Sheffield Steelers’ Robert Dowd in good shape as he prepares for Italian playoff job

WHILE playing for Sheffield Steelers in the Elite League would have clearly been the preferred option this season for Robert Dowd, he can’t pretend his time in Italy hasn’t been good for him – both mentally and physically.

Robert Dowd - hoping to fire Eppan/Appiano to playoff success in Italy. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

With the Steelers and the rest of the EIHL seeing their 2020-21 season cancelled due to the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic – with no fans allowed into watch games, clubs simply couldn’t survive – Dowd was able to secure himself a roster spot with Italian second-tier outfit Eppan/Appiano.

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Given his injury-ravaged 2019-20 campaign, Dowd simply had to find himself some ice time. And while being away from his family was a far from ideal situation for the 32-year-old winger, his time in Northern Italy – he was housed alongside 2019-20 Steelers’ team-mate Marc-Olivier Vallerand – has proved to be productive, putting him in good shape ahead of May’s World Championships in Latvia.

END GAME: Robert Dowd is expected to play an integral part of Great Britain's World Championship campaign in Riga in May-June. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Before that, of course, Dowd is set to pull on a Steelers’ jersey again for next month’s behind-closed-doors Elite Series, although his immediate priority is helping his current employers enjoy a successful playoff campaign, which gets underway tonight against Varese.

“It’s something I had to do,” said Dowd, who has contributed seven goals and 17 assists in 13 games during the regula season campaign. “It was a must-play for me this year.

“With my shoulder injury last season, there’s no way I could have sat at home and not play any hockey because it wasn’t just a case of missing this season, I also missed half of last season so it would just have been too long for me personally to take off.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here, they are good people and the organisation has been top-notch to me, they’ve really looked after me.

Robert Dowd should be back in a Sheffield Steelers' shirt at some point during the Elite Series. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“And I’m feeling good, partly because the schedule here isn’t as hard as the UK, you are not playing 2-3 games a week, you’re only playing once. So I’ve had time to work out and look after myself.

“I’ve hit some personal bests in the gym and stuff like that because I’ve got time to work out a lot more than I do in the UK – so physically and mentally, it’s been great for me.”

And while the volume of games hasn’t been as intense for Dowd and Vallerand, he believes the quality of hockey on offer has been more than good enough.

FAMILIAR FACE: Former Sheffield Steelers' head coach Paul Thompson also starts his Italy 2 playoff campaign tonight, his Unterland Cavaliers team hosting Valdifiemme. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“Our team struggled at first because they had pretty much lost 20 or so players in the past couple of years, senior players either retiring or moving to different clubs,” he added.

“So the core group had gone and so this season, they were starting from the ground up effectively. They told me coming in that they had a big ethos of developing home talent, instead of having to buy it in, they wanted to bring through a lot of guys.

“My line, for example, is made up of a 22-year-old and a 18-year-old so it is super young. Around the league there are some very good teams out there, it’s not at EIHL level, but it’s got a good pace to it and everybody skates well.

“The difference I suppose is that in the EIHL, there is obviously that pace, but not just in terms of the skating, players are quicker-thinking, quicker on the puck.”

The disappointment of not being allowed home for a planned family Christmas because of lockdown measures in the UK was eased considerably when his family were able to make it out to Italy to spend several weeks with him.

With UK schools having reopened, his family are now back in the UK, but how long it is before Dowd joins them - and also the Steelers - depends on how deep his team go in the playoffs.

“I’ve got a job to do here at the moment and it is something I want to see through until the end,” said Dowd who, not surprisingly, was one of five ‘protected’ players selected by the Steelers ahead of the recent Draft that was held for the Elite Series.

“We play a best-of-five playoff format over here, so it’s one of those where you just don’t know exactly when it will be done – it could be three weeks, it could be six.

“It will be good to experience that traditional playoff format. I’m looking forward to it.”

Not too far away from Dowd – who play game one of five on the road in Varese – former Steelers and GB head coach Paul Thompson is also in Italy 2 playoff action tonight. His Unterland Cavaliers’ team, who finished second in the regular season and have already won the Italian Cup, host Valdifiemme, who finished in seventh.

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