Promises & Long Knives: Sheffield’s Game Of Thrones & The Betrayal Of Gerad Adams

(note. This is a long article. 3000 words long, in fact. You may want to settle in for a while. It’ll be worth it, I hope)

The Sheffield Steelers sacked Gerad Adams recently. A club sacking a coach is not a strange occurrence in sports…after all, as we’re constantly told, “it’s a tough business”.

A coach being the third coach in two years to be sacked by the same organisation is…well, a little stranger, but again, it’s a tough business, and results are results.

A coach being the third coach in two years to be sacked by the same organisation due to the team wanting a “culture change” twelve months after he’d been lauded as the epitome of that organisation’s culture…well, then you get a little questionable, but still, it’s a tough business.

A coach being the third coach in two years to be sacked by the same organisation due to the team wanting a “culture change” twelve months after he’d been lauded as the epitome of that organisation’s culture and won a playoff and league title while at the helm of the team…that’s when the excuses start to run out and something starts to smell.

Being a hockey writer, sometimes, is very much like building a jigsaw. In a league like the EIHL, there is always rumour and talk flying around the league. Who is signing who, what owner said what to which coach or referee. On their own, they often don’t mean much. Part of the art of survival in hockey is learning to filter out the big talk and the misdirection practiced as a matter of course in what sports teams tell the media. Another part is storing information, saving it – because you sometimes find that one piece of information joins another, then another, then another, and provides a picture. Often, that picture is very different from the one painted by “official” sources. For every Picture Of Dorian Gray presented as shining and beautiful “truth” by clubs, there is a hidden, ugly, picture in the attic that fans can’t, or in some cases, refuse to see.

The Sheffield Steelers, in their treatment of Gerad Adams, are British hockey’s latest Dorian Gray. In this piece, we’ll look at both the public face of the Steelers and the facts, and the small, insignificant tidbits that we can use, put together in the right way, to build the true face. The repulsive, amoral face they hide in their own “picture in the attic”-the one that has taken some of British hockey’s most respected coaches and men and treated them abominably, hiding in plain sight.

Firstly, let’s look at the public face. Officially, Adams’ sacking was a decision made very quickly by Sheffield owner Tony Smith, in response to seeing the success of coaches like Chuck Weber in Coventry. It was a decision made that has been praised as “forward thinking”, considered in response to the increased challenge of the CHL. Promises of “culture change” and “wanting to make the Steelers a European power”. Talk of “unifying Sheffield hockey”, a development system that will be the envy of the league, and a “vision” that will turn Sheffield into a European powerhouse.

Let’s look at the fact that last year Smith said of Adams when he replaced Doug Christiansen “I think the Steelers have a Steelers-style coach in place – one who knows what the club is about and understands the Steelers way.

“I’m excited by the appointment and hope the fans are too.

“I’m desperate to bring Steelers hockey back to Sheffield. A game played with emotion and excitement and Gerad is a coach who both knows and understands that.”

Let us consider that he now speaks of wanting the Steelers to have a coach with “experience in team and club management as well as coaching at a high level.”…one that apparently Adams (a coach with ten years EIHL experience) had given them only 14 months ago, but now does not.

Let us consider that his vision of forming links with a thriving junior system and a GM/coach structure is so strong that he claims he had no idea someone capable of running that existed nor that it was a workable idea, seemingly, until Chuck Weber signed in December in Coventry, despite it being the norm in European leagues.

Let us consider that Steelers officials have done what few sports teams would ever do and publicly compared Adams unfavourably to at least one other EIHL coach since his sacking.The same ones, in fact, who were calling him the perfect fit for Steelers this time last year.

Let us not forget that the quiet, professional Adams himself has been moved to respond with public criticism to his former employers to loud and repeated justifications of his sacking by Sheffield officials in the press-something that even the well documented horrendous treatment by (Tony Smith’s former business partner) Paul Ragan in Cardiff did not provoke him to do.

Finally, let us consider that a “culture change” in Sheffield is exactly what was presented as the reason for Doug Christiansen’s sacking last February…and Ryan Finnerty’s sacking the April before that, and that both men were ALSO presented in the press as the “perfect fit” for what Steelers wanted to do by Smith. And let us consider that Adams did exactly what he was asked to do – he brought the Steelers trophies.

That is the public face…the Dorian Gray Steelers people see. It is questionable, but the vision of Tony Smith, superficially, is a good one. The argument that the Steelers need a man other than Gerad Adams to do it is one that some will agree with, some won’t. Many will say that the announcement could have been handled better, but that it should be “let go” and that indeed the Sheffield Star have “fuelled” what is an amicable, honourable parting. The decision is not a nice one for Gerad Adams, but it is one made honourably now – the club, as they say, wish good luck to Adams. The best, in fact.

However, let’s climb the dark, dank stairs past the upper levels of Steelers management and their smiling faces. The handshakes, the words of thanks for Adams – the claims that this is a decision taken after the league win.

Here we are in the Steelers attic. In British hockey’s attic. The place where the little pieces of information blow on the winds of rumour, where whispers float eternally on the wind from all over UK hockey.

