Is a breakthrough imminent for Sheffield Steelers and other English EIHL clubs?

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The uncertainty over the immediate future of elite ice hockey in Great Britain is about to be swept away.

The government recently announced that £4m of a £300m 'Sports Winter Survival Package' would be available to the Elite League.

That emergency funding is for sports impacted by the absence of fans in the rinks, because of the coronavirus epidemic.

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There was not a lot of clarity from Whitehall over the precise terms of that £4m payment though, the questions were: who would get it and would they have to pay it back?

The Star understands that the £4m is a grant not a loan - which will be music to the ears of the clubs who need the money to play in empty rinks, without financial strings attached.

But we believe that the £4m covers the five English clubs only in the EIHL: Sheffield Steelers, Coventry Blaze, Manchester Storm, Guildford Flames and Nottingham Panthers.

If that is confirmed it is bad news for the likes of Cardiff Devils, Belfast Giants and the Scottish clubs, all of whom will have to source their own finance from devolved administrations.

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Tony Smith and Aaron FoxTony Smith and Aaron Fox
Tony Smith and Aaron Fox

Steelers' owner and EIHL chairman Tony Smith has refused to comment on the speculation.

All he would say is: "We do not have written confirmation yet, I still need confirmation about whether it is a grant of a loan.

"We have said (to the Government) that there is no point giving us loans - all that does is push the problem further down the line.

"It doesn't make sense to even discuss loans.

"We want concrete feedback, firm information that tells us actually what it is and hope to get that soon."

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If the Government money is indeed confirmed as a no-strings grant, Sheffield and the other four teams can start the process of bringing in players from abroad - as well as some of the skaters they have sent out to other teams in Europe and North America.

Then the Steelers and the rest could forge ahead with a tournament, probably playing from January to April.

The EIHL five would make use of the "90 day visitor rule" - a form of work permit where clubs can bring in players for that length of time without the cost of visas, as long as they arrive without any family.

Meanwhile, in a Star podcast, Sheffield coach Aaron Fox has said he is hopeful of a return to the ice in "January or February" if the winter bail out money comes on stream.

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He said he felt "there was an end in sight" and that his club could soon be playing again, albeit behind closed doors.

Keep up to date with all the latest from Sheffield Steelers via our dedicated Twitter account @TheStarSteelers, or join our Steelers Facebook group.