manchester Storm.
And Matt Ginn’s Storm side also provided the opposition for when the Steelers returned to action in a Challenge Cup clash in Altrincham on Saturday.
The Steelers won 4-1 on an emotional evening and then prevailed 2-1 in overtime on home ice on Sunday when they hosted Coventry Blaze in league action.
Those two regular season points came after an emotional pre-game tribute to Johnson which saw players, staff, officials and fans stand to applaud the American for one minute. The already-planned Remembrance Sunday ceremony also took place.
Applause also took place in the 22nd minute and 47th minute, marking the respective jersey numbers of Petgrave – who did not play on either night – and Johnson.
Captain Rob Dowd struck the overtime winner for his team after Brett Neumann’s early marker had been cancelled out by a 51st-minute leveller by Coventry’s JD Dudek.
In truth, the results on either night were irrelevant. The weekend was all about remembering and paying tribute.
Afterwards, Steelers’ head coach Aaron Fox - in his first public interview since the tragedy - revealed how his team had prepared themselves for their return to the ice
“It’s been emotional,” Fox told Steelers TV. “We knew that we’d have to get back in tnhis building and get back to playing hockey again.
“Towards the end of last week we had a couple of optional days where the guys came back into the building, had a few workouts, had a couple of optional skates and then we hoped that everybody would touch the ice at least once before Saturday.
“And then we gave them a couple of days off, came back on Tuesday and I just felt like our group got a little bit better day in, day out. We competed a little bit harder towards the end of the week, probably went through a little too much if I’m honest from my side, from the hockey side and we maybe felt that a little bit tonight (Sunday) on the first night of a back-to-back coming back.
“We know there’s been tons of support through our group right now, they are supporting each other, like I said, it’s been emotional but it is a heck of a group of guys we’ve got in that room and it was nice to see them find a way this weekend.
“We weren’t expecting to come back and win two hockey games. I’m obviously happy as a coach that we did and that says a lot about the character in there.
“And even if we’d have lost 4-0 and 5-1 that still would have said a lot about the character in that group when all the guts that were available to play, played this weekend. They are a special group.”