The Elite Ice Hockey League published their fixture list this week. It’s an exciting day for fans as they fill their diary up with their Steeler home games and maybe even a couple of weekends away with the Supporters Club in Belfast for two double headers.
Whilst the fans plan their enjoyable trips away the club, and more specifically head coach Paul Thompson starts the planning of what could be Steelers’ toughest season in EIHL’s history.
Gone are the days when planning a schedule where you could throw in the odd “gimme game” against weak opposition in between a tough road game in Nottingham and Belfast. All five teams in our own conference have strengthened. The Gardner Conference teams have got better as well. On one hand that means tougher games for us all, more competitive fixtures. It also means a harder run for Braehead than they had last year. That’s vital; whilst Belfast, Cardiff, Coventry, Nottingham and ourselves are beating each other up we don’t need the Clan having an easy run through their conference. We need Dundee and Fife to join the party and give the Clan a tough ride too.
Ice availability, or the lack of it at Sheffield Arena means that the Steelers will play half of their home games on a Sunday this season. That means the travelling twice before games. For example up to Dundee on a Saturday and then back late in the night arriving at the arena at 5am or later for a game that afternoon against a Coventry or Cardiff.
Various things have gone against Steelers this year in planning their fixture list. Ice is always the biggest issue but this season fitting everything in has been compounded by missing another three weekends of league action that could have featured Saturday home games. The first being the CHL weekend – September 5 – no EIHL home game that weekend as the Steelers travel to Cardiff on the 6th, the night after playing Swedish giants Frolunda.
Then the EIHL agreed to an international break. Morally it’s the right thing to do, allowing our GB internationals to go off and represent their country. Reality is though that it harms the Steelers as we would have had ice available on the weekend of 13th and 14th February. Then the Arena hosts the Challenge Cup final on the weekend of the 5th and 6th March – no home games for the Steelers that weekend. The combination of the extra CHL games, a general lack of ice and the loss of these three weekends really compound the schedule. Twice Steelers must play three games in three night – try a drop of that United or Wednesday!
That means preparation to ensure that the players are fit is well underway. We don’t benefit from unlimited budgets meaning hotels away before every game but we will have no option this coming season to travel earlier than we have in the past, we have to give the players the best chance to win.
Last Tuesday I was with Danny Mawer, the new fitness coach. Danny could become the biggest signing of the summer as he works on making this Steelers side the fittest in our 25 year history. The schedule that the team will have over 32 weeks was a major reason Thompson pushed so hard to bring Mawer in to the club. Thompson has worked with Mawer and physio Paul Teather on doing everything possible to ensure that the players arrive fit and healthy for the start of camp on the 10th August.
Preparation for nutrition is also changing with the way the players eat post game.
All of this will come at a large finical cost to owner Tony Smith who has already invested in people and hardware this summer to bring this more complete and professional operation to the club. Thompson insisted on this culture change before taking the Steelers job and the clubs ownership certainly bought in.
Now you see the schedule written down in your diary you know that managing the season, the games, the training sessions and the travel could be the toughest part of the new coaches job.
Part of the Thompson plan coming in was for a bigger “Team management Group” it’s why he went for the likes of Darrell Hay, Mayer and Teather. Those four will be a team in their own right.
That first table on the team bus will have those four debating up and down the motorway...I need to get on that table.
There is something about fixture release date though isn’t there. It’s like a signal that the new season is just around the table, the weeks counting down. This Saturday the games against Braehead at ICE Sheffield in the Holiday Inn Royal Victoria Cup will be just four weeks away. I can’t wait, I’ve had enough of gardening and pottering in the garage Roll on the hockey season.