Founded in 1993, the bmibaby Elite League is the top hockey league in the United Kingdom. The 10-team circuit features at least one entry from each segment of the UK: The Basingstoke Bison, Belfast Giants, Cardiff Devils, Coventry Blaze, Edinburgh Capitals, Hull Stingrays, Manchester Phoenix, Newcastle Vipers, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers.
Unlike other circuits, the Elite League has teams compete in several competitions each season, with champions crowned for each competition. In addition to an Elite League champion (roughly equivalent to the NHL's Presidents' Trophy) and a playoff champion, there also are annual competitions, called the Challenge Cup and the Knockout Cup, in which the standings count only for those awards.
The defending Elite League champions are the Coventry Blaze. The Sheffield Steelers downed Coventry to win the Playoff Championship in 2007-08 and also were the runner-up for the Elite League title and Challenge Cup (won by Nottingham). Coventry won last season's Knockout Cup against Basingstoke.
The 2008-09 edition of the Elite League once is again shaping up. Sheffield is in first place with 31 points, one point ahead of second-place Coventry. Both clubs have won 13 games in regulation, but Sheffield has two fewer regulation losses.
Sheffield has enjoyed considerable success in the current decade. Since the dawn of the millennium, the Steelers have captured four playoff crowns (2000-01, 2001-02, 2003-04 and last season), three league titles (three consecutive crowns between 2000-01 and 2002-03), and three Challenge Cups (1999-00, 2000-01 and 2002-03). After several down years, Sheffield has made a strong move to get back to the top.
Much of the credit goes to the Steelers' Canadian head coach, David Matsos
. The league's reigning coach of the year, Matsos is in his third season behind the Steelers bench. The 35-year-old former Adirondack Red Wings (American Hockey League) and Canadian national team left wing played four seasons in the Elite League with Belfast and Cardiff, plus a season with British National League club Bracknell before retiring in 2006 to begin his coaching career.
Matsos' youth has not been a detriment at all during his coaching career. He not only is considered one of the league's most energetic and detail-oriented coaches, he's still not so far removed from his own playing days that he can't relate to the normal ups and downs all players experience during the season.
Hockey often is called a game of mistakes, but Matsos has shown the ability to discern between his players' physical mistakes (which are unpreventable) and mental lapses. From Day 1, he has instilled the belief that top teams are ones that stay focused mentally while also emphasizing strong physical conditioning to win the one-on-one battles during games and minimize fatigue. The club's 2008-09 record of 13 regulation wins and one overtime win to just two regulation losses and three OT losses speaks to that commitment.
Another universal hockey truth the Steelers have exemplified during the last couple seasons is that a team needs strong goaltending to contend for a championship. Now in his fourth season with Sheffield, Jody Lehman
leads the league (among regular starting keepers) with a 2.52 goals-against average and is second to Coventry's JF Peras in save percentage, turning back 91.5 percent of the shots fired his way.
The 33-year-old Saskatchewan native plied his trade in the ECHL for four seasons and had a cup of coffee with the AHL's Rochester Americans before heading to the UK in 2002.
The butterfly stylist has average size (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) for a modern goaltender, but he's one of the league's most aggressive keepers. He's also extremely competitive, and he already has 18 penalty minutes (most among goaltenders in the league) on his rap sheet this season.
Matsos said of Lehman, "Jody is a man's man, a player who will stand up in the room when the time is right and lead from the front. He is the first to the rink and the last away from it, a total professional and a man I want I the trenches with me."
Like many players on the Steelers and throughout the Elite League, Lehman is a North American import with minor-league experience (there's also a sprinkling of former NHL players in the circuit, mostly of the enforcer and checking specialist varieties). Lehman is one of 10 Canadians playing for Sheffield this season.
The team's leading scorer, Ashley Tait, was born in Canada but the 33-year-old is a British national who has suited up for Team UK and rose through the ranks domestically. His move from Coventry to the Steelers in the summer of 2007 was significant news within in the UK hockey world. Tait went on to score 32 goals and 74 points in his first year with Sheffield; so far this season he has 15 goals and 29 points.
Import defenseman Rod Sarich
, 27, helps quarterback the Steelers' power play. He is averaging a point per game and already has 7 goals (two on the power play, one shorthanded) to his credit. The former Calgary Hitmen and ECHL player now is in his fourth season with Sheffield.
Overall, the Steelers possess a balanced attack. Three players (Tait, Joey Talbot and Robert Dowd) have scored double-digit goals, and six players have scored at least eight times to date. But in the relatively high scoring Elite League, Sheffield's offense alone usually isn't enough to carry the club to victory.
The club does not have any players ranked in the league's top-10 point scorers, and only Tait (12th) and Jeff Legue
(18th) are in the top 20. Instead, the club's foundation is its goaltending, two-way play and familiarity with the system Matsos has installed. The Steelers rarely beat themselves.