Joe Coulter blossoms after overcoming challenges with Leeds Chiefs

WHEN Joe Coulter was offered the chance to help bring ice hockey to a city previously untouched by it as part of a brand new franchise, there was little hesitation.
STICKING AT IT: Joe Coulter says he overcame some initial challenges to end the season a better player at Leeds Chiefs. picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.STICKING AT IT: Joe Coulter says he overcame some initial challenges to end the season a better player at Leeds Chiefs. picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.
STICKING AT IT: Joe Coulter says he overcame some initial challenges to end the season a better player at Leeds Chiefs. picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.

That city was Leeds and the franchise was, as he and everyone else would soon found out, Leeds Chiefs, one of 10 teams brought together to form a new second tier of the British game, the NIHL National.

Coulter, 24, had spent his entire career playing for Solway Sharks, the club based in his hometown of Dumfries.

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Joe Coulter, in action for Solway Sharks at Whitley Bay in 2018-19. 
Picture courtesy of Colin Lawson.Joe Coulter, in action for Solway Sharks at Whitley Bay in 2018-19. 
Picture courtesy of Colin Lawson.
Joe Coulter, in action for Solway Sharks at Whitley Bay in 2018-19. Picture courtesy of Colin Lawson.
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And it was the handful of encounters playing for the Sharks against Whitley Bay in the two seasons of the makeshift second-tier of NIHL North One between 2017-2019 that were to help shape Coulter’s future.

On the opposing team in those games was defenceman Sam Zajac, the man who would go on to become the Chiefs’ first-ever coach and who, last summer, the man who got in touch with Coulter to see if he wanted to be part of an exciting new adventure in West Yorkshire.

Coulter had gained an insight into what to expect on a nightly basis in the new league when playing for the Sharks against top teams in North One such as Telford Tigers, Hull Pirates and Sheffield Steeldogs.

But the inequality across the division meant such tests were few and far between and, when it became apparent he would be playing against teams of such quality on a nightly basis for the Chiefs, he admits there was an adjustment period for himself.

Leeds Chiefs' player-coach, Sam Zajac saw enough leadership quality in Joe Coulter to make him an alternate captain. Picture: Dean Woolley.Leeds Chiefs' player-coach, Sam Zajac saw enough leadership quality in Joe Coulter to make him an alternate captain. Picture: Dean Woolley.
Leeds Chiefs' player-coach, Sam Zajac saw enough leadership quality in Joe Coulter to make him an alternate captain. Picture: Dean Woolley.
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“To be honest, there was a massive gap,” said Coulter, who was one of just three ever-presents in the Chiefs’ line-up, finishing the season with 20 points from 48 appearances, including seven goals.

“I loved my time in Solway, and I’d say I’ll definitely end up back there at some point in my career, but it was a huge jump to the new National League – it was just so competitive every single night, you never got anything for free, it was a big gap for me to bridge.

“It was tough adapting to the speed, the depth on every other team – you got nowhere near as much time on the puck and the skill level in every guy was just better.”

But, while there were initial difficulties in adapting to life at the new level, Coulter believes it only served to make him a better player – one better-equipped should he find himself back with the Chiefs next season.

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Although there have been no signing announcements for 2020-21 yet, player-coach Zajac has already held talks with a number of his 2019-20 roster with regards to returning and it would be a big surprise if Coulter were not one of those to earn a spot on the roster.

His leadership qualities were something which clearly attracted Zajac in the first place, enough to convince him Coulter would be ideal as one of the team’s alternate captains, a big responsibility for a relatively young player.

“There were a lot of unknowns for me coming down here,” said Coulter. “It was a very weighted decision. I had my own business in Dumfries doing personal training and I was doing a lot of coaching too.

“But it was a great opportunity and I’m very grateful to Sammy for bringing me here to help start a brand new team, a brand new franchise in a new ice rink.

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“When you play at a better standard, with better players, on a more regular basis, the more comfortable you become at that level and I feel it has definitely helped make me a better player.

“I wasn’t really sure what the outcome was going to be but, looking back, I’d say it paid off for myself. I have absolutely no regrets.”

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