By Chris Pryke
The Genting Casino Coventry Blaze roster underwent wholesale changes ahead of the 2022/23 Elite League season.
Out, for various reasons, went Luke Ferrara, CJ Motte, Justin Hamonic and Janne Laakkonen among others, as head coach Danny Stewart brought back just six players from the previous campaign – Brits Ross Venus, David Clements and Alex Forbes, and imports Nathanael Halbert, Johnny Curran and Mitch Cook.
Finn Paavo Hölsä swapped Slovenia for the Skydome to become starting netminder, with inexperienced 19-year-old Brit Will Bray as his back-up and long-time number two Jordan Hedley – now playing for Milton Keynes Lightning – available to step in and start if needed. The defensive unit was bolstered by the arrival of former Kelly Cup winner Garrett Johnston, the highly-regarded Tanner Lishchynsky, the experienced Alexander Kuqali and former Nottingham Panther Brady Norrish.
On offence, veteran Canadian forward Colton Yellow Horn arrived from the Glasgow Clan, while Swede Kim Tallberg, Czech Radek Vesely, young Americans Jack Billings and Peyton Frantti and Canadian Marly Quince were all brought in for their first taste of Elite League action. Young British forward Nathan Ripley also signed a full-time contract after impressing in limited opportunities with the team during the previous season.
The team seemed to gel on and off the ice and the group’s competitiveness and ‘never say die’ attitude endeared them to Blaze fans. They finished top of a tough Challenge Cup group, but a 5-0 defeat in the first leg of the quarter-final at Guildford put paid to hopes of further progress. After a strong start in the league, fluctuating form as 2022 drew to a close left the team sitting comfortably in fifth place as the campaign entered its final weeks. A good run of form in February and early March saw the Blaze take points off all the teams above them, but the top four remained just out of reach and meant a play-off quarter final against Cardiff. A disappointing 1-5 defeat in the first leg at home left the team with a mountain to climb, and a 2-1 win in the second leg in Cardiff marked the end of their campaign.
Hölsä proved to be hugely popular with Blaze fans, with his post-match dive along the ice after each home win becoming a staple of the after-match celebrations. The defensive unit was solid, with inspirational captain Halbert and the experienced Norrish providing a regular scoring threat from the blue line as well as a reliable defensive presence. Clements had another impressive season and had a career year in terms of points, while Johnston, Lishchynsky and Kuqali were all quietly and unfussily effective.
All the forward lines offered a scoring threat. The ever-popular Curran had a career year, amassing more than 50 points in the league and making his GB debut alongside Halbert in the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in February. The impressive Tallberg proved to be a consistent goal scorer and wholehearted competitor, while Yellow Horn provided goals and assists and showed why Stewart had been so keen to sign him.
Quince added some grit in front of the net as well as a scoring threat, Cook built on the good impression he’d made the previous year and found the net more than 20 times, while Frantti and Billings also battled hard and chipped in with important goals. The ever-dependable Venus had another quietly impressive season before announcing he would be leaving the club at the end of the season after 12 years and more than 700 Elite League games. The often-unsung Forbes again proved his value and versatility especially when called on to fill in on defence after a late-season injury to Kuqali, and Ripley showed great promise in his first Elite League campaign.
After Vesely left the team unexpectedly just before Christmas, American JD Dudek was brought in to replace him, and the roster was further strengthened in February with the arrival of Canadian forward Tyler Kirkup and Hungarian national team netminder Miklós Rajna. All three proved useful additions, with Dudek providing energy and chipping in with timely goals, Kirkup adding grit and leading the Blaze to a 3-1 win in Belfast in his first game, and Rajna taking some of the pressure off Hölsä in the season’s final weeks and winning his first four starts.
The series was played behind closed doors at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham between April 3 and May 3, and saw each team play the other three twice at “home” and twice “away” for a 12-game “regular season” before a short play-off series, culminating in a best-of-three final.
Rosters were set at 20 players – five “protected” British players who had played for the participating clubs previously, seven additional British players from clubs not involved in the series who were selected in a draft, and eight imports. An additional three British players were also drafted as a “taxi squad” to provide cover for injuries and other unavailability. Subsequently, these players were added to the full roster, with teams allowed to ice 20 players for each game.
