Leeds Knights chief rules out Elite League as player and off-ice development is prioritised
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Having won the NIHL National league and play-off double in only their second season, it prompted debate among some hockey fans over whether the Knights should go full-time and slug it out with the likes of Sheffield Steelers, Belfast Giants and Cardiff Devils.
But nothing could be further from Nell’s thoughts at the moment, with the Knights’ owner primarily concerned with increasing the fanbase further at Elland Road Ice Arena, watching a team that is regularly in contention for silverware – building on the remarkable success of the 2022-23 campaign.
In reality, it will therefore take some time before the franchise is in any kind of position to look at a move to full-time hockey in the EIHL, especially when taking into account all the associated costs that come with import-dominated hockey.
“We’re in a good position for this level of hockey,” said Nell. “The plan was always to get through the first three years and at the end of the third year we’d maybe want to be selling out every gam – we want to get to a point where that is happening.
“Once you get to that point, then you can maybe have a look (at the Elite League) but, at this point, I’m not thinking about that at all.
“The Elite League is a step that we don’t need to think about at the minute. We’ve got to walk before we can run.”
But while Nell is targeting more sell-out crowds in NIHL National, he remains interested in on-ice development elsewhere, with the aim being to have a second Knights senior team playing two tiers below in NIHL Two North by the start of the 2024-25 season.
That would, believes Nell, create a crucial stepping stone between the current Knights’ set-up – coached by Ryan Aldridge – and the Under-18s teams being developed via Leeds Junior Knights.
It’s a model that Nell has used to good effect at his former club Swindon Wildcats, whose second team ply their trade in NIHL South Two.
“It wouldn’t be for this coming season, more the season after, once those Under-18s have had another year under their belt,” explained Nell.
“And our second team wouldn’t be for the older, established players, it would be for the juniors coming through, to give them the opportunity to develop and then, eventually, step up into the first team in NIHL National.”
And while Knights’ head coach Aldridge wouldn’t be behind the bench of any second team, it would be coached to play in a similar style, making any transition easier for the players coming through.
“Ryan would be involved in the way that the team plays,” added Nell.
“Because those players need to be able to step into Ryan’s team when needed and it wouldn’t then be that much of a shock to the system for them – we couldn’t have a totally different ethos from one team or coach to the other.
"You’ve always got to have one or two more experienced players in there, obviously, it wouldn’t all be youngsters but, personally, there should be restrictions on ‘over-age’ players at that level.
"I’d like to see a restriction introduced so that it is essentially more of an under-25 leagueat North and South Two.
“We have to do more to develop more British talent and if you’re playing at that level and you’re 35, then you could be holding an 18 or 19-year-old back – and that’s what we’ve got to try and find a way to get around.”