Coventry Blaze – the nearly men?

Coventry Blaze coach Danny Stewart is glad to return to hockey normality (PHOTO: Scott Wiggins)

This week would have seen the Elite League teams getting ready for the play-offs, but due to the coronavirus, we’ll never know exactly who would have came out on top.

Cardiff Devils may have been top of the league prior to the shutdown, but in the case of Coventry Blaze, there’s a case to suggest that they could have been top dogs at the end of what was turning into the most dramatic title race in the Elite League.  Yes, even more than last year.

If you think back, Coventry played a huge role in handing the title to Belfast Giants by beating Cardiff Devils on the final game to ensure Adam Keefe and his men had a night to remember.

This year, it could have been Danny Stewart, a three-time league winner as a player with the Blaze who could have been carrying the trophy in triumph.

And, almost three weeks since the league shutdown, the Blaze coach can only reflect on what might have been.

“Being completely honest, it would be safe to say we were satisfied with our season, but it was a great year in different aspects, like where we were and being able to challenge for a title,” Stewart said.

“What made it really good was the group we had and the form we had in the second half of the season, it was a fun ride for sure. I won’t lie.  Seeing the season cut short was a punch in the gut.

“I think, from myself to everyone involved, we’re still getting our head around it and it was a certainly a tough way to finish the season, but given the circumstances and what was going on everywhere else, completely understandable.

“I certainly think us winning the title was attainable, but there were probably three or four others who thought the same way.  Cardiff were in the best position at the time.

“We had Fife on the Friday and while they’ve struggled at times, it wouldn’t have been a formality.  Take into account Cardiff had a tricky game against Guildford then would have gone to Dundee, a place we were at just before the shutdown and they gave us the heck of a game.

Stewart enjoyed success as a player with Blaze, including three league titles (PHOTO: Mark Tredgold)

“It would have set up an interesting game with the Devils in Cardiff on the Wednesday and I would have liked to have seen where we were going into that one.  The result of that game could have spurred us on, if it had gone our way, but we’ll never know now.

Blaze had six games left in their schedule, facing Fife Flyers at home, going to Cardiff, hosting Guildford Flames then trips to Nottingham Panthers and Fife before a final day showdown with Belfast at the Skydome.

All achievable victories in the context that Cardiff and Sheffield, the two teams above them were to play each other on the final day.  Not to mention Devils meeting Belfast the day before and Steelers having to go to Manchester, a place they’d won once in this season.

As Danny says, the sad thing about it is we’ll never know just how close Blaze would have come, but there was so much to be pleased about from his point of view.

For one, they reached the play-offs in relative ease, compared to Stewart’s previous three years when they scraped in on the last weekend in the last two seasons and didn’t even make it at all in his first campaign.

He added: “Getting in the top eight as early as we did certainly made the end of the season a lot less stressful, but with that, new stresses arise.

“As the schedule moved on, suddenly we found ourselves playing for a championship and every game becomes a play-off game for that reason.

“But knowing you had booked your ticket early was a great thing for us, compared to the previous couple of years and the fact we were in a position to push even further was a great thing.

“There’s been a lot of talk and a lot of buzz about the team this season.  Everyone’s saying Coventry Blaze is back, but I actually thought we had a great team last year.

“I felt we had a good year and, yeah, the final placement of eighth doesn’t blow you away, but we scored the third highest amount of goals in the league and the difference between where we were and fourth, maybe even third place was seven points.

Coventry were three points behind leaders Cardiff with six games to go including one more meeting with them (PHOTO: Scott Wiggins)

“It was such fine margins last year and more so this year, but I felt we had a good team a year ago and what we did this season has been a couple of years in the making and have made some good strides.”

All the players have gone home and with lockdown in place, the club, like everywhere else, is effectively in stasis until the coronavirus pandemic is over and things can return to some level of normality.

So how does that affect planning for next season?  Can a coach even plan for next season when we’re now seeing sporting events scheduled for much later in the summer being cancelled now?

Stewart admits it’s tricky at this stage, but he is in favour of the Magic 5 Weekend concept proposed by the Elite League as an alternative to the cancelled play-off weekend.

He said: “The ongoing uncertainty makes it difficult to try and plan for next season.  Our main focus was to get everyone home, sort out their pay and make sure they were okay.

“The club has closed down for now and we’ll have to wait and see what happens with this virus.  But I am in talks with several players from this season and we’ll see what comes of that.

“As for the Magic 5 Weekend, I really like the idea and the league were in a position where, no matter what they come up, there would be criticism.  Whether it suits people or not, that will form their opinion of it.

“Everyone has taken a hit, individually, team wise or league wise so we have to find ways to create revenues as a league.

“It’ll be good for the players to see their opponents early on and the same for the coaches too. The majority of the fans will be excited, but you’re never going to please everyone.

“I think it’s a great idea and one that’s been made under tough circumstances.”

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