The place where, if one stays long enough, the fragments eventually come together to form a portrait. A portrait of deceit. One of cronyism and ego and of an honourable man knifed in the back by an organisation he has served better than they could have hoped, all in the name of success. Here are the fragments of chat, fact and whisper from those within the EIHL that may, together make up the true portrait of Gerad Adams’ story in Sheffield. It is a portrait that British hockey deserves to see. Let’s assemble them.

The First Fragment we have is from before Adams’ reign even began. It comes from January 2014. Doug Christiansen is Sheffield coach, but he is already under pressure. There are whispers around the league that Tony Smith and the Steelers are looking to make a change. They are approaching other EIHL coaches. Whispers abound that Adams, with his former links with Sheffield as a player and success coaching the Devils is a target, having recently been released in Cardiff. However, the change doesn’t happen. It is said that Adams, an honourable man, refuses to discuss the possibility of taking another man’s job from underneath him. This action by Sheffield, as we shall see, will be important later.

The Second Fragment – February 2014. Doug Christiansen is relieved of his job as Sheffield coach. Adams is immediately appointed, with a speed that is surprising. Unless you consider the fact the Steelers already had this succession planned in advance. Perhaps, even, going far enough to sound out the replacement a few months earlier?

The Third Fragment – April 2014 – Gerad Adams’ Sheffield Steelers win the playoffs, with Christiansen’s team. Adams is hailed for the job he’s done and given a two year contract extension. He is also hailed as the perfect fit for Sheffield Steelers. His personnel decisions are given full support by the ownership (again, this will be important later). It is speculated that Tony Smith will demand a trophy once again, ideally the league. The Sheffield owner also speaks to all and sundry of his desire to win, and of the Sheffield Arena to see more people coming through the doors – a job he tells people he is “confident” his coach will achieve

The Fourth Fragment – It is Christmas 2014, and the Coventry Blaze have just fired Marc Lefebvre and appointed Chuck Weber – a move that is slowly beginning to change things for the better after the Blaze’s horrendous start to the season. Meanwhile, all is not rosy in Sheffield. The team, carefully recruited by Adams and full of strong players, are possibly not quite performing ideally- they have lost four games on the bounce over Christmas. Adams himself is aware that, in order to keep his job, the Sheffield ownership will demand trophies and success. However, the talk around the league and the collective wisdom of insiders argues that, with the Steelers still in the hunt for three trophies, one will suffice and be more than enough for the ownership to be happy with Adams’ work. all is well in the Steelers dressing room, with no talk of bust-up or friction. The Steelers ownership are still happy.

The Fifth Fragment – It is February 2015. Paul Thompson, the former Coventry Blaze coach, is back in the UK. He spends time watching British hockey games and catching up with friends, Dave Simms in Sheffield among them. Meanwhile, in Sheffield, some talk of a new outlook being formed among Sheffield ownership. Mention is made to Smith by those who have seen or heard about it in action of the benefits of a more “European” style of management. Conversations are had between Smith and Dave Simms as they begin planning for next season. There are the first whispers of a “new direction” for Sheffield-which some say are motivated by the Steelers looking with envious eyes at the stories Paul Thompson tells of his European adventure, of which he talks in glowing terms.

From this point on, the picture darkens. A portrait is forming from these fragments, and as it grows, it is not one that looks good for Adams. There is talk now that his fate was sealed in those talks between Simms and Smith in the February nights and days, as he toiled unaware. Perhaps, as well, a successor was decided upon…not necessarily solely by Tony Smith.

The Sixth Fragment – March 2015. Adams’ revitalized Steelers team is engaged in a fight for the title with resurgent Cardiff and faltering Braehead. The man himself is settled in Sheffield, as is his family…fervent Steelers fans who love their adopted city. They are popular and sought out by Dave Simms at games and on Twitter…Gerad’s wife Nina is a fervent Sheffield cheerleader on social media and as popular a figure in Sheffield as her husband. Weekly meetings between Adams and Smith have continued all year (again, this is a point that will be important later). The Steelers lose the Challenge Cup Final to Cardiff, but roar back to take an emotional league title win a few weeks later. Adams is hailed as a hero. And yet, curiously, Smith does not congratulate Adams publicly for his leading the team to a league win.

The Seventh Fragment – Sheffield lose the playoff finals. However, Tony Smith remains upbeat. Sheffield are already planning for next season – Adams is being asked to sign players-there are meetings around the table and boasts of plans being made for next season, along with contract negotiations and signings being completed, such as that with Mathieu Roy, much to Steeler fans delight. However, there is tension here too.

The Eighth Fragment – Rumours emerge that with several EIHL coaching jobs in the offing, Paul Thompson is open to a return to Britain. Speculation has him going to Nottingham – but this is quashed by the Panthers electing to stick with Corey Neilson. However, hints are coming out of the Sheffield office of “big news” from those in the know. The Steelers are already talking of “changes” to prepare for Europe. Are friendships at least partly driving those  changes?

