The Coventry Blaze’s return to the Skydome Arena has been a long time coming. Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Danny Stewart’s side was flying high in the Elite League standings as the West Midlands outfit rode a wave of optimism heading into the post-season.
Seventeen months have since passed – with one season cut short and another cancelled altogether – but the Blaze are finally back in competitive action in Coventry on Sunday evening with the visit of the Guildford Flames in the Challenge Cup.
And Coventry’s head coach is looking forward to getting back to the rink on gamedays.
The crowds play a big part and in the atmosphere of the of the game
– Danny Stewart
“I’ve already run into a couple fans in the town and the excitement of being able to go back and watch a live game [is huge]. Some of our supporters have been with us since the start, for 20 plus years, and are [used to watching the team] every weekend in the in the winter. Not being able to do that has been a big loss for a lot of people,” Stewart told reporters at this week’s press conference.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling. And I don’t think [the players and I] will be able to appreciate it until I we’re sitting on the bench or standing on the bench and hear the energy of the crowd. I think that’s when we’ll realise that we’re back.
“The crowds play a big part and in the atmosphere of the of the game and the energy that the players can create from it. We saw during the Elite Series, you know, the building can be a bit a bit grim [without fans].”
And although a lot has changed in the 556 days since Coventry’s last home game, supporters will see plenty of familiar faces on their rinkside returns this weekend. Not only was Stewart able to retain the services of EIHL All-Star goaltender C.J. Motte, but he has also kept the majority of his skaters from 2019/20 together, too.
I think we’ve created one of the better British cores in the league
– Danny Stewart
“For the first time since I’ve been in Coventry as a coach, we’ve been able to retain that big core. And it certainly helps with things, it helps with the new imports coming in and getting adjusted to the culture and it also helps with the transition on the ice.
“It’s good to have that [2019/20] core back that can say ‘hey this is the way we do things’ rather than having to teach 13 new guys how our systems work. We’ve got experienced players who have been with us for a few years that can now pull their defensive partner aside [to give them advice] and that helps because we don’t have big coaching staffs in the UK.”
Of Coventry’s aforementioned core, four homegrown players received call-ups for the 2021 IIHF World Championship, a tournament that saw Team GB secure their first top-flight win since 1962. On the topic of Jordan Hedley, David Clements, Luke Ferrara, and Ross Venus’ time with the national team, Stewart said:
“It’s massively important. We’ve built a core of Brits over the last three or four years and they’re all good people, hardworking guys that have [earned their success]. They’ve been given opportunities that they’ve made the most and for a club like us to have four guys on the national team is a big, big deal.
“I guess we’re known as a smaller club but I think we’ve created one of the better British cores in the league. So, you know, the goal will be for those guys to continue to improve and hopefully we can do our best to retain them for not just this season, but for years to come.”
Make no mistake, Danny Stewart’s Coventry Blaze are back. And they mean business.