The Blaze’s established Brit core – netminder Jordan Hedley, defenceman David Clements and forwards Luke Ferrara, Ross Venus and Alex Forbes – made up head coach Danny Stewart’s protected list. In the draft, he took GB forward Mike Hammond and GB defenceman Paul Swindlehurst with his first two selections, then used his other picks to select younger players who it was hoped would thrive when given increased opportunities to play during the series – forwards Sam Duggan, Mac Howlett and Toms Rutkis, and defenceman/forward Cole Shudra – along with young players who would benefit from their first taste of Elite level hockey – forwards Vanya Antonov and Austin Mitchell-King, defenceman Sam Russell and teenaged netminder Will Bray. Mitchell-King and Bray were former Blaze academy players.
The imports were a mixture of familiar former Blaze players – Janne Laakkonen, Chris Pohlkamp and Nicolai Bryhnisveen – and new faces including highly-rated young Norwegian defenceman Max Krogdahl and forward Simen Andre Edvardsen. First year professionals Tristan Keck and Nick Jermain both made the jump from NCAA hockey in North America, while another face familiar to Elite League fans, former Fife Flyers and Belfast Giants netminder Shane Owen, rounded out the roster.
Despite Ferrara being unavailable for the first three games as he finished the season with Krakow in Poland, Swindlehurst missing through injury, and a 6-1 loss to the Panthers in a warm-up game, the Blaze began the series brightly. A 3-2 overtime loss to the Storm in the opening game, with goals from Edvardsen and Hammond, was followed by a 3-1 win over the Panthers, which saw Keck score his first professional goal. But the mood was lowered by a disappointing 7-2 defeat to the Steelers, the only bright spot being a first professional goal for Jermain.
The team regrouped and, with Ferrara now in the line-up, secured a point against the Storm through a Clements goal with 34 seconds to go before eventually losing in overtime again 5-4, and a battling 3-1 victory over the Panthers. A 6-4 defeat to the Steelers was followed by a 4-3 win over the Storm, a 4-3 overtime victory over the Panthers and 5-3 loss to Sheffield. The final round of games followed a familiar pattern – a 7-5 loss to the Steelers, a 6-3 win against the Storm that saw Keck score his first pro hat-trick and Clements score a stunning coast-to-coast powerplay goal, and a 4-3 overtime loss to the Panthers.
The point from that last game against Nottingham enabled the Blaze to finish second in the “regular season” table behind Sheffield. They also finished the “regular season” with the leading goalscorer (Keck with 15), leading points scorer (Hammond with 23), and the netminder with the best save percentage (Owen with 91.51%). The team also boasted the best powerplay (32.08%) and penalty kill (84.31%).
All that translated into a two-legged play-off semi-final against the Panthers, with the result decided on aggregate score. A 2-0 loss in the “home” leg – which marked Swindlehurst’s first appearance of the series – left the Blaze with an uphill task and they got off to the worst possible start in the “away” leg the next night, conceding a goal after 25 seconds on the way to a 4-1 loss and a 6-1 aggregate defeat.
The stand-out performer in the series was Keck. Having joined the team with a reputation for speed and an eye for goal he more than lived up to expectations, scoring 15 goals and adding six assists. Fellow first-year pro Jermain averaged almost a point a game and impressed with his work rate playing on the same line as Keck and GB international Hammond, who showed again what a high-quality player he is.
At the other end of the ice, Owen was impressive and finished the series with a save percentage over 91% despite facing the most shots of any netminder. David Clements – given a leadership role as an assistant captain alongside Ferrara and Venus – also had an outstanding series and thoroughly deserved his first call-up to the GB squad for the World Championship in Latvia. He was joined on the GB roster by Ferrara, Venus, Hammond, Swindlehurst, Duggan and Hedley, who was named as third netminder after impressing when given the opportunity in goal.
All the young British players the club drafted took advantage of their opportunities. Duggan and Howlett were consistently impressive, while Shudra, Rutkis and Antonov – who had never played at the Elite level before – also gave good accounts of themselves. Russell benefitted from Swindlehurst’s injury to play in 13 of the 14 games, while Mitchell-King appeared in four games and registered an assist. Both could be ones to watch for the future.
It was a case of another season, another major overhaul of the playing roster for the Genting Casino Coventry Blaze. While the club retained its impressive group of British players, only two imports – defenceman Justin Hache and forward Dillon Lawrence – returned to the Skydome for the 2019/20 season.
