‘Elite’ status for Leeds Chiefs gives Joe Coulter hope for return to training

LAST week’s announcement that Leeds Chiefs had secured ‘elite sport’ status was, as far as the players were concerned, like being handed an early Christmas present.
BRING IT BACK: Leeds Chiefs' Joe Coulter battles with Hull's Thomas Stubley at Elland Road last season. Picture: Dean Woolley.BRING IT BACK: Leeds Chiefs' Joe Coulter battles with Hull's Thomas Stubley at Elland Road last season. Picture: Dean Woolley.
BRING IT BACK: Leeds Chiefs' Joe Coulter battles with Hull's Thomas Stubley at Elland Road last season. Picture: Dean Woolley.

The problem is, however, it is not yet clear when, or indeed if, they will be able to ‘open’ their gift and get back out on the ice again as a team.

The Christmas Eve declaration by governing body English Ice Hockey Association meant that the Chiefs became the eighth NIHL National team to be granted such status, giving them permission to ‘resume training’ behind closed doors.

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Player-coach Sam Zajac is able to bring his full roster back for practise sessions at Elland Road any time he wishes but, with no start date yet confirmed by NIHL National team owners for the ‘shortened, but meaningful season and playoffs’ they hope to put together in 2021, it is unlikely full team training will resume just yet for the Chiefs.

At the start of this month, NIHL National owners said they wished to begin playing again in January and, on December 19, their attempts to do so were boosted by the potential for accessing up to £1.2m in government funding, money which is meant to be shared between the 10 teams, as well as the third tier of the UK game in North and South One.

Much like the £4m granted earlier in the month for the Elite League’s five English-based teams, it is not yet clear how the funding will be made available, in the form of either grants or loans, or a combination of the two.

Team owners and EIHA officials are currently poring over the details of the potential funding and are expected to make some kind of announcement early next month, both on if and how the windfall can be secured and distributed, as well as a possible regular season start date.

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As has been the case since early March, everything will, of course, be determined by the state of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the government’s reaction and subsequent restrictions put in place.

Leeds Chiefs player-coach Sam Zajac. 

Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.Leeds Chiefs player-coach Sam Zajac. 

Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.
Leeds Chiefs player-coach Sam Zajac. Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.

But, for now, Coulter and his team-mates remain hopeful that it won’t be too long before they are reunited back on the ice, even if it is initially only for a handful of practice sessions.

“Earlier this month, we’d seen that some of the other NIHL National teams were securing ‘elite sport’ status and we were just wondering when it was going to be our turn,” said the Scottish-born forward.

“Sammy had mentioned that it was in the process of being sorted, so we were already buzzing when we heard that because all of us just can’t wait to get back on the ice and train together as a team again.

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“I think a few of the boys have been on the ice here and there with different things but it’s been difficult. So to be able to get training back on the ice again with each other will be a huge morale boost - it already feels like it has been a long year.”

One of the reasons that Coulter is so keen to get on the ice with his team-mates is to be able to witness the potential of the roster put together by Zajac.

“I share Sam’s view that this team has bags of potential,” added Coulter. “All the pieces that he has got in place, I don’t think you could ask for anymore.

“There are perhaps rosters who are probably a bit more stacked skill-wise, but they are missing maybe a few pieces here and there.

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“The roster Sam has put together is one packed with several different attacking styles.

“And while there have obviously been some great D-men come down from the Elite League, I feel the D-core that we’ve got is by far the most mobile in the league.”

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