It’s not been a quiet offseason in Coventry for Danny Stewart. After losing top scorer Ben Lake to Belfast, he’s made seven new signings as the Blaze look to better their eighth-placed finish from 2018-19.
We caught up with the Blaze’s Head Coach to see how things are going, and started by asking what the biggest lesson from last season was? “One thing I learned was the fine line in this league between finishing third and fourth, or in seventh to tenth fighting for the playoff places. Three teams didn’t make the playoffs last season, and both Dundee and Manchester competed against us very well,” said Stewart. “Of the teams who did make it, all the way up towards the top five there was only really a 6-7-point gap, and that’s the difference of two to three games – closing them out when in control, a lucky bounce, and finding consistency. These all contribute to pushing you up the standings and are fine margins.”
Last season’s top scorer Ben Lake headed to Belfast in May, something Stewart was disappointed but also realistic about. “Ben and I had a good relationship, and were both very honest with each other from the get-go. He had a great season, was fantastic for us for two years, and it would be easy for people outside to think that we couldn’t afford to keep him,” he explained. “We offered Ben an appealing package and did our best to keep him, but he wanted a different experience and Belfast with their arena, the city, and the success they had last year was an opportunity he wanted to take on. We wish him the best, this is all part of hockey and we don’t take anything personally.”
Looking ahead to 2019/20 and the Blaze have signed three young players in John Curran, Dillon Eichstadt and Chris Pohlkamp, ones that the Blaze Head Coach has done some homework on. “First and foremost, all three of these kids have glowing references in terms of their character. They all bought into good, four-year programs, and the programs they’re coming from have all had recent success as well. The NCAA breeds hood hockey players; the training and off-ice work they do there is incomparable, so we know these players will be good for us,” said Stewart, before turning to look at EIHL the experience he’s also brought in with Drew Schiestel, and Evan Bloodoff. “Balancing out with experience is important. Leagues across the globe are going younger – Newfoundland won a championship with an average age of 24/25, but you do need experience of how to get things done and win games. It was maybe something we missed last season in close games that we let slip away, so having players on the roster that have played a while longer can make a difference.”
During last season, Lake said that he needed a season to ‘bed in’ to the Elite League and his second year form showed that some time was needed. Does Stewart agree that it can take some players some time to adjust? “I don’t disagree at all, some people find it tougher than others. I always say that the sooner you buy into a culture, the better your transition will be. We have differences in our league compared to others in Europe and North America, but it’s all about buying in quickly.”
Stewart is not only Head Coach of the Blaze but also General Manager, so what do his days look like at the moment? “They’re very busy! We’re trying to finish recruiting, and then off-ice making some adjustments to our physio room, and building a players’ lounge,” he revealed. “We’re without an Equipment Manager at the moment, so I’ve been taking care of some of those orders and looking at things. We don’t have a huge off-ice staff here, so it’s all hands on deck.”
Lastly, as he enters his fourth season as Head Coach at the Skydome, what is he most proud of? “It has taken a couple of seasons to get going, and obviously a lot had changed from when I played in Coventry. Last season we were really competitive, able to beat everyone except perhaps Belfast. Perhaps with some more stability in our goaltending and without some unfortunate injuries, we may have been able to be a few points higher,” Stewart reflected. “Overall I’m proud of how we competed, and I do believe we made progress. It’s such a fine line to get to the next level, and you need a special group to have a special season.”