Faced with the challenge of replacing the goal-scoring of Ben Lake, Tim Crowder and Shawn Pauly, head coach Danny Stewart brought in proven Elite League goal-scorer Evan Bloodoff from the Fife Flyers, consistent points accumulator Andrew Johnston, NHL-experienced forward David Broll and first-year pro Johnny Curran. The forward group was rounded out late in pre-season by the skilful and speedy former Dundee Star Charlie Corcoran and the vastly experienced Janne Laakkonen.
On the blue-line, Blaze fans’ calls for a big-bodied defenceman were answered with the arrival of Justin Hamonic, while the signing of Elite League play-off winner Drew Schiestel from the Cardiff Devils added experience to a relatively young roster. The D-core was rounded out by two first-year pros in Dillon Eichstadt and Chris Pohlkamp, who was joined on the roster by his older brother Matt, a forward with East Coast Hockey League experience.
Netminder had proved a problematic position in the 2018/19 season, with Miika Wiikman, Miroslav Kopriva and former NHLer Matt Hackett all taking turns between the pipes. Coach Stewart pinned his hopes on Canadian goalie Jamie Phillips to bring some stability to the position, with the reliable Jordan Hedley returning as back-up.
After beating the Steelers 6-4 in Sheffield in their opening game, the team lost four of its next five. But they gelled as a group and proved they could play with – and beat – the league’s best, ending the Blaze’s double-digit losing streak to the Giants along the way. The Challenge Cup was a disappointment again, with the team ending up in a “play-in” game with the Manchester Storm for a quarter-final berth. A heart-breaking 3-2 loss on home ice threatened to derail the rest of the season as the team lost five league games in a row.
Netminder again proved a problem position, with the unconvincing Phillips replaced just before Christmas by American C.J. Motte. Motte’s arrival acted as a catalyst for an upturn in the team’s form. His ability to play the puck and his all-round performance imbued the whole roster with confidence, as well as making the team more solid defensively.
With just two defeats in regulation in over 20 games following Motte’s arrival, a campaign that looked to be skidding suddenly turned into a very special one for Stewart’s men. A playoff spot was confirmed in the last week of February, a welcome change from fighting up until almost the last game to secure a place in the top eight, and when Luke Ferrara scored with just six seconds left in regulation time to secure a hard-fought 3-2 home win against the Dundee Stars on March 8, the Blaze found themselves in third place in the table and poised to play a pivotal role in the title run-in. But that game proved to be the last of the campaign, with the rest of the season cancelled days later because of the coronavirus outbreak.
While there was a distinct feeling left of what might have been, getting into third spot was a great achievement for a group of players who appeared to have something different from Blaze teams of recent seasons. They were a real ‘band of brothers’ who had a genuine camaraderie, a team-first mentality, and a passion and never-say-die attitude which showed on the ice and endeared them to the Skydome faithful.
Hache, Schiestel and the impressive Hamonic brought an air of calm and experience to the defensive unit, while Eichstadt and Chris Pohlkamp had impressive first pro seasons and showed maturity and game awareness beyond their years. On offence, any lingering fears about where goals would come from were allayed by the form of Ferrara, with Johnston, Bloodoff, Matt Pohlkamp, and Corcoran all making significant contributions.
Laakkonen’s vision and experience were crucial to the team’s success, while Broll quickly became a fan favourite and proved to be more than just an imposing presence on the ice, being elevated to the team’s leadership group during the season. Curran added energy to the line-up, while Lawrence impressed again in his second season in Coventry.
The Brits were all impressive. Venus, in his testimonial season, had a career year in terms of goals and points and thoroughly deserved his return to the GB set-up for the Olympic qualification group in Nottingham in February. David Clements continued to develop and impress on the blue-line, while Alex Forbes benefited from more ice time and showed his value and versatility by playing on defence when the team was short-benched.
But the most impressive was Ferrara. Fresh from playing for GB in the World Championship in Slovakia, he enjoyed the best campaign of his career, finishing the truncated season at the top of the league’s goalscoring charts with 33 and becoming the first British forward to achieve that honour in the Elite League era. He was, quite rightly, named to the league’s First All-Star team, alongside Motte, who finished with the league’s top save percentage (92.68%). Laakkonen’s skilful and creative contribution saw him finish with the most assists in the league (40) and was rewarded with a place in the Second All-Star team.
The Blaze roster underwent another major overhaul during the summer of 2018. Among the forwards, leading goal scorer Marc Olivier Vallerand left for the Alps League, while captain Jordan Pietrus and player/assistant coach Brett Robinson, among others, moved on to new challenges.
