Sheffield Steelers’ exodus sees players scrambling to find temporary homes

THE one ray of light in the ongoing exodus of Sheffield Steelers’ players to pastures new in their quest to find a suitable level of hockey is that, wherever they are heading, it is only a temporary move.

Robert Dowd battles for possession for GB against Canada at last year'sWorld Championships. Picture: Dean Woolley.

With little prospect of Elite League teams being able to stage any kind of competitive hockey this season because of the Covid-19 social distancing measures imposed by the government - thereby preventing any spectators at sporting events - many of the roster signed in the summer by Steelers’ head coach Aaron Fox are now seeking alternative employment.

There is ongoing talk that some of the EIHL clubs hope to be able to come together to stage some kind of tournament from February onwards - depending, of course, on what the situation regarding coronavirus is like in the UK at that point - but everybody accepts it will not resemble anything like a normal regular season.

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That will be even less so as a number of players - both British and imports initially re-signed in the summer by clubs - disappear, mainly to Europe or North America.

Forward Brendan Connolly, who scored 26 goals and 55 ppoints in 48 gmaes for Sheffield Steelers last year, will remain in North America this season, signing with Grenville Swamp Rabbits in the ECHL.

Last week saw Steelers’ GB international Robert Dowd join 2019-20 team-mate Marc-Olivier Vallerand in joining Eppan/Appiano in the second tier of the Italian league.

Last night, two of their Steelers’ team-mates who helped the club end a 17-year wait for the Challenge Cup trophy last season, also announced they had secured deals elsewhere.

Forward Brendan Connolly and defenceman Davey Phillips, like Dowd with one eye on next year’s World Championships have managed to secure places on other rosters.

Connolly, who scored 26 goals and 55 points in 48 games last season, will remain in North America having agreed a deal with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits in the East Coast Hockey League, where he will be coached by former Cardiff Devils’ head coach, Andrew Lord.

Marc-Olivier Vallerand will be playing his hockey with Eppan/Appiano alongside Robert Dowd in 2020-21. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Fellow GB international Phillips yesterday flew over to Hungary after agreeing to join Dunaújvárosi Acélbikák.

It remains to be seen which other Steelers’ players gain moves abroad, with long-serving captain Jonathan Phillips the only remaining GB international on the Steelers’ 2020-21 roster yet to announce his intentions.

But, in terms of those Steelers’ players who have already secured roster spots elsewhere, most, if not all, are expected to return to South Yorkshire for the 2021-22 EIHL campaign.

Dowd and Vallerand both signed deals agreeing to be back under Fox’s leadership next August, while Connolly has already expressed a desire to come back.

Defenceman Davey Phillips will play in Hungary this season, hooking up with former Sheffield Stee;ers' team-mate, Martin St Pierre. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Last night, Steelers’ head coach Fox said he intended to talk to defenceman Phillips about returning after his time in Hungary.

Clearly, none of the players wanted to move elsewhere, but were given little option after last month’s decision by the EIHL to suspend the season.

Dowd, who spent a season playing in Sweden with IF Troja-Ljungby in 2012-13, said he was left with little option in order to keep himself in the required shape for when next year’s worlds hopefully take place.

“It’s been very frustrating, these last few months and it has been tough mentally, not being able to train or ply your trade and being forced to go to other countries in order to do our job,” he said.

“I know I’m fortunate enough to get a job somewhere else, but it has been very tough, I can’t say it hasn’t.

“It’s tough to get a job right now because it is such a saturated market, there are more and more players looking for jobs right now. But it is really a case of needs must right now. The family side of it all is going to be very difficult – that was hard last week when I left – but the hockey will hopefully take my mind off it a bit.

“I’m used to training 4-5 times a week at the Steelers with a couple of games at the weekend, so I needed to go somewhere where I could maintain that level of training and playing.

“I’m not a 22-year-old anymore and I’ve not got the body that can sit still for too long and then, all of a sudden, be expected to perform at 100 per cent.

“I need to be training full-time to keep my body going at the optimal level and in the shape it needs to be in to play at the right level.

“I couldn’t have no hockey at all and then all of a sudden try and play Canada and teams like that after not playing for a year, it just wouldn’t be possible.”

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Thank you, James Mitchinson. Editor.