Sheffield Steelers finally back on the ice in tournament with three EIHL rivals

SHEFFIELD STEELERS coach Aaron Fox says he is relieved to be able to finally get back to work after the green light was given for a one-off, behind-closed-doors tournament featuring four Elite League teams in April.

THE LAST TIME: Sheffield Steelers celebrate their Challenge Cup triumph in Cardiff last March. Picture courtesy of EIHL

The Steelers will be joined by Coventry Blaze, Manchester Storm and the Nottingham Panthers to contest a regular season – billed as the Elite Series – with 24 games in total, culminating in a best-of-three play-off final series. All games will be played at the Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham and will be available to stream online.

This entire event will be organised under the government’s Elite Sport Guidance, with regular testing and a full COVID-19 protocol in place.

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Sheffield Steelers head coach Aaron Fox. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley

Teams are expected to start assembling their rosters together for a week of pre-season on March 29 - the day after the ongoing NIHL National Spring Cup ends - meaning all GB players currently playing in the second-tier event will be available to play top-flight hockey.

Fox, who already has a list of names he hopes to be working with, said it had been a frustrating 12 months since the Steelers were last on the ice when they won the Challenge Cup Final against Cardiff Devils in South Wales on March 8.

There have been several false dawns regarding the return of top-flight game in the UK because of various lockdown restrictions and, after plans for the tournament fell through last month when the EIHL was told there would no money available for the project, it was feared that was the end of the road for the Steelers and their rivals.

But talks have resumed in recent weeks with Sport England and the DCMS to enable the behind-closed-doors event to finally go ahead, much to the delight of Fox.

“It’s been a long road to get here, but it is a huge relief to finally know we’re going to be getting back to playing some hockey,” said Fox. “We’re coming up on the 12-month anniversary of when we won the Challenge Cup in Cardiff, so it gives me a good taste in my mouth knowing that we’re going to get back playing.

“I’ve always said throughout this 12 months or so that any hockey is better than no hockey, September is still a long way away and this will bridge the gap quite nicely.

“It certainly hasn’t been easy these past few months. I had always been so optimistic of us finding a way to put on more of a full season at some point and I always had that hope in the back of my mind that we were going to find a way.

“But, for whatever reason, things dragged out and the virus here got worse in September and October and put a dampener on our opportunity. So it’s been a grind of a year for sure, for everybody in so many different ways but, this will be really good for us as a club, our fanbase and get that excitement back a little bit.”

Details of how many imports and roster sizes are expected to be revealed in the coming days, but Fox effectively has three weeks to put together his squad.

EIHL chairman Tony SMith, who is also the Steelers’ owner, said the teams had worked closely with Great Britain head coach Pete Russell in order to ensure that all the players he is thinking of taking to the World Championships in Riga in May are given a roster spot, unless they are still playing abroad.

The Steelers will be hoping GB international forward Robert Dowd, currently playing in Italy, will be available to take part in the Elite Series.

The Steelers’ other GB internationals who were signed up last summer for what would have been the regular Elite League 2020-21 season, include Davey Phillips and Jonathan Phillips, both of who are currently playing for neighbouring Sheffield Steeldogs in the Spring Cup, which culminates on Sunday, March 28, the day before ELite Series training camps are expected to start.

Brendan Connolly is currently playing in the USA in the ECHL with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits under former Cardiff coach Andrew Lord and it is not clear whether he will be able to return to the UK in time for either the Elite Series or the GB training camp under Russell.

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