There were major changes on the blue line too, with only Kevin Noble (who was appointed player/assistant coach) and talented young British defenceman David Clements retained from a defensive unit that had proved frustratingly porous during the previous season.
Head coach Danny Stewart began building a team round a returning core of Noble, Clements, the impressive Ben Lake, GB gold medal-winning forward Luke Ferrara, fellow Brit Ross Venus, netminder Kevin Nastiuk and feisty fan favourite Danick Paquette. On offence, he added skill and know-how in former Nottingham Panther Alex Nikiforuk, and speed and scoring potential in American Jake Hansen and Canadian Kelin Ainsworth. Canadian defenceman Justin Hache, Norwegian international Nicolai Bryhnisveen and American Chris Joyaux headlined the new defensive signings, and the team had a new captain, AHL experienced 25-year-old American forward Kevin Morris, assisted by Ferrara and Venus.
However, Stewart’s plans suffered a double blow when, with the start of the season looming, first Nastiuk and then Paquette announced they wouldn’t be returning after all, with Nastiuk taking a break from the game for personal reasons and Paquette signing for a team in North America before telling the Blaze he had changed his mind about coming back.
Stewart turned to Elite League veteran Miika Wiikman to take over from Nastiuk, whilst Tim Crowder joined in placed of Paquette. Wiikman started the season between the pipes before suffering a broken finger in training, and veteran Czech netminder Miroslav Kopriva answered the SOS call to temporarily replace him, marking the start of his Blaze career with three man-of-the-match awards. Wiikman then returned, only to be released and replaced again by Kopriva weeks later, before the Czech left the club in early January when former NHL netminder Matt Hackett was signed. The constant changes in goal didn’t help the search for consistent on-ice performances.
The Blaze often found themselves either fighting back after conceding early goals or failing to hold leads when they did get in front. While it made for exciting and high-scoring games, with numerous contests going to overtime or penalty shots, the inability to string a consistent run of results together left the club facing another tough battle to make the play-offs. It was a battle that lasted until the final weeks of the season, when the team finally secured a place in the post-season, later succumbing to league Champions Belfast Giants in the quarter-finals.
In addition to the goaltending merry-go-round, other adversities also tested Danny Stewart’s side as in early December, Ainsworth left to join Aalborg Pirates in Denmark and first-year pro Canadian defenceman Trey Lewis announced his retirement due to injury. With the speedy high-point scoring Hansen lost to a long-term injury as well, Swedish forward Thom Flodqvist and Croatian international defenceman Ivan Puzic were brought in to reinforce the roster. Dominik Florian, a Czech-born forward with NCAA experience studying at Coventry University, was also brought in to add depth.
The loss of Hansen deprived the team of a significant offensive threat. But fellow American Shawn Pauly stepped up, forming a potent forward line with Lake and Crowder, and Flodqvist proved an astute addition. Elsewhere, young Brit Alex Forbes and Canadian forward Dillon Lawrence made the most of the initially limited opportunities they were given to earn increased ice time as the season progressed.
There were other bright spots, too. Hache brought skill and poise to the defence, as well as proving to be a key part of the powerplay; the tenacious Bryhnisveen also added further offence from the blue-line; Clements continued his development as one of the best young British defencemen in the Elite League; and Jordan Hedley proved a more than capable back-up netminder when called upon.
But the brightest spot by far was Lake. Having ended his debut Elite League campaign in a decent vein of goal and points scoring form, the Canadian (who holds a British passport courtesy of English parents) followed up with a sensational season that defied expectations, finishing with 34 goals, 43 assists for 77 points in 60 regular season games (second for goals, and points and sixth for assists in the league’s scoring charts), making an irresistible case for inclusion in the GB squad for the World Championship in Slovakia. With Nikiforuk and Crowder both registering more than 50 points, and Pauly finding the net regularly as the season progressed, fears about the roster’s scoring depth proved unfounded. But the team’s instability in net, until the final week’s when Hackett proved his undoubted quality, and the defensive issues which that hindered, meant that the goal-scoring didn’t translate into as many wins as it perhaps should have.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in their history, Head Coach Danny Stewart made wholesale changes to the Genting Casino Coventry Blaze roster during the summer of 2017. Out went fan favourites Brian Stewart, Jim Jorgensen, Liam Stewart and Ashley Tait. In came netminder Kevin Nastiuk following a successful career in Germany, proven Elite League goalscorer Ryan Dingle, high profile forward Adam Courchaine, and talented young British forward Luke Ferrara, to join a returning core built around captain Jordan Pietrus, Brett Robinson, Kevin Noble and Ross Venus.
