Steelers proving ice guys can win

Mike Rowbottom looks at Sheffield's ice hockey team, the best in Britain and up for sale
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The Independent Online
The first team in Sheffield to open its own merchandising shop was neither Wednesday nor United; it was Steelers.

Ice hockey knows that it needs to sell itself in a country where football is king, and it is Sheffield Steelers' commercial instinct - as well as its millionaire connection - which has underpinned a rise to domestic pre-eminence over the last five years.

Since Steelers' first season, 1990-91, the club has risen inexorably through the ranks, winning the domestic treble of league, cup and play- offs last season. Next month sees a visit to Finland to contest the semi- final stage of the Europa Cup, a level no British side has gone beyond. But as the team prepares for its most testing experience to date, the club is also facing a wider, strategic challenge. This week George Dodds, the Steelers owner, has announced that the club is open for sale for a figure reported at around pounds 4m.

"The organisation cannot stand still," he said - a statement that might fittingly be adopted as the club motto. "We have to expand to achieve and for that we need to find someone with the money to invest."

To that end, he is talking to three public limited companies with a view to a partial or total buy-out. Dodds, who has been based in Spain since selling his engineering business several years ago, is finding the demands too great. He is also citing "the new Super League environment" which, he says, will drive team costs higher if Steelers are to remain in front of the rest.

The money which has sustained Steelers thus far has stemmed from Dodds' pioneering efforts in manufacturing pilotless target planes - known as drones - for the Ministry of Defence. His concern now is that Sheffield's pride and joy do not become sitting targets for others with even more money than he has - such as Sir John Hall, who is behind Newcastle Cobras, or the Ogdens group, who own Manchester Storm.

With rumours circulating of new teams being formed in Birmingham and London, Steelers know they have to act now to stay ahead. Their proposed expansion to create a pounds 1.2m rollerblading and merchandising complex just across the road from the Sheffield Arena is part of that overall plan.

Tonight they travel to Nottingham Panthers in the second leg of the Benson and Hedges Cup semi-final, carrying a 3-2 deficit. That match will help define their season. Their European jaunt could have further- reaching consequences.

Alex Dampier, the team manager, concedes they will be "very much the underdogs" against the champions of Finland, Norway and Belarus. "But," he added, "I'm confident we will use the experience to build on."

Like missionaries, Steelers have spread the word in their local community, where their players are assiduous in their public relations. Steelers matches take place in an atmosphere akin to a revivalist meeting, with average crowds of around 8,000. According to the club's general secretary, Sharon Lawley, surveys reveal that while some have been drawn in from football, others form a new market.

"The vast majority are not sports-based people," she said. "If I had to say why we have continued to be successful, I would say it is because we haven't forgotten our roots. Our players are always going out into the local clubs and communities. It is like an 8,000-strong family."

The Sheffield family favourites include the Scottish-born Tony Hand - the Alan Shearer of the ice - Ken Priestlay, the Canadian who twice won the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and their agile goalminder, Piero Greco, recently signed from the Italian league.

Six new players have been signed in the last year, none of whom are British-born. Like football, the sport has felt the impact of the Bosman freedom-of-contract ruling. Indeed, only four of the current squad were born within these shores. But that's ice hockey...

Top players in this country are earning up to pounds 1,000 a week net, and are being provided with cars and deals on houses. Sheffield maintain they are not the highest payers - but they cannot be far short of it.

"Look at any club's history and you will see that they stay at the top level so long and then go down," Dampier said. "Sometimes it is particular decisions which are made at the wrong time. Sometimes you don't know why. My view is that every time you win something you have to upgrade yourself." His view, Dodds's view, Steelers' view.