Leeds Chiefs’ coach Sam Zajac ‘cautiously optimistic’ over chances for 2020-21 NIHL National season

SAM ZAJAC admits he is excited about the roster he is putting together for Leeds Chiefs’ second campaign - he just doesn’t want to see it all be for nothing.

Wednesday, 26th August 2020, 6:21 am
Leeds Chiefs player-coach Sam Zajac Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss

It remains to be seen when, or indeed if, the 2020-21 NIHL National season goes ahead, given the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and how they impact both on the ability to actually stage hockey games and how many spectators - if any - would be allowed to attend.

Ultimately, if spectators aren’t allowed into ice rinks and arenas by the government, it is almost certain there will be no season for the Chiefs and their rivals.

But, if social distancing rules were to allow for second-tier teams to sell around 50 per cent of their capacity - crowds range from 300-1,200 across the 10 teams - then it is possible clubs could make that work.

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COMING BACK: Leeds Chiefs' netminder, Sam Gospel is among a number of players signed up to return for the 2020-21 season. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie

Last month, Tony Smith, chairman of the full-time Elite Ice Hockey League stated that without fans there would be no top-flight hockey next season, although there have been suggestions elsewhere that operating at a 50-60 per cent capacity under social distancing rules may be feasible.

The associated flights, visas, accommodation and transport costs involved in bringing over up to 14 import players per club to play the EIHL is the biggest financial layout for the top-flight owners, who are expected to announce some kind of update on their position in the next week or so.

One tier below, however, budgets are much smaller, mainly through the NIHL National being classed as a development league and having a two-import rule.

There has been no commitment to a start date by the English Ice Hockey Association, the governing body who oversee the NIHL, whereas the self-governing EIHL has pencilled in early December.

Liam Charnock has signed up for a second season with Leeds Chiefs. Picture by Dean Woolley.

Either way, second-tier teams have continued to gradually piece together their rosters for next season, with Zajac and the Chiefs no exception.

So far, player-coach Zajac has been joined by fellow defencemen Lewis Baldwin and Jordan Griffin, goaltender Sam Gospel, as well as forwards Joe Coulter, Kieran Brown, Liam Charnock and Lewis Houston.

More names will be revealed in the coming weeks, with Zajac confident he will have the makings of a competitive team, once they are given the green light to start playing.

“We’re still optimistic for the season, it is cautious optimism right now, but everyone wants it to happen,” said Zajac.

Defenceman Lewis Baldwin will be back for a second season at Leeds Chiefs. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“We’re putting everything in place so that when we do get the green light from the governing body, we’ll be ready.”

Rinks across the UK opened their doors for the first time last week after being shut since early March and Zajac is hoping for further significant steps taken in the coming weeks.

“Opening the rinks was the first big hurdle we had to get past and, by all accounts, it seems to have gone quite smoothly,” added Zajac.

“The next hurdle is when they decide we can let fans into the building.”

The 30-year-old admits he has benefitted from starting in the same position as rival coaches this time around, compared to last year when he found himself starting out behind in terms of recruiting. But Zajac is rightly proud of the Chiefs’ debut campaign and feels the 2020-21 roster will help grow the appeal of the sport further in the city.

“When you compare now to where we were last year, it is night and day,” he added. “That isn’t any kind of criticism of the team we had last year.

“This year, I look up and down the line-up and it is an exciting roster. There’s only one style of hockey that we’re going to be playing and that’s going to be crash and bang.

“It’s going to be fast, physical and frenetic and for me that is exciting to coach and, all being well, it will be exciting for the fans too.”

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