The season got off to a reasonable start. Comprehensive home wins over Sheffield and Belfast on consecutive weekends at the beginning of October gave rise to hopes that the team would challenge for the Patton Conference title and make a return to the post-season. Much of this optimism came from the form of Marco Vallerand, who gave the team its most potent goalscoring threat since Ryan Ginand in 2013/14 and soon found himself leading the league scoring charts.
But, as has often been the case with the Blaze in recent seasons, consistency became an issue, with excellent wins often followed by disappointing defeats. There were problems with goalscoring depth in the early part of the season, as the players brought in to provide offensive fire power alongside Vallerand struggled to do so; the team’s powerplay repeatedly misfired; while at the other end of the ice, defensive lapses cost the team dearly again and again. Coach Stewart’s post-game press conferences regularly lamented the team’s inability to iron out simple mistakes, protect leads, and find a way to win close games, as they repeatedly came out on the wrong side of results by a single goal. As league form fluctuated, the Challenge Cup once again proved to be a disappointment, as the team managing to register just one win and failed to make the knock-out stages again.
After beating Milton Keynes 5-3 at the Skydome two days before Christmas, the Blaze managed to win just two of their next 15 games, a run that culminated in a 9-1 thrashing at the hands of the Manchester Storm in Altrincham at the beginning of February. But, just when it seemed that all hope of reaching the playoffs had disappeared, the team with the addition of puck-moving defenceman Alex Miner Barron suddenly found some form at the most crucial time. Hard fought wins away to playoff rivals Braehead and Dundee, as well as bogey team Fife among others, helped thrust the team firmly back into the battle for eighth place and that late-season surge eventually saw the Blaze sneak past the Clan and the Stars to secure that final playoff spot.
Despite a hard fought contest over two legs, the season ultimately came to an end against the league Champions, Cardiff Devils in the playoff-quarter final.
There were reasons to be positive during the season. Luke Ferrara, having been deemed surplus to requirements by Sheffield, benefitted from the increased ice time he gained at the Skydome to have a breakout season, netting a hat-trick against Milton Keynes in late February on the way to registering 30 points. Fellow Brit Ross Venus continued to make a case for being the most underrated home-grown player in the Elite League, passing 500 games for the club during the season at the age of just 23 and enjoying the most productive season of his career so far points-wise. And young British netminder Brython Preece used the limited opportunities he received to show he has the attributes and ability to develop into a possible future starter in the Elite League.
As always, captain Jordan Pietrus led by example on and off the ice and was rewarded with his best season points-wise in the Elite League; the oft-maligned Brett Robinson, combining assistant coach duties with playing, was again among the team’s top points scorers; and Ben Lake, one of the club’s less heralded signings, showed that he was much more than the third line forward he was signed to be, enjoying a career year and regularly playing on the top two lines and notching crucial goals as the season entered its most crucial period.
And, of course, there was Vallerand, who became the first Blaze player to score more than 30 goals in an Elite League season since 2013/14, and further endeared himself to fans with his committed performances on the ice, playing a pivotal role on both the powerplay and penalty kill.
After leading the Genting Casino Coventry Blaze to two straight Playoff finals, winning in 2015 and suffering defeat a year later, Chuck Weber departed the club for the AHL’s Rochester Americans. Replacing the American was Danny Stewart, a former player who had previously spent four seasons with the organisation winning the Elite League three times, a Challenge Cup and Knock-out cup.
With a core group of players retained, including Stewart’s chosen Captain Jordan Pietrus and the club’s top-scorer the previous season Brett Robinson, the Fort McMurray native began putting together the pieces to build a squad with “Blaze DNA”.
Signings of the likes of former ECHL Captain and Kelly Cup winner Matt Marquardt, and a top-scorer in the well respected Danish league, Robin Bergman helped build a great deal of excitement as the Stewart era began with an extended pre-season campaign.
High-scoring affairs followed, with the club’s first ever German player Björn Bombis particularly catching the eye. As the Elite League season, and an ultimately unsuccessful Challenge Cup campaign got underway though, the goals suddenly dried up.
Away wins in Cardiff and Belfast offered some early signs of hope but similar levels of performance and result were never to materialise. As the offensive woes continued, Darcy Zajac, a veteran of over 250 AHL games became the first casualty. In came over a point-per-game at DEL2 level, Taylor Carnevale, the 25-year-old centreman lasting just 5 games before Coach Stewart dipped into the player market again. Arriving were an American duo with some serious pedigree, cousins Barry Almeida and T.J Syner. Bombis, who after his early season exploits, struggled to make an impact the other player sacrificed.
