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Stewart looks back ahead of clash with ex-boss

Three Elite League Championships, a Knock-Out Cup and the Challenge Cup. As a player, Genting Casino Coventry Blaze Head Coach Danny Stewart spent a successful four years under the man he will look to outwit on Saturday night as a Paul Thompson led Sheffield Steelers visit the Skydome Arena (7pm).

It was the summer of 2006 when the two joined forces in Coventry. Stewart arriving from the notorious Danbury Thrashers, he was sold to the club by Sylvain Cloutier who told Thompson, “I want to punch that guy, sign him.”

Netting 18 goals in a 53-point haul, his competitive style earning 234 penalty minutes and the adoration of the fans, Stewart helped Blaze to an Elite League and Challenge Cup double in his debut season.

Many will remember the cup victory particularly as Danny and his teammates destroyed Saturday’s opponents, Sheffield Steelers in their own barn by a score of 5-1 sealing a 9-4 aggregate victory overall.

“That was a pretty dominant performance,” recalled Stewart. “It was a special moment as it was shortly after we had clinched the league too. If I’m being honest I don’t remember much about the game from a personal standpoint. I do remember the great away crowd that came to support us though, and I remember the aftermath and the celebrations funnily enough. It was a great time in my career and one I will always cherish. We bought into every competition that year and did not prioritise games. We had a great group that really made us newcomers value the competition.”

Stewart and Thompson were to lift the Elite League trophy again the following season, adding a knock-out cup and matching Sheffield’s recent CHL achievement by beating Austrian giants Red Bull Salzburg along the way too, with Danny scoring in the game.

“My first two years when we won the league back-to-back we had great balance,” reminisced Stewart. “We had the best goalie in the league (Trevor Koenig), a solid back-end and great mix of pure scorers and identified role guys that bought into their job. Not taking anything away from ‘Thommo’ but with those two teams the bench could have probably ran itself and for putting those teams together, he has to be credited.”

After losing a number of key members from the squad, including Trevor Koenig, Neal Martin and Sylvain Clouter, Blaze were left empty handed in Stewart’s third season. Paul Thompson went back to the drawing board, bringing in the likes of Danish international netminder Peter Hirsch, no nonsense defencemen Brian Lee and Jason Robinson, and elite scorer Luke Fulghum.

Stewart remained for a fourth year, and what turned out to be his last wearing the 39 jersey for Blaze. A celebration of the club’s 10th anniversary ended with yet another Elite League trophy, one that the current Blaze Head Coach credits significantly to the former Great Britan national team coach.

“In my last year when we won it again, I would say we were probably the 3rd or 4th best team in the league. In that season, Thommo really had to coach, find ways to beat better teams and also get the most out of the personnel we had.”

With coaching in mind, Stewart made the move to the Newcastle Vipers in the summer of 2011, leaving behind a host of good memories from his time in the Midlands.

“That era was so successful for a few reasons. Thommo did a great job recruiting and mixing in new blood every season. He put trust in his players to run the room and he recruited the right people to do that. We always had good people involved that bought into accomplishing something. We rarely had any guys that were here for a cup of coffee until something better came up, and if we did they were out. We had a great core over the years. Experienced guys that led in their own ways, returning guys that took the time to help the new guys adjust, and the new guys bought in immediately!

“We had a family atmosphere, where the management, coaching staff, off-ice staff and players were all one big family and everyone was on the same agenda. It was a great time with great people and with so much success, something I will never forget!”

During his year in the North East, Stewart guided the Vipers to the Challenge Cup semi-final and was named Elite League Coach of the Year despite the off-ice struggles of the organisation. Then heading further North, he spent five seasons in the position of player/assistant and then associate coach at the Fife Flyers before returning to Coventry this past summer to take up the club’s Head Coach position.

A Challenge Cup victory already on the board, the 37 year-old who hung up his skates to end last season, is keen to continue a promising start with victory over his old boss on Saturday night.

“I’ve faced Thommo quite a few times so it won’t be anything new to me. Playing under him was a great time in my career (probably the best). He had a knack for getting the best out of his guys and really showed me early in my career the importance of managing personalities and players. He has a great understanding of the game and since then he has experienced many new adventures in hockey and I am sure grown his knowledge of the game. He could sure dispose of a Chinese takeaway though, which was probably his most impressive trait!”

Speaking to Seth Bennett for the Elite League website, Thompson returned the kind words for the Fort McMurray native. "Danny was a strong opinionated player but he was a very team first player. That was always the big thing with him, the team was always the number one priority. He's served a pretty good apprenticeship over the years, he more than deserves hs opportunity in Coventry. He's put a good team together and good luck to him, just not on Saturday."

Sheffield come into the game with a win to their name in the Challenge Cup too, a 6-4 victory over Manchester Storm, who Blaze face away from home on Sunday.

“I expect them to be structured and drilled,” said Stewart looking forward. “They are deep and have been playing at a higher level than us for weeks. In saying that, we have been getting better every week and I expect our guys to be up for it. We have a lot of talent in our room and smart hockey heads. We have been preparing all week for this weekend. After starting the Challenge Cup with a win, we want to focus on picking up as many points early on as we can. Just like any other competition, the deeper you go and find yourself looking up at the table, the tougher games get and the more pressure is placed on the group. Advancing in this competition is a must for us and all of these guys are aware how much the club, myself and the fans value this competition and they are fully committed. It should be a great weekend of hockey!”

Tickets are still avalable for the visit of the Sheffield Steelers to the Skydome Arena on Saturday (7pm).

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