Leeds Knights bring back key ingredient for 2023-24 NIHL National league title and play-off defence
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Still only 23, the return of the gifted defenceman for the 2023-24 NIHL National campaign will not come as a major shock to anyone with even a passing interest in the Knights, but it will provide plenty of reassurance.
Like netminder Sam Gospel - who agreed a two-year deal last summer - Baldwin is part of the fixtures and fittings when it comes to hockey in Leeds, both having been part of the original Leeds Chiefs franchise when it launched in 2019.
He may hail from Billingham, but the majority of Baldwin’s hockey career has been played out in West Yorkshire, first - like Knights’ team-mates Kieran Brown and Jordan Griffin - coming through the junior ranks at neighbouring Bradford Bulldogs, before the move to Leeds for that inaugural NIHL National season four years ago.
There have been flirtations across the Pennines with the likes of Blackburn Hawks and Manchester Phoenix and there was a season with league newcomers Solways Sharks in 2018-19.
But home is firmly now Leeds for Baldwin, meaning it was not a difficult conversation between himself and Aldridge when it came to discussing his future.
“He’s a big part of our team and a big part of our future,” said Aldridge. “He’s big in the room for us, too and very close to all the boys. When I picture the Leeds Knights I just don’t picture him not being in that locker room for us.
“He’s a great lad to have around. He skates like the wind, has a rocket of a shot and he’s very good defensively. He’s just somebody who you have to find a way to have him back when you’ve got a team like ours.”
Last season for Baldwin was split in two effectively, before and after he suffered a serious knee injury which kept him out for over two months.
He returned in time to help the team seal a memorable league and play-off double, but that time on the sidelines was an unusual experience for the right-hander, one which he admits was frustrating.
“I’ve not suffered many injuries before in my career, so it was a new thing for me,” Baldwin told the Evening Post. “It was horrible and frustrating. And it’s not just the hockey side of it, it’s also how it affects everyday life.
“I couldn’t work properly, I couldn’t go to the gym. The first three days, I couldn’t even put any weight on it, so I couldn’t even do simple things like the washing up at home.
It did my head in.”
With his knee now fully recovered, Baldwin feels fitter than before he suffered the injury. Despite his enforced absence, he still played a significant role for the Knights, meaning he was keen to return for a third season for the franchise.
“It was an easy decision,” he added. “With winning last year, the play-offs in Coventry on the back of already having won the league, it just made me want to come back even more.
“We’re going to be a team with a big target on our backs but, saying that, last year was supposed to be a building year for us, we didn’t expect to win what we did.
“I’ve seen some of the signings by other teams for next season and the league is going to be stronger as a whole.”