Leeds Knights captain Sam Zajac proud to wear the ‘C’ as he looks for team to realise huge potential

IT remains early days in the Leeds Knights story but newly-appointed captain Sam Zajac believes hockey is ‘primed’ to take off in the city over the coming months.

Saturday, 16th October 2021, 7:15 am
Updated Saturday, 16th October 2021, 9:48 am

Of course, if you’re trying to attract fans to any kind of event – regular or otherwise – it helps if you are successful and can offer an entertaining ‘product’.

So far, the Knights have been able to do both, enjoying a flying start in their NIHL National Autumn Cup campaign, containing plenty of thrills and spills from a team already considered to be one of the most offensively-gifted in the British game’s second tier.

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LEADING MAN: Leeds Knights captain Sam Zajac Picture: Kat Medcroft/Swindon Wildcats

Tonight, the ‘real’ business of the regular league season gets underway, with Bees IHC making their second visit of the season to Elland Road and hoping to avoid a repeat of the 7-1 beating they took from Leeds at the very start of the Autumn Cup last month.

It’s a game - like the first league meeting between the Knights and each of their rivals over the coming weeks – that will also double up as an NIHL Cup group fixture.

Unlike many other hockey-playing countries who regard post-season play-off campaigns as the ultimate indication of whether a season has been successful or not, in the UK, it is the league which takes precedence.

And Zajac is confident his team can enjoy a similar start to their league schedule as the one they produced in the early-season Cup competition, the group phase of which ended last night with a 6-3 defeat at Ice Sheffield against Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steeldogs.

Captain Sam Zajac believes Leeds Knights are in good hands in the shape of coach Dave Whistle, right, and owner Steve Nell. Picture: Simon Hulme.

“It’s been a great idea to have this cup at the start – particularly this season when most people have had such a long time away,” said Zajac. “It’s exactly what was needed.

“Everyone has been beating everyone and it’s been the perfect format in a way, like a longer pre-season, which has enabled everyone to see a little bit of what everybody else is all about and gauge how they match up against each other.

“With playing the Bees again, it’s almost like a complete reset. Every team will have got a lot better since that first weekend of cup fixtures, getting back into the swing of things more and more as the weeks have come and gone.

“And the Bees have had some decent results, too and you just know they are a team who are going to work their socks off and make it far from easy for you, so we know we’re going to have to be at our best if we want to beat them again.”

POTENTIAL: Leeds Knights captain Sam Zajac believes the team is full of potential to win something this season. Picture courtesy of Kat Medcroft/Swindon Wildcats

Having been around from the very start of the ill-fated Leeds Chiefs’ project, Zajac appreciates the work that has gone in behind the scenes by Knights’ owner Steve Nell since he took over the franchise from Elland Road rink owners Planet Ice in April.

And, just a few weeks into the season, Zajac can already see positive signs that the sport is beginning to take hold in the city.

“It’s been great, particularly at home, we’ve had really good, really loud crowds already,” added Zajac. “I think we topped the 1,000 mark for one of them after a couple of weeks. That’s just another little milestone which was great to see and makes you realise the potential we have here.

“When the puck’s going in and when we’re playing at our best and when we’re exciting to watch, the fans are really getting into it. There have been a few fights along the way and plenty of goals and the boys have been putting on a little bit of a show at times and the fans have really reacted well to that.

“It’s primed to really take off and Leeds is a city that really embraces its sports teams and we’re just at the beginning of something special right now.

“This is the tip of the iceberg and with the owners that we’ve got in charge now, it’s only going to go one way and it’s going to get even louder and even busier in this building.

“And the really good thing is that we seem to be retaining a lot of fans. A lot of people are coming for the first time, not just to see us, but to watch a hockey game for the first time, and they are coming back.

“That’s exactly what you want, the big thing is getting people in the building because it is a great spectator sport and people are realising that and coming back.”

Having been player-coach for the Chiefs during the 2019-20 season, it was perhaps no surprise that Knights head coach Dave Whistle turned to Zajac to continue in a leadership role earlier this week, naming him as captain.

It’s a letter on the jersey that Zajac will wear with a lot of pride.

“It was a proud moment for me,” said Zajac. “It’s an honour and a privilege to be given the ‘C’ – we’ve got such a good group here and such a great chance of having success.

“From the very start, two years ago, nobody has been as big a believer in hockey in this city than me and I believe it’s now well-placed to become a big thing.”