The Ninth Fragment – Adams is sacked in a brief meeting, to the shock and surprise of both Steeler fans and the man himself. Even those usually in the know, outside of a few in Sheffield are surprised…there had been suggestions from some within the Sheffield organisation that changes would come with “a new broom” at the helm, but this would be an announcement of a coach who would replace Adams when all formalities were completed “if they could find the right man”.

The same Sheffield source also claims that this course was agreed upon “in February, whatever the outcome” and that Sheffield were one Edinburgh loss from winning nothing. The Sheffield players, though they remain quiet publicly, are staggered – they knew nothing…not even captain Jonathan Phillips. However, there are vague suggestions that more than one person is doing the recruiting at Sheffield now.

Adams’ assistant and faithful Steeler servant Neil Abel is also announced to be leaving the club by the Steelers.

The Tenth Fragment – After the sacking, Sheffield organisation members seem far less surprised than one would expect at the sacking of a league-winning coach. Some usually vocal are strangely brief in paying public tributes to AdamsTony Smith himself claims that the vast majority of Steelers fans support this move – a curious reaction to the outpouring of shock on most social media. He also claims that they already have a replacement in mind for Adams…a replacement that is rumoured strongly to be none other than….Paul Thompson. The template claimed as “a vision” also uncannily matches that already expounded many times by Thompson in regard to the best way for clubs to develop GB players.

Adams’ assistant Neil Abel says that he is still a Steelers employee, and has not been told of his future by the club.

The Eleventh Fragment – As signings begin, it emerges from Sheffield player chatter that Mathieu Roy’s new contract was negotiated with Adams for around £750 a week…then Tony Smith stepped in and “took control” of negotiations, undermining his coach and readjusting the terms. The adjusted contract is described as “gigantic” for the EIHL-with a wage figure north of £1200 a week. This is widely seen as very similar to Paul Ragan’s tactic in Cardiff of offering huge wages to star players to “keep them happy” under a new coach. Mike Forney in particular is said to have told other teams that he, too, had negotiated with Adams and was ready to sign a deal far below this level. Understandably, the hike in Roy’s wages by Smith leads to a little unrest, with players increasingly seeing the ownership as “a joke”.

The Twelfth Fragment – Sheffield call a press conference for Thursday 30th April. Barely two weeks after the sacking, they are rumoured to have found their man…another very fast turnaround. Rumours abound once again, fed by all the other fragments, that Adams’ actual sacking was planned by Tony Smith for early May,  brought forward as negotiations with the “replacement” proceeded faster than expected.

The Thirteenth Fragment – The stories in the Sheffield Star continue – with a suggestion that “observers say Adams and Smith didn’t communicate enough”…a strange thing for those observers to say if they knew about the weekly meetings between owner and coach and indeed those post-season. There’s also, as mentioned, veiled hints by Steelers insiders that Adams was not the man for the job in the Star and defensive quotes from Tony Smith saying “the majority support my decision” when the opposition on Sheffield’s forum is there for all to see.

The Portrait – Put these facts together, and a stark portrait emerges…a picture of Gerad Adams, a proud man who has done everything possibly asked of him, lifting the EIHL league trophy while shadows already lurk in the background with knives raised, ready to bury in his back. One must wonder what Tony Smith considers success, if two trophies in a 14 month tenure are not successful enough.

It is known around the league and often speculated upon that Tony Smith sets great store by the opinions of fans he sees on Steeltalk, Sheffield’s forum, and the club monitors it strongly to use it as a “barometer”…the relentless criticism of Doug Christiansen by fans on the forum has been implicated strongly by league insiders as a major influence for Christiansen’s early sacking and the quote of a Steeltalk moderator’s signature is Smith himself praising the content.

However, it is also speculated that Tony Smith is a man easily influenced. By those close to him, by fan opinion, by recommendations of others. This has never been a question – at times there have even been private boasts from some in UK hockey of the influence they may or may not wield at the Motorpoint.

The fragments floating round this attic have been different each time these past three years in Sheffield, but they have always formed similar portraits. Portraits of coaches with proud ambitions, hard work, and pedigree…all with shadows lurking, just waiting for an opportunity to bury the knife. Finnerty, Christiansen, and now Adams…all have fallen victim to the coaching meat-grinder that is the Sheffield Steelers under the capricious rule of Tony Smith and his circle of Steelers stalwarts. All now have the portraits of the ugly end to their tenures on the wall.

One already wonders how long it will be before the new coach is added, and what story the fragments will tell this time.

It seems that Tony Smith runs his kingdom like that of Westeros in Game Of Thrones – he rules it, aided by a trusted Hand Of The King-like figure who speaks for him and the Steelers when he’s not around, and who can often wield power simply by whispering into Smith’s ear. Whoever that might be.

One thing is certain…just like a hockey Game Of Thrones, when you sit on the Steel Throne…you play the game of intrigue well, or you die.

As Smith washes his hands of the blood of another coach, and the portraits in the attic stare it seems that in Sheffield, sometimes even playing the game perfectly, by the rules they set, isn’t enough to save you if the wrong people don’t want you to win it.

The betrayal of Gerad Adams tells us that, if nothing else.

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