In what later became the final match of an aborted campaign, Luke Ferrara compelled the Skydome Arena to erupt with just six seconds remaining on the clock against Dundee Stars. The goal, and the resultant win, propelled Danny Stewart’s side to third in the standings, Coventry’s best finish since finishing fourth seven seasons ago.
The Blaze have since announced that Stewart’s tenure as head coach and director of hockey has been extended “for the foreseeable future”, a decision that has been welcomed with open arms by the club’s supporters. Just twelve months ago, a significant number of onlookers felt that Stewart’s association with the club had reached the end of the road. Despite being a significant part of the club’s history while a player, the Fort McMurray native’s time on the bench had previously left much to be desired.
In 2016-17, Stewart’s first season in charge of the club, Coventry finished ninth, outside the playoffs and with a negative goal-difference. Stewart’s next two seasons in charge of the club saw the Blaze make the postseason, albeit by exceptionally fine margins. In 2018-19, Coventry’s season was maligned by a precarious netminding situation; although the Blaze’s final day win over Cardiff Devils to prevent them winning the title at the Skydome does continue to live long in the memory.
Ferrara, Laakkonen and Motte ended the campaign league-leaders in their respective specialities
This year was different, markedly so. For the first time since winning the playoffs against the odds in 2015, Coventry Blaze were truly a force to be reckoned with in 2019-20 – with special emphasis placed on the ’20. It was a season of individual excellence: Ferrara, Laakkonen and Motte ended the campaign league-leaders in their respective specialities.
Likewise, the Blaze finished the season on a run of seventeen matches without defeat in regulation time, losing just twice in regulation in their last 27 games. Be under no illusions, Stewart has just presided over a fantastic season, and the good times might just keep on rolling once the sport returns following its COVID-19 hiatus.
Speaking to Stuart Coles and Ed Kimberley following news of his contract extension broke, Stewart announced to the world what many had already expected was behind his side’s renaissance in 2020: “I didn’t want any more bad apples. I don’t care how good you are on the ice, if you’re not a good guy, then I don’t want you in our room.”
Unlike in previous seasons, Coventry Blaze were strong across the board in 2020. In 2018-19, the glittering talents of Ben Lake and Alex Nikiforuk acted as an exception, rather than the rule. In 2019-20, Stewart’s side was an altogether different prospect. The likes of Schiestel, Hache, Bloodoff, Johnston and Venus might’ve slipped under the radar of supporters outside of the City of Culture-elect, but their quality is testament to the club’s upswing in form.
The retention of Forbes and Lawrence proved to be a prudent move
Coventry’s recruitment was impressive. Stewart’s decision to sign Eichstadt, Pohlkamp and Curran out of the NCAA was bold, but it paid dividends. Likewise, the retention of Forbes and Lawrence – 2018 recruits from divisional rivals – proved to be a prudent decision.
David Broll – an imposing Maple Leafs alumnus – was awarded Clubman of the Year, and was praised by his head coach for showing exceptional “buy in” upon his arrival in Coventry. Stewart often talks of his players’ “buy in” to the club’s culture, and it is a fascination that boils down to the values of the great rosters he was a member of during his time icing for the Blaze.
In his interview with Coles and Kimberley, Stuart said: “I stayed away from saying we’re a smaller club: we’re this, we’re that. I’m not an excuses guy, you know? When I signed that contract, I knew what I was getting into and I know we’re a smaller club in the league. I’m buying into that.”
Pragmatism flowed throughout the interview. Stuart took more interest in discussing his side’s worst performance of the season – the Blaze’s shattering loss to Manchester Storm in the Challenge Cup – than he did discussing the numerous highs that his side enjoyed. Rooted in his approach, Stuart once again reasserted his vision for the club: “I want the guys that work at the rink, the guy that surfaces the rink, you guys [the media team], the fans: I want everyone to feel they are part of the team.”
The diminishing strength of the pound versus the dollar will impair British side’s ability to recruit
The world of sport is currently in a serious state of flux, the Elite League is acutely vulnerable to said turmoil. The financial repercussions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic are obvious for all to see: lost ticket, sponsorship and commercial revenue is a theme across the league. Likewise, the diminishing strength of the pound versus the dollar will impair British side’s ability to recruit from North America.
Uncertain times await the fate of ice hockey in this country, but Coventry Blaze couldn’t be in safer hands as the club sails into turbulent seas. Danny Stewart has always demanded that his players buy into this city, his city. Danny Stewart has always demanded that his players buy into this club, his club. I’m delighted that head coach Stewart is sticking around, and I’d be amazed if you aren’t too.
Come on you Blaze.