The Elite League Years: 2011-12

Under rookie player-coach Ben Simon, the Steelers took the 2010-11 title in one of the closest finishes yet in the EIHL era. Could they retain their crown the following season? Time to strap yourselves into the time machine, it’s the ninth edition of this particular article and a look back at the ninth season of the EIHL. It’s time for 2011-12.

Towards the end of the previous season, the Steelers had been taken over. Gone was Welshman Bob Phillips and his wife Mariani, incoming was Cardiff Devils owner Paul Ragan who had featured in the Channel 4 reality show “The Secret Millionaire” in 2010. Ragan’s plan was to run both clubs but cost cut, these cost cutting measures saw the title winning player-coach Simon not agree a new deal and head back home to North America. It wasn’t a popular decision. Ragan quickly tried to get the fans back on side when he decided to sell half of the ownership to successful local businessman Tony Smith; he of the Rhino Sportswear brand. But it was a partnership that didn’t last long and Rinkcorp (the holding company) suddenly faced financial issues, both Cardiff and Sheffield’s franchises were up for sale and the future for both seemed bleak.

A few weeks though before the season started, Steelers themselves were saved as Smith bought out the remaining holding of Ragan’s and immediately set about getting the club back on an even footing which to this date: he has done admirably and more. Cardiff were still on borrowed time though it had to be said. Elsewhere, there was a new face to the EIHL table as Fife Flyers, the oldest club in Britain, joined at the expense of the Newcastle Vipers whose financial struggles last season ultimately caught up with them and they had to call it a day. Since then, the EIHL has had no North-East based franchise in its ranks. Sad times indeed especially when you see the players that area of the country has produced over the years, players such David Longstaff, Jonathan Weaver, Robert Dowd for example.

Anyway in the season itself, Steelers had seen star Brit Dowd leave the club for Belfast. A few reasons why that might have happened. And they had to find a new coach to replace Simon. That proved to be the return of a familiar face. Canadian centre Ryan Finnerty was set to leave Cardiff, whom he had captained the season before, to join Coventry but quickly was given permission to discuss terms as player-coach with the Steelers and a deal was struck. After the closeness of the destiny of the 2011 title, the 2012 one was a much more straight forward affair as Belfast dominated it and won it by a 11 point margin from the second placed Steelers. It was just comprehensive in every sense.

The Challenge Cup stayed in Nottingham as did the Play-Off crown for the second successive season. Panthers comprehensively topped their qualifying group ahead of the Devils whilst Belfast and Braehead made it in the other section. Clan took the first leg against their “big sister” club but couldn’t complete the job in the NIC: a 3-0 win for the Panthers completed the comeback against a Clan side with its second player-coach in as many seasons as former NHL defenceman Drew Bannister combined both roles in succession to Bruce Richardson. The other semi-final saw a close run affair with the Giants coming out on top by the odd goal in eleven thanks to a 5-3 win in the home second leg. Yet Panthers didn’t give them a sniff in the Final itself, taking the first leg 5-1 in the NIC and then hitting another five in the Odyssey en route to winning 10-4 on aggregate.

The play-offs produced a surprise in the quarter final stage as second seeds Steelers were sent off to the golf course early by Yorkshire rivals Hull 7-4 on aggregate. That ensured that Finnerty’s final season as a player would end trophy-less. However, there was no repeat of that in the semi-final as the Panthers routed them 10-3 in one of the most one-sided semi-finals in the play-offs. Their opponents in the Final would be Cardiff who ensured no double for the Giants with a 4-3 overtime win. The Final was a close affair, which took 53 minutes before the deadlock was broken thanks to the one-eyed assassin David-Alexandre Beaureguard and sealed with an empty netter from David Clarke with just seven seconds remaining.

In the Continental Cup, it was a disappointing campaign for the Steelers in that too. After gaining a point from a shootout loss to Italians Asiago, things didn’t go as planned after that. A 3-0 shutout defeat by hosts Herning (Blue Fox) was compounded by a 6-3 loss by Hungarians DAB and leave the Steelers adrift with just one point from their three games. The tournament itself was won by French side Rouen Dragons on goal difference after they, previous season’s winners Minsk and Ukrainians HC Donbass had all remarkably tied on six points apiece.

We head into the tenth season in our next episode. Who will come out on top then? Tune in and find out.

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