Sheffield Steelers’ second foray into the Champions Hockey League is Britain’s latest opportunity to boost the profile of our game to a wider audience.
The Steelers will start their campaign in August with a three-day road trip, playing Sweden’s HV71 on Thursday 18th before heading to Austria to play Red Bull Salzburg on Saturday 20th.
Sheffield Arena will host both of the Steelers’ CHL home games, with the return against HV71 on Saturday 27th followed by the final fixture against Salzburg on Sunday 11th September.
The Elite League was originally handed a wild card place in the competition back in 2014/15, which was taken up by Nottingham Panthers.
Corey Neilson’s team lost five of their six games, but a home victory against Hamburg Freezers was enough to persuade organisers to invite two British teams into the CHL last season – the Steelers and Braehead Clan.
Steelers struggled to make an impact, losing all four games, but Clan’s 6-4 win over Germany’s ERC Ingolstadt was a step in the right direction for our teams.
Ingolstadt took eventual CHL winners Frölunda HC to overtime in the last 32, falling 6-5 against the Swedish side who had finished top of the Steelers’ group in the first stage of the competition.
Steelers’ boss Paul Thompson has stressed the importance of British participation in the CHL, echoing the views of the Clan’s Hockey and Operations Director Gareth Chalmers.
In an interview with Future Sport after last year’s tournament Chalmers said: “The win (against Ingolstadt) has opened eyes in a few respects, especially as it’s the second win in as many years for UK teams.
“There’s a lot of scepticism towards the UK, so these on-ice victories help.
“It also helps to grow the fanbase. You could certainly feel the difference in the atmosphere at the arena for the European game, as opposed to a normal league game.
“We beat a team that has a budget perhaps ten times as big as ours, so that shows that the Elite League is gradually getting back towards a good level.
“It earns us respect. It’s traditionally been harder to recruit because the UK is frowned upon as a hockey nation, but perhaps that is starting to change, and some of the recruitment this year shows that.
“The Champions League put bums on seats. It got people’s attention. The whole competition was eye-opening, especially the professionalism we got to experience when visiting the other teams.
“We’ve learnt a lot of lessons and ideas to take on board. If we push on in the Elite League, we try and push the boundaries, and hopefully that means everyone else steps up.
“If we can aim for a B licence, and it might take time, it will certainly help with the credibility.”
While Steelers’ group this time around is certainly challenging, there are reasons to believe they have a reasonable chance of making progress.
HV71 were one of Sweden’s best teams between 2003 and 2013, but they’ve struggled to replicate that success in recent times.
They finished 29 points behind Frölunda in last year’s regular season standings, giving Steelers hope they could take something from their two meetings – most likely here in Britain.
Salzburg were defeated twice by HV71 in last season’s group stages and while they will be a tough nut to crack on home ice, Steelers may well cause them problems in Sheffield.
Whatever the outcome, Britain’s continued involvement in the CHL is certainly good news and if Steelers can secure some positive results we’ll hopefully see our participation increase in the future.
(Image permission: Dean Woolley)