Sheffield Steelers owner Tony Smith delighted to see Elite Series plans finally come to fruition

A LITTLE over four weeks ago, Elite League bosses were left frustrated when, after months of wrangling, they were told that their bid to secure a potential £4m worth of government funding had failed.

Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers are two of four teams set to do battle at the NIC throughout April. Picture courtesy of EIHL/Karl Denham

Plans for what eventually became a scaled-down, four-team, behind-closed-doors series were left in tatters, with team owners - primarily Sheffield Steelers’ Tony Smith and Nottingham Panthers’ Neil Black - clearly angry over at the hand they had been dealt by Sport England and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

But, within days, and having seen the second-tier NIHL National reveal their plans for the ongoing Spring Cup, the four teams decided they would not take their rejection lying down.

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Wednesday lunchtime revealed the result of their efforts, with the Steelers and Panthers being joined by Coventry Blaze and Manchester Storm for the Elite Series.

The teams will gather at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre in April, play each other four times before the whole thing culminates in a three-game playoff final.

Rosters will begin their on-ice preparations less than 24 hours after the final buzzer goes on the last game of the Spring Cup, in which several players who would normally ply their trade in the EIHL are currently playing.

It means that by the time Pete Russell is ready to welcome his players into his World Championship training camp, many of them will have had a solid 10 weeks of games and training.

And, given they will be starting their campaign in Latvia against world No 2-ranked Russia, with further games to come against similarly fearsome opponents such as Sweden and the Czech Republic, they will need all the preparation they can get.

Sheffield Steelers' owner and EIHL chairman, Tony Smith Picture: Dean Woolley.

Smith, also the EIHL’s chairman, said the exact details of the funding they had secured through the government’s Winter Survival Package of £300m for major spectator sports, would not be revealed but it is understood to be a mixture of loans and grants.

The EIHL will also hope to cover its costs through the online streaming of games, similar to the way the Spring Cup and, before it, the NIHL National Streaming Series worked.

When asked what had changed in the four weeks since being told no funding would be made available, Smith replied: “It was very simple. We put one proposal together, it didn’t get over the line. So we took on board some advice and revisited some of the challenges within that proposal and we found a way to get it over the line and get a green light to go.

“I’m not prepared to go into detail into where that support has come from, how much it is and what the breakdown is, but I respect the fact that these government organisations have helped us and given us the support we need in various ways.

Nottingham's National Ice Centre will stage April's Elite Series behind-closed-doors. Picture courtesy of EIHL/Dave Williams

“Because of them we are able to put elite ice hockey on for the first time since March last year.”

Smith said there were two driving factors behind their desire to put on some form of top-flight hockey before the scheduled start of the EIHL 2021-22 regular season in September.

“There are no easy games at the top level of the World Championships,” said Smith. “We had to get these guys into some kind of shape, so it was absolutely crucial that we got this series off the ground and gave these guys five weeks of intense training and games at the very highest level that we could give them in this country and have them ready to hand over to Pete Russell and his team, ready to take to Riga a few days later.

“So that was one of the driving forces for us but, just as importantly for us, was to keep the fans engaged and the sponsors.

“It was March 13 when we closed the 2019-20 season down and it is now almost a year on since that - people can forget and we didn’t want that to happen.

“Although it will be behind closed doors, I hope the 2is one-off Elite Series gives our fans back some of what they’ve been missing since the season ended early last March.”

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