All of a sudden Coventry’s scoring woes looked behind them as the pair who have played the majority of their careers together, not least winning the ECHL’s Kelly Cup with Reading Royals in 2012/13, quickly found themselves at the top of the club’s scoring charts.
Out of the blue, Great Britain International Ben Davies became a further addition following a short-stint in North America as the team’s owners, backed by some of the organisation’s highest ever crowds, heavily invested in the squad in an attempt to move up from the lowly position which the club found themselves in.
Despite solving the offensive struggles, following a disastrous Scottish triple-header weekend and a tough Christmas run against their Erhardt Conference rivals, Blaze continued to struggle for consistency. Defensive mistakes and a number of Jekyll and Hyde like performances left Stewart’s men sitting outside of the much prized Playoff places.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom at the Skydome though, not least in part to the impression which 6’5″ Garrett Klotz had made on the Elite League, dropping the gloves no less than 12 times. Liam Stewart too, with his tireless work-ethic and penalty-killing exploits drawing the adulation of the Coventry faithful, proving doubters who pointed to his signing as a PR stunt wrong.
With Syner and Almeida continuing to tear up the scoring charts, Brett Robinson again producing his best form in the second half of the year and Robin Bergman finding the net on a more regular basis, the New Year saw signs of improvement.
A most notable game coming the second week in January as Blaze at one point in a match-up against the Steelers on home ice found themselves without all five recognised import defencemen. In the face of adversity, Matt Marquardt scoring a goal which lifted the Skydome roof off. Sadly, Sheffield were to find a way back into the game and go on to win in overtime but the moment felt a significant coming together for the 16/17 group of players.
With influential defenceman Kevin Noble missing almost all of January and February, in amongst a run of positive results against Gardiner Conference opposition, also, unfortunately came several heavy defeats to title chasing Erhardt clubs, leaving Blaze fighting for the playoff lives with just four games to go.
Home overtime losses to Fife Flyers and Braehead Clan turned out to be a dagger in the Blaze heart, as further defeats to Belfast Giants and Sheffield Steelers left Coventry in a ninth placed position and out of the Elite League playoffs for the first time in their history.
Two further points of interest to end the season review, are that of the Support 25 campaign and the retirement of the club’s longest standing player #17 Russ Cowley.
With help from the world-wide hockey community, in the space of six weeks, the organisation were able to raise over £40,000 to support one of the team’s greatest ever players, Adam Calder in his fight against Cancer.
The end of the current campaign also sees the retirement of Russ, a 15-season veteran for the club, the versatile Great Britain International hanging up his skates with over 800 Elite League games on his CV, second most of any player and leaves as Coventry’s all-time club appearance leader.
Coventry Blaze’s 2015/16 season was a slow-burner throughout – eventually catching fire in the playoffs before being finally extinguished in the last game of the Elite League season.
Following their surprise playoff success of the previous season, Coventry had moved quickly in the summer of 2015 to secure arguably their two most important team members – Head Coach Chuck Weber, who returned for a full season in charge, and netminder Brian Stewart who signed a new two-year deal with the club. For the first team signed in his vision, Weber, together with Head of Hockey Operations James Pease, pooled together a mix of new imports to the UK and some standout performers from other clubs in the Elite League. However, the first half of the season saw them struggling to click, as a consistent run of good results and goal scoring form proved frustratingly hard to come by and the club sat on the foot of the Elite League table for several weeks
The notable moments had come in the Continental Cup third round when the Blaze traveled to Poland. Two confidence boosting wins once again left Blaze with a winner-takes-all final match against the host team. With just 15 minutes of a tetchy game against GKS Tychy remaining Coventry led by two goals, only for the Poles incessant pressure to break the resistance and three unanswered goals put them through to the next round instead.
In the final two months of the league campaign, team and individual form picked up, thanks in part to some well-timed roster changes – with Jordan Pietrus, who arrived in October, ending up one of the club’s leading goal scorers, and Chris Bruton, who arrived in a swap deal from Braehead, adding grit and skill on a potent line with revitalized top point scorer Brett Robinson. Coventry did enough to earn the eighth and final playoff spot by edging out the reformed Manchester Storm franchise.
