Raging Dragons, Rusting Steel: Two Teams, Two Season’s Crossroads, Two Different Directions?

“It’s nice to play in a city that cares… & gets mad at you if you lose… as a professional athlete I think you need pressure to win”

Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit Red Wings forward, World Champion and two-time Stanley Cup winner, on fan/media pressure.

Last week I wrote about the Coventry Blaze, and I wasn’t hugely nice about them. Although the sentiments I expressed in the blog were similar to those expressed by a large percentage of the fan-base, apparently actually coming out and saying it in public caused something of a stir…the reaction was notable not only for the number of Blaze fans who agreed with what I said, but the far more vitriolic reaction of those who, for whatever reason, didn’t.

I was accused of “negativity”, of “having an agenda”, and even, on one point, of “abusing the team’s trust” (no, I can’t work that one out either). Words like “witch-hunt”, “unfair” and “destructive to the team” were thrown around with careless abandon from that small but vocal section of the fanbase who seemed to take a commentator actually publicly criticizing the team he watches in a media article as an offence akin to taking a dump on the Blaze logo at centre ice while chatting up the players’ girlfriends one-by-one in the pregame warmup. God only knows how they’d react to columnists in a properly vicious hockey media town like, say, Toronto or Montreal.

Getting to the game on the Sunday, you’d have thought that there was some sort of prizefight being planned. Whilst I had a significant number of fans both on Twitter and in person come up and say that the article was a good one, there seemed to be a whole lot take malicious glee in informing me that apparently “the players were angry” and “they didn’t like what I’d written”. Apparently, criticism in the Coventry fanbase is a bad thing, even when it’s only saying a little bit more explicitly what the coach already had.

Interestingly, the game on Sunday was between two teams in a similar position. Both Blaze and their opponents, the Sheffield Steelers, are seen by many to be underachieving this season, both are receiving criticism from their respective fan-bases, and both came into this game off the back of a frustrating loss and under attack. But they came with a crucial difference.

Once the game began, the behaviour and differences in demeanour were noticeable. Sheffield, missing two of their most creative players in Jeff :Legue and Rob Dowd, looked lacklustre, out of ideas, and a team of individuals. Blaze, who’d had exactly the same criticisms levelled at them a week before, looked like they had a point to prove. They were buzzing around after every puck, landing hits and looking like a team deserving of a far higher position than sixt place. In short, they were responding like they had a point to prove.

In short, the two teams’ response to a bad game the week before were polar opposites. Sheffield sulked, drifting around the ice and trying to overcomplicate things. Key players like Rob Sirianni and Nate DiCasmirro were on the periphery of play, looking uninterested unless the puck came near them. In short, they did exactly what many of the Blaze had done in the third against Fife, and an increasingly frustrated Steelers fanbase let them know about it. However, it appeared to have little effect, beyond a series of increasingly petulant penalties that culminated in Jonathan Phillips’ frustrated mugging of Ryan Ginand and Tim Spencer unsuccessfully attempting to get Kevin Harvey to fight

These were two teams who couldn’t be more similar in terms of the position coming into the game-coaches under pressure, accusations of disinterest, and having themselves called into question by fans.

The Blaze, to their immense credit, responded perfectly to pressure. The Steelers, however, didn’t. And as a result the Blaze won convincingly on the night.

So-the question is…taking into context the thoughts of Henrik Zetterberg (one of the best players of the modern era and also one of the most respected and most successful) and the reaction of the Blaze-is a fanbase that will put pressure on its team as bad as some people in Britain seem to think? Certainly, in the past the Skydome crowd never accepted anything less than excellence from its players, and nor did the organisation or indeed the fanbase defend them with quite so much vigour.

Cotton-wool doesn’t win championships, and it doesn’t win games. Maybe, with the victory on Sunday, we’re seeing signs that finally this season’s Blaze team is beginning to hold itself accountable and the influence of leaders like Ashley Tait and Mike Egener is beginning to be felt.

Maybe the Fife game wasn’t, as I feared last week, the moment that could destroy the Blaze season. Maybe it and the negative reaction to it off the ice will come to be seen as the game that was the turning point.

The proof will come over the rest of the Christmas period. which starts with a weekend that has true Nightmare Before Christmas potential if Sunday’s improvement was only a blip of good form, as the Blaze take on league leaders Belfast away from home and then high-flying Braehead make their first visit to the Skydome on Sunday.

Judging by the evidence and contrast between the Blaze and the Steelers on Sunday night, the “rock bottom” moment may have come for the Blaze already, but that moment is still to come in Sheffield. The question is, how long before the pressure begins to build to the point of public callings-out by coaches there, too? And will it be enough to turn the tide of negativity in South Yorkshire?

This Christmas will be an interesting one.


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