Sheffield Steelers: 100 up for coach Aaron Fox

Aaron Fox becomes a Sheffield Steelers centurion on Saturday.

Wednesday, 10th November 2021, 3:02 pm

The Challenge Cup group match might not have a lot on the line, but try telling that to a coach ringing up 100 games in charge of the Sheffield ice hockey's Elite League roster.

In his first 99 games, he has chalked up a 67 win, 31 loss and one draw record, according to steelersstats.co.uk.

That 68% percent success rate puts him ahead of every other Sheffield coach other than Ben Simon (72%) and Gerad Adams (69%.)

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Sheffield Steelers coach Aaron Fox reaches the 100-match mark this weekend

He is one percent ahead of Ryan Finnerty, his EIHL opposite number at Manchester Storm.

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Fox took over the reins from Tom Barrasso, on August 17, 2019, although the club had been courting him for some time.

The former head coach of the financially-challenged Medvescak Zagreb (KHL/EBEL) hit the nail on the head on that day, stating: "I understand last year was not good enough, from the (Sheffield) ownership to the fans, and I am looking forward to turning things around."

Anthony DeLuca in a tussle in the first-ever Aaron Fox-coached Steelers game in 2019

That meant turning a seventh-place team into one that could consistently beat the likes of Belfast Giants, Nottingham Panthers, and Cardiff Devils.

First, he cleared house: forwards like Evan McGrath, Jordan Owens, Stefan Della Rovere, Josh Pitt, Justin Buzzeo moved on along with defencemen like Ryan Martinelli, Mark Matheson, and Josh McFadden.

The only import forwards that were retained were John Armstrong, Anthony DeLuca, and Tanner Eberle. The only import defenceman to make the cut was Aaron Johnson.

Fox had come with a reputation for excellence in recruiting, and after his radical squad-trimming exercise, now that quality was to be put firmly to the test.

Marco Vallerand was his first capture - an exciting offensive player whose calibre and skills was guaranteed to excite the fan base.

That new addition was followed by another proven winner, Brendan Connolly, the gnarly, aggressive type that many Sheffield fans have loved in the past.

British hockey may have known about Fox's scouting and employing assets but his coaching, game and player-management, as well as tactical intellect, were largely unknown in British hockey.

The serious business started well for Fox, 8,461 watched him run the Arena bench for the first time against Nottingham Panthers.

His leadership helped reverse a 0-3 first-period deficit to be replaced by a final winning scoreline of 8-4.

There were always going to be bumps in the road and former NHL'er Martin St Pierre had to be released after eight disappointing matches and Eric Meland opted to retire from sport after 35 games.

Fox's tenure was crowned by a Challenge Cup final victory though.

Then the biggest bump of all came along - the Covid lockdown.

Unlike many import coaches, the American domiciled in Sheffield, year-round.

Over the following months, which included taking Steelers to the final of the EIHL mini-series, he had difficult, sometimes controversial decisions to make - one of them involving the club's attachment to GB favourite Ben O'Connor.

But we are now 16 games into the season and fans have seen him become the architect of a side that currently leads the league table by five points.

His roster, at its best, is high-energy, fast paced and defensively cohesive. He likes experienced players that will follow a plan and can adapt into various roles.

This term, the bumps Fox has had to overcome include initial doubts over goaltending, a catalogue of injuries that prompted him to review bringing in more payers, and the decision by Travis Oleksuk to jump ship.

But whatever challenges that will come his way, it seems one thing is pretty clear: Sheffield have the best chance of winning the league title since 2016.

They have a Challenge Cup to defend too - and that mission continues on Saturday.

Ironically, he faces Nottingham Panthers, the team against whom his Sheffield experience all started.