On Sunday the Sheffield Steelers side gather together for the first time; 24 players, three coaches and a medical team.
For the next eight and a half months, they will see each other every day; sharing a room, a bus, hotel rooms and most of all, a desire to create British ice hockey history by becoming the first ever side to win three in a row. It’s a chance to create history.
It’s not for the faint hearted, either. Not only will those guys have to be fit, strong and talented, they will have to be mentally able to cope with the pressure that the likes of you and I will put on. How many times will we shout “We want three in a row” at them? How many times will the likes of Bob Westerdale and other reporters bring it to their attention? How many tweets, Facebook messages and forum topics will they read?
Being a Sheffield Steeler is to work in a pressure cooker. The most pressurised team in the league. The media attention, fan scrutiny and of course the disdain fans of other clubs like to hold the Steelers in.
We are the perceived big boys for a reason: We play in the biggest barn in the brightest uniform. We play in front of the biggest crowds; over 9,000 on Boxing Day. We create the biggest amount of attention. We are a little brash. But we have earned that right. It’s called winning. The most league championships. The most successful coach in Elite League era in Paul Thompson; the only man to win back to back EIHL championships, the only coach to win five league titles.
We have the toughest player in the league, in Zack Fitzgerald. We have the most dogmatic in Tyler Mosienko, a man who couldn’t give up even if you begged him. We have a Gary Lineker in Mathieu Roy, a man who leads in goals and blocked shots as well. We have the best of British. Rob Dowd and Ben O’Connor. They are led by the best captain: Jonathan Phillips has lifted more trophies than anyone.
I’m not saying that we will definitely win it for a third time - but I am saying if you’re going to beat us, then I’ll tip my hat to you, because you will have to play through pain, make many commitments and be bloody good.
Nottingham will be terrific, Belfast deep, Cardiff hungry. Coventry re-born and nasty, just like their coach Danny Stewart. Then there is Braehead, the easier conference. Their format gives the Clan a huge advantage. Can they take advantage, though? For the last two years they failed. Can Ryan Finnerty deliver?
The 2016-17 season will see the best British hockey ever. It will surpass the quality of the 2001 Superleague season. One of the differences is the coaches: today’s are better, the teams better prepared. On the ice and off.
In Thompson we have the best but Neilson, Lord, Stewart, Walser and Finnerty also lead their teams diligently. They are 24/7 guys, hockey nerds in the nicest way.
Here is the best thing about the 2016-17 EIHL – in my mind they are the six teams that can win it but where the league has grown is that the title will also be decided by the likes of Fife, Dundee, Manchester and Edinburgh. Conferencing has ensured that they have the finances to compete.
They have attracted young talented coaches and recruited some outstanding, experienced players.
Every team will beat each other this season. That is what makes this a great league.
In years gone by, you got into your cars and drove to the Sheffield Arena knowing who was going to win.
You also knew who was going to win three out of the four other games in the league that night. If the bookmakers had taken bets five years ago, we would all be on boats in Majorca right now.
The 2016-17 EIHL is about as opposite to that as you can imagine. Any team on any night.
If you’re not excited by this Steelers team, by this years EIHL, then you haven’t got a pulse. Book an appointment at the doctors.
The rest of you, well it all starts with two exhibition games next weekend against Aalborg Pirates of the Danish Elite League at iceSheffield, the Champions League, then the EIHL.
Get the grass cut one final time this weekend, you won’t have any after the season starts.