It was supposed to be a foregone conclusion, one we’d seen a hundred times before.
Coach leaves team, coach goes to new team, coach takes star players from old team with him.
When Doug Christiansen surprisingly left the Belfast Giants in April to become Sheffield Steelers coach, there was a suspicion and fear in Belfast that he’d take Giants stars like Adam Keefe, Colin Shields and Daryl Lloyd with him.
These fears were only exacerbated when Steelers owner Tony Smith publicly stated that the Steelers would have (in British hockey terms) a massive budget-one that would dwarf that of most other teams in the EIHL, including that of the Giants.
Indeed, the Steelers owner also stated that he was confident that this budget would allow Christiansen to recruit whatever player he wanted, and indeed Christiansen himself was very vocal about getting his “own players” in.
We also, inevitably, heard all the talk from Dave Simms about how Sheffield was a great club and the signing of Christiansen would enable recruitment to take place easily-especially with the budget.
So far, though, it appears that money hasn’t really talked for the Sheffield Steelers.
Adam Keefe. Daryl Lloyd. Kevin Saurette. Three of arguably the top players in the EIHL last season, targeted by Christiansen to bring with him from Belfast as part of the Great New Riches Era in South Yorkshire. All offered (as stated by Sheffield media) lucrative contracts to follow their former coach. All…turned down, in favour of slightly less lucrative contracts back in Belfast for next season.
Rob Dowd-a great player who (if reports are true) has returned to Sheffield purely due to reasons of the heart. The fact that some EIHL insiders are saying he’s had the biggest contract ever thrown at a British player given to him in order to return to Sheffield, we are told, has nothing to do with it-it’s all about Dowd’s love for Sheffield-the club he left to go to Belfast only a few seasons ago.. Given that Jonathan Weaver, the previous holder of this title, was reportedly on £1200 a week, Dowd’s salary is going to be, in British hockey terms at least, astronomical. The Dowd figure is rumoured to be comfortably above that, and certainly money that some even say is more than the supposedly much richer Troja-Ljungby were willing to pay.
Now, good as he is, is Rob Dowd worth that kind of money to any club in the EIHL? Or are Sheffield throwing all their money in one or two baskets, trumpeting the massive budget they have and hoping no-one notices the key fact…
Even despite their “massive budget”, Doug Christiansen can’t even attract players he’s coached before-players who supposedly bled for their coach.
It gets worse. Jim Jorgensen (a player whose offensive abilities would, you think, at least see Sheffield try to retain him) was allowed to leave without a murmur for a league which offers comparable salaries (I’m reliably informed by contacts in French hockey that his offer in Morzine is broadly comparable to what he was on in Sheffield last season).
Then there’s the fact that Sheffield have had to release Ashley Tait in order to afford Rob Dowd-claiming they’re reallocating budget elsewhere. Just how much of it is going to Dowd, though? Aaron Nell, Tait’s replacement, will not have come that cheaply after being one of the top earners in the EPL-a league in which salaries for comparable British players are often even higher than they could get in the Elite League-and whilst Nell is a very good British player and offers scoring, Tait was one of the linchpins of Sheffield’s squad last season and his assistant-coach role too added a value that has been sacrificed on the altar of the return of the “Sheffield hometown hero” who was born nearly a hundred miles north of the Motorpoint Arena.
The fact is that so far-despite their “massive budgets”-when the Steelers have entered a bidding war for top players in the EIHL so far this season (rumour has it they went after Matt Myers on his departure from Nottingham, but he took a hometown discount to go to Cardiff instead. and the Steelers themselves have openly said they went for Keefe and Lloyd and the players elected to stay where they were settled rather than chase the money) they’ve lost, in a pattern that is repeating from last season (Mike Schutte turned down Sheffield to come to Coventry, for example).
Granted, it is still relatively early in the offseason, and we’re yet to see Christiansen’s team and recruiting strategy truly take shape. But if the early going is any judge, it’s that we’re seeing proof that there are a lot more factors in attracting players to a hockey team than merely salary, and whilst the Steelers and their fans will trumpet the return of Dowd and the acquisition of Nell as proof that Tony Smith’s much-publicised financial largesse will lead to an exciting and all-conquering off-season for the Steelers as they build themselves a team that’ll be the envy of the rest of the league, the evidence so far shows that despite Christiansen and Smith’s financial muscle and much-trumpeted aims of catching and overhauling the Nottingham Panthers by throwing £20 notes at the problem, money isn’t everything.
Judging on the evidence so far this off-season, South Yorkshire’s hockey fraternity will have plenty of opportunity to learn this as the season progresses.