The post-season saw Coventry defying the odds in their efforts to retain their playoff crown – firstly in the two-leg quarter final stage against the number one seeded league-winners Sheffield. By the end of two periods in the second leg the teams were tied on aggregate, but it was Coventry who held their nerve and scored twice in the final period to progress to the Finals weekend. In the semi finals the second seed Cardiff Devils were no match for a Blaze team on a roll, with a four goal opening period and a hat-trick from Bruton leading Coventry to a 6-2 win and a place in a second successive final. The side from the Skydome left everything on the ice in the last game of the season but it wasn’t to be this time, as the Nottingham Panthers ran out 2-0 winners and ended Coventry’s valiant efforts to retain the trophy.
Brian Stewart nominated for Elite Awards ‘Netminder of the Year’.
Brian Stewart elected to Second All Star team at Elite League Awards.
The 2014/15 season was one of two very different halves for the Coventry Blaze, but one which culminated at the end in trophy celebrations for the first time in five years.
By the summer of 2014, Marc LeFebvre had done enough at the end of the previous season to convince the club owners to keep him on as Head Coach to sign his own team. His summer recruitment would see the arrival of several players who would prove to be key down the final stretch – most notably 6ft 5 goalie Brian Stewart, whose string of star performances would see him named the Elite League’s best netminder.
A solid first month of results were soon forgotten and by November Coventry found themselves in the league’s bottom two and hanging in the Challenge Cup by a thread, prompting the owners to take the tough decision to relieve LeFebvre of his duties. But the most pivotal moment of fate in Coventry’s history was to intervene, as they were able to secure American Chuck Weber – a vastly experienced two-time ECHL champion – as LeFebvre’s replacement within a few weeks. Early progress was slow, but Weber’s influence soon bore fruit as it saw him take largely the same squad and evolved them into a hard-to-beat outfit that eventually finished in a decent sixth position. And having looked all but out, Challenge Cup interest was eventually only ended at the semi final stage to the season’s bogey side, Cardiff Devils.
It was in the playoffs though that Weber’s side put it all together for an exhilarating, and scarcely believable, finale. After edging out the Nottingham Panthers over two legs to make the Finals weekend, a spirited comeback in the semis paved the way for Ben Arnt’s penalty shootout winner to knock out Belfast. In the final against league champions and reigning playoff winners Sheffield, Coventry stunned the National Ice Centre by racing into a four goal lead by the halfway mark. Steelers’ comeback came too little and too late, leaving captain Ashley Tait to lift the Playoff trophy again, just as he had when Blaze had last won it ten years earlier.
The 2013-14 season was a story of inconsistency at the Skydome Arena, both of team performance and line-up, as the Coventry Blaze desperately sought to find the magic formula.
Mathias Soderstrom had taken the reigns as Head Coach from stalwart Paul Thompson and made some interesting summer roster moves, including the acquisition of highly-rated Michael Henrich to join brother Adam, and bringing back former Blaze star Ashley Tait after six years away. Of the signings, sniper Ryan Ginand proved the big success as he went on to end up as the Elite League’s top goal and point scorer. Even before the first game however, changes beyond the club’s control had already started to alter the roster – returning All Star defenceman Michael Schutte elected instead to retire, while fan favourite Mike Egener’s treatment for Guillain-Barré Syndrome stunned everyone.
Early season promise wasn’t sustained as Soderstrom tried to learn his trade, and by November his team was changing faces as management sought to give the flagging team a boost, with two starting imports returning to North America and being replaced by the return of Shea Guthrie from Sweden and the even more surprising early return of Egener. By early February, a combination of factors had left Coventry narrowly in the eighth and final playoff spot in the overall league table, leading the Blaze hierarchy to make the bold decision to replace Soderstrom as coach with another former Coventry player, Marc LeFebvre, who left his role as assistant coach in Sheffield.
LeFebvre succeeded in qualifying Coventry for the playoffs, but only in the final game of the regular season – an edgy 1-0 overtime victory in turn eliminating their opponents, the Cardiff Devils. A narrow home leg defeat to the Sheffield Steelers in the quarter-finals left the Blaze still in with a shot of the final four, but the subsequent 6-1 second leg capitulation was a sorry way to end a turbulent season.
