This time last year, the Sheffield Steelers of the Elite Ice Hockey League embarked on their first Champions League Hockey campaign. In a tournament where the best in Europe face off against each other, the Steelers couldn’t have faced tougher opposition in their three team group.
Swedish Hockey League champions, the Frolunda Indians (eventual winners of the CHL) and Finnish SM-Liiga big names JYP Jyvaskyla, proved to be too much for this ‘naïve’ Sheffield side. Naïve was how Steelers D-man Ben O’Connor describe the attitude of how the side began the tournament last year, so fast forward 365 days and this time around he said the attitude couldn’t be any more different.
An almost brand new Sheffield Steelers would travel to Sweden again, this time to face the second biggest name in the SHL, HV71. A side featuring first round NHL draft picks and names such as Mattias Tedenby would mean yet another difficult trip to Scandinavia. However a new year means new faces in the Orange of the Elite League champions and following a number of retirements, more names than normal were to enter the dressing room. Long-time servants Jeff Legue and Jason Hewitt were to call time on their EIHL careers, fan favourites Cullen Eddy and Rod Sarich were to also hang up the skates. Although the latter would return to fulfil the CHL fixtures.
The biggest question among all Steelers fans was who Paul Thompson would recruit between the pipes, the area that hampered the side for a lot of the year. Despite the flack Marek Pinc received throughout his time in Yorkshire, the longer the season went on the better he got and as David Simms said, probably delivered one of the best ever performances seen in a Panthers v Steelers fixture. So who shall be the saviour to our troubles? The return of the Moose. Ervins Mustukovs. Class in abundance, a calming presence and solid Goalie. Having worked under Head Coach Paul Thompson before and having obviously played in Sheffield a number of years ago, it was perfect timing for him to come back it seemed.
One of the biggest off season acquisitions saw the arrival of Jerry Anderson, a good friend of Paul Thompsons from his time in Sweden and holds an excellent reputation as a Hockey coach. Jerry arrives as an assistant to Paul in a move that also strengthens foreign relations.
This move was followed by the arrival of a number of European faces. Andreas Valdix, Christoffer Bjorklund, Anders Franzon and Markus Nilsson will all suit up for the Steelers after Fredrik Vestberg’s successful audition for Scandinavian style. After keeping a very solid core from last year Thompson merely added more talent to the roster with the likes of big centre man John Armstrong, skilled forward Jesse Schultz and two-way defenseman Mike Ratchuk. Davey Phillips will fulfil the British quota and help the back line as he arrives from Manchester after playing last year with the Storm.
New faces, new ideas and definitely a new take on the CHL.
Thursday night saw a monumental effort from the boys go unrewarded after losing 5-3 to HV71. A game that saw a dominant Swedish powerplay go to work, scoring three powerplay markers and one delayed powerplay goal. Arguably a few soft calls but almost inevitable it seemed. Lessons were definitely learnt but a display in which the side can certainly be proud of.
John Armstrong became the first Steeler to score in the CHL after the away side came out the better of the two in the second period. Only a matter
of minutes in and a super breakout pass found Colton Fretter who expertly found Armstrong on the backhand saucer pass. The big man then found Roy crashing the net, before he was hauled down and that saw the referees arm go straight in the air. Fortunately for the Steelers the puck squeezed free and Armstrong was in the right place to poke the puck home. HV71 went straight back at the Steelers with two quick powerplay goals, instantly putting them on the back foot. Resolute they remained and refused to buckle under the pressure. Mustukovs stood tall and was helped impressively by those blocking shots in front of him. Desperate to get back within a goal and with the second period coming to an end they got their just rewards. Picking the puck up inside his own zone, Mike Ratchuk took it upon himself to put Sheffield right back in the game with a cool finish to the right of the goalie.
With 15 minutes to rest and prepare to go again the Steelers smelt blood coming back out and went straight for the jugular. After an impressive day in all faceoff zones smart work from Bjorklund dumped the puck in on the goalie get a crucial offensive faceoff.
A draw that was to be won by the Steelers and a shot on goal fell kindly for the Golden child, Robert Dowd, who put the puck top shelf to send the travelling support into bedlam.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, more penalty trouble led to the Steelers going behind and late on when chasing the equaliser the Swede’s made it five when a two on one set up the perfect way to end the game.
By no means the easy fixture many expected for the Swedish side and definitely one for all associated with Sheffield and most importantly the EIHL to be proud of. A tough loss but one that almost just almost feels like a win.
Game over pic.twitter.com/NQgquBHVq3
— STEELERS OFFICIAL (@steelershockey) August 18, 2016
Now the boys travel to Austria for a Saturday night fixture against Red Bull Salzburg that could again prove to be another tough fixture for the English outfit. With spirits high in the camp, the Steelers faithful can expect nothing but a fully committed performance as they go in search of their fist CHL points.