Fallen Idol: Big Doug Gets Dumped In Sheffield

This is not a good week if you’re an EIHL coach.
After Coventry cut the strings on Matt Soderstrom’s time in Coventry, it didn’t seem like there’d be much to match that in the EIHL news stakes this week.
But, never ones to shun the limelight, the Sheffield Steelers have turned this week into full-scale coach carnage in the EIHL, summarily sacking Doug Christiansen after his Steelers team suffered a 5-3 defeat to bitter rivals Nottingham last night in the first leg of the Challenge Cup semi-final.

The sacking comes only nine months into a two year contract, with the Steelers sitting third in the EIHL, still with a chance of two trophies and with a legitimate chance of second…

It also comes in the wake of a preseason hype machine that boasted of the Steelers having all the resources they needed, “the best coach in the EIHL” and a plan to overturn the rest of the league.

Christiansen was under pressure from the start as a result of the hype on his signing, but his team of expensively-assembled players, while obtaining wins against all teams this season, just hasn’t been as consistent as the all-conquering Belfast Giants.

While Christiansen has been criticised for his defensive, rigidly system-oriented approach which has seen many wonder if his players are being utilised properly, he has been placed in a situation where there was truly no room for error.

From the start of the season, the high expectations, high budget and occasional ill-judged pronouncement of the Sheffield management have been hanging over him like British hockey’s version of the sword of Damocles by the thread of fan/owner opinion, ready to fall and sever the kill him off at a moment’s notice.

On Thursday, that thread finally broke.

I referred to the Coventry coaching job as a “poisoned chalice” when Matt Soderstrom was fired. Working in Sheffield, it appears, is the hockey equivalent of bomb disposal. Do well, and you’re a hero feted by all. Do badly, make the slightest wrong move (or in the case of Ryan Finnerty cut the wrong player) and you’re destroyed in an eyeblink.

However, the “spin” has already begun in Sheffield, with the Sheffield Star hinting that players were “unhappy with the coaches style” & “wanted a little more freedom”. Owner Tony Smith said in an interview on BBC Sheffield last night that “this is a results driven business”-a curious justification given that Sheffield are third in the table and still in with a chance of two trophies. Interestingly, in his interview Smith made great reference to the fans of Sheffield and the “Sheffield way” of playing, implying that Christiansen was a thinker more than the kind of blood-and-thunder coach that Sheffield fans liked to see.

Certainly this is a comment that has been repeated often on Sheffield fan forums throughout the season, but it is interesting to compare the Steelers with their rivals from Nottingham in this respect. Nottingham coach Corey Neilson suffered many of the same criticisms in his first season as Christiansen did as he tried to bring a new style to the club, with many fans calling for his head. The Panthers ownership persevered with him for three seasons with no trophies-and have been rewarded with eight in the last three as a result.

Sheffield, meanwhile, have pulled the trigger on three coaches in four years. In the same span, they’ve won only one title (the league in 2010/11) and nothing in the last three. Tony Smith has made several pronouncements this season that have come back to bite him, both in the preseason hype and in predicting (when the Giants were a mere ten points ahead in the league standings, not twenty-three) that the Giants “weren’t mentally strong enough” to stay ahead of the Steelers.

Tony Smith has been saying that this is “not a knee jerk reaction” and he’s been unhappy with the team’s performance for some time-which might also have some relevance in Marc Lefebvre leaving for Coventry-did the Ontarian jump from a sinking ship?

Either way, the Steelers now have captain Steven Goertzen in the hot seat for the remainder of the season, which is a very good interim appointment-Goertzen is respected by both players and fans and is a safe pair of hands to steady this ship.

With the league title all but gone, though, it will be a tricky task for Goertzen-especially as the expectations of the owner no doubt remain high. Another trophyless season for Sheffield will not be taken well in South Yorkshire, and whoever comes in will have to have a broad back-there will be a whole lot of pressure put upon it from the off.


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