Back-to-basics approach can help Sam Zajac produce the goods for Leeds Knights
MAKE NO MISTAKE, Sam Zajac enjoyed every minute of his time in charge as player-coach at Leeds Chiefs. Well, almost.
Let’s face it, when your first year in coaching throws as many challenges and curve balls at you as Zajac experienced at Leeds, there were bound to have been moments where he will have been left wondering why he ever applied for the role in the first place.
But, the 31-year-old admits he is relishing the opportunity to get back to basics and being just a player once again after his addition to the Leeds Knights’ roster was confirmed earlier this week.
So far, all five names confirmed by owner Steve Nell have either played for Leeds or were signed to to play for them ahead of the 2020-21 NIHL National season that never took place because of the coronavirus pandemic.
More signings by the Knights - the name which Nell chose to replace the Chiefs - are expected in the coming weeks from head coach and GM Dave Whistle, who is expected to arrive in the UK early next month once he has tied up any remaining loose ends relating to his current role at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in British Columbia.
Zajac is keen to work with Whistle, who he believes will command instant respect once he gets his players together at Elland Road for the first time.
But instead of holding court as he did for seven months during the Chiefs’ inaugural season, Zajac will be among the troops, taking the instructions rather than handing them out – a situation he is entirely comfortable with.
“Having that extra responsibility of the coaching does detract from your enjoyment of actually playing the game,” said the experienced defenceman. “You’re focussing on a million things at once and it can be a tough gig at times.
“But getting back to basics and focussing solely on my game again and how I can help the team, hopefully use some of my experience to bring on some of these younger guys, is something I’m really relishing.
“Don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy the coaching side of the job with the Chiefs, it was often very rewarding and very fulfilling.
“But after a year or a year and a half off with the pandemic, just getting back to basics and focussing on myself is going to be a good thing.
“The way I play I’ve always brought the same kind of thing. I play hard my own end, I take pride defensively and make sure I’m competing and, where I can, I like to try and get involved offensively too. So nothing will change in the way I play.
“I’m hoping that with less focus on everything else, my performances will improve.
“And I’m confident that with the defensive core we’ve got, there are some great skaters in there, with a lot of offence and guys who can control the puck really well.”
The freedom to concentrate on his own game – effectively for the first time since the end of the 2018-19 season – will likely bring its own rewards, both for player and team.
But the former Glasgow Clan D-man hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching and, when or if that opportunity does come around, he’d like to think that he will go back behind the bench having learned a thing or two from former Belfast Giants and Cardiff Devils’ boss Whistle.
“I’ve had a couple of conversations with Dave and I’ve just been really impressed with what he has said so far,” added Zajac.
“All you’ve got to do is look at his career and what he has achieved and you immediately have a lot of respect for the guy.
“I’ve spoken to a few guys who have played under him and they have all had nothing but fantastic things to say about him.
“He’s definitely going to be the right guy to take it up a level in Leeds – he’s probably forgotten more about the game than most of us will ever learn in the first place, so it is a great appointment.
“And I’m just really looking forward to working with him, not just the on-ice side but watching his habits, seeing how he operates and if coaching is something that does come around again for me at some point in the future, he’s going to be a great guy to learn from in that respect.”
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