Coventry’s tenth Elite League campaign in 2012-13 certainly provided more entertainment for the increased attendances at the Skydome Arena, as the club improved their placing in every competition thanks to a new batch of cult heroes. Backstopped again by the popular Dane Peter Hirsch, the defence saw big Benn Olson leaving his mark on the Elite League in more ways than one alongside league all-star Michael Schutte, leader Mike Egener and the ever-emerging talent James Griffin, while up-front the Leeb brothers, Greg and Brad, brought vast experience and skill to go with the all-action style of Dustin Cameron, returning star Shea Guthrie and a new crop of young British talents.
The star attraction during the middle of the season though, had been Anaheim Ducks’ NHL forward Matt Beleskey, who made a memorable impact bleeding blue for a three month spell during the temporary NHL lockout. When he returned to the States in early January, his replacement Adam Henrich proved a shrewd signing as he picked up Beleskey’s points production and proved to be one of the best mid-season signings in Blaze history as he helped Blaze to a fourth place league finish.
In the playoffs, a quarter final match-up against the Steelers was a tricky test, but a captain’s performance from Shea Guthrie saw the Canadian hit a second leg hat-trick including the tie-winning goal in overtime to send Coventry to Nottingham. They fell to Belfast at the semi final stage, but a big win in the final bronze medal playoff game against Cardiff saw Head Coach Paul Thompson end on a winning note after 18 years behind the bench, as he set to take on a new challenge in Sweden and handed the baton onto assistant Matt Soderstrom to write the next chapter in Blaze history.
2011-12 will go on record as one of the most trying both on and off the ice for Coventry as they struggled to improve on the disappointment of the previous season. Coach Paul Thompson went for a mix of mostly experienced Brits and imports with previous Elite League experience, but inconsistent form throughout the year meant the Blaze would rarely trouble the teams above them whilst hovering in mid-table.
The passing of Grand-Slam winning legend Wade Belak and a heavy 10-1 loss in Nottingham in the Challenge Cup in the first week of September rocked the club as the new side was trying to gel, and more shocks were on the way for Blaze fans through the season.
By the time Coventry were playing the final two games of a Challenge Cup group they failed to get out of, experienced defenceman Dustin Wood had been jetted in from Asia to solidify a leaky defence and he had been influential in Coventry’s next intriguing signing, Korean international, Woo-Sang Park. Park’s arrival was out of the blue, as was the departure of star goalscorer Luke Fulghum to Sheffield, but the biggest shock came in early December when the club appealed to their fan base to help them get through an immediate, and serious, money shortage. The news brought out the best of the Coventry support and the wider British ice hockey community and the Blaze were fortunate enough to be able to ride out the remainder of the season.
Back on the ice, Coventry geared up for the end of season playoffs by edging out Braehead for fifth place, largely influenced by new Canadian import Shea Guthrie, whose outstanding skill and ability to put points had lit up the Skydome Arena and the league as a whole. However, even Guthrie couldn’t win games on his own and, after a quarter final first leg draw with Cardiff which left the second leg as winner-takes-all, Cardiff’s superior quality in depth ended the Blaze season with a 4-1 second leg defeat.
Season 2010-11 proved a disappointment at the Skydome as Coventry ended in their lowest Elite League position to date and without a trophy in their cabinet. Influential players Calder, Watkins and Stewart had all left along with several others but Coach Paul Thompson’s replacements all came with a pedigree for success. Though perhaps unlucky to be playing two of the big budget clubs in their opening four league games, a 0-4 record maybe on reflection was a premonition of things to come. Blaze’s initial recovery had proved strong, and in reeling off a club record 12 straight Elite League wins they shot back up into title contention.
The Challenge Cup campaign had stalled at the group stage for the second year running, but in the Continental Cup back to back 6-1 wins put Coventry in pole position for a place in the Super Final. For the third time Blaze had a winner takes all final game against their hosts, this time France’s Rouen Dragons, but an under par performance resulted in a 7-3 defeat.
That game was possibly the catalyst for the season to start falling away. The following week’s much-publicized brawl against Nottingham left forward Brad Cruikshank with a hefty nine game ban, while key defenders Jonathan Weaver and Brian Lee both suffered long injury set-backs. Most devastatingly of all, another injury, this time to Owen Fussey who was Coventry’s leading scorer at the time, put one of Blaze’s key men out for the season.
Riddled with injuries the team went through a horrible three months of form and struggled more than a Blaze team for many a year. A sixth place finish left Coventry with a difficult tie against the Belfast Giants in the playoff quarter-finals, but after 125 minutes of hockey over two legs and the two deadlocked on aggregate it was left to a penalty shootout to finally put the Blaze down and out.