ICE HOCKEY: COVENTRY Blaze head coach Danny Stewart has revealed to The Observer he’s more optimistic now than he was at this stage last year.
Stewart, who took charge of the Blaze from Chuck Weber prior to the start of last season, endured a turbulent first year in charge of the Blaze as the club failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in its history.
However a reshuffle at the top and down below has left the 38-year-old in a positive mood just weeks before the Blaze first take to the ice in a pre-season friendly against Manchester on Wednesday, August 23, at the Skydome.
No fewer than 12 new players will grace the Skydome ice this year, while remaining are fans’ favourites Kevin Noble, Jordan Pietrus, and Brett Robinson among others.
Speaking this afternoon, Stewart said he’s pleased with the team he has.
He added: “Personally I’m itching to get back after the disappointment last year.
“The guys will land on August 15/16 and by the 19th everyone will be in. From there we’ll go through some physical work and testing before our first pre-season game.
“I’m more optimistic than I was at this stage last year.
“The club and myself took some heat when we changed things around, but having the belief to mould certain players into the league is key.
“Sure there will be some surprises once the guys hit the ground running, nothing is ever simple.”
Changes in goal
One major replacement that needed to be made this off-season was filling the boots of Brian Stewart, who departed Blaze to join Guildford Flames.
In his place comes Kevin Nastiuk from German club Dresdner Eislowen – and Stewart believes the former AHL netminder will prove a different character in goal.
“The club wishes Brian well this season when he ices for Guildford Flames, though obviously not when he’s up against us,” Stewart joked.
“I can’t say a bad word about Brian. He’s a great guy.
“I think he’d tell you last year was an underperformance from his end. But he was a product of the team and we all have to take blame.
“Kevin is different to Brian. He’s a player that won’t show as much emotion, he’s cool and calm.
“He works the puck well and is coming off the back of one of his best seasons.”
Robinson as assistant coach
Coach Stewart has also opted to use experienced forward Brett Robinson as his assistant this season.
And Robinson has already got stuck in with recruitment, helping to bring in highly rated forward Marc-Olivier Vallerand.
Stewart said: “Having Brett in the line-up makes us better.
“As far as the assistant coach is concerned, I wanted a man that could help me on a daily basis.
“The Elite League is too good now to have one man coaching a team of 22 professionals – other coaches find it mind boggling that one man can coach an entire roster.
“The league is fast paced, there’s more structure and data used nowadays. Having Brett will help, we already know that.
“I think the league has always been good but an increase in the number of players brought in from across the pond has made the game faster with more contact – and it’s a product the fans enjoy.”
It’s not just a reshuffle at Blaze that fans will notice this year either as the Elite League splits into three conferences of four teams, scrapping the old two conferences of five teams format.
Blaze will join newbies Guildford and Milton Keynes with Manchester in the league’s ‘newest’ conference.
Arguably, Blaze have been put in at the deep end in previous years – facing table toppers Sheffield, Nottingham, Belfast, and Cardiff on more occasions than northern league members Fife, Edinburgh, Braehead, Dundee, and Manchester.
But speaking about the new format, Stewart said he’s looking forward to seeing how it plays out.
He added: “Last year we were in a tough conference. At times there may have been an element of self pity, but we can’t have that mentality.
“Our short term goal is to compete every weekend and win games – be it in our own conference or not.
“Ideally I’d like to see everyone play each other an equal number of times, but generally I like the new system.
“It build old rivalries and I’m excited to see how it works.”