Leeds Knights coach Dave Whistle expects tough NIHL National campaign ahead of Swindon Wildcats double-header
DAVE WHISTLE says he has had his eyes ‘opened’ in terms of the strength of the British game since returning to take over as head coach at Leeds Knights.
Whistle was last in charge of a UK bench team in the second half of the 2013-14 season when he answered an SOS to return for a second spell in the Elite League at Cardiff Devils.
He returned home to Canada that summer and, for the next few years, worked as a coach at Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, British Columbia.
He was persuaded to give the British game another shot by Knights’ owner Steve Nell back in May and clearly doesn’t regret his decision to accept the offer.
So far, the Knights have enjoyed a positive start to the 2021-22 campaign, qualifying for the Autumn Cup semi-finals, while sitting top of the regular season league standings after winning both of their opening games.
It’s a run of form – with eight wins from 10 games overall – that has understandably pleased Whistle. But the 55-year-old Canadian has also been impressed by the standard of all second-tier teams.
“I think the British players have come on leaps and bounds while I’ve been away – this is a very good standard,” insisted Whistle, whose team play Swindon Wildcats in a home and away double-header this weekend, starting with today’s trip to Wiltshire.
“When you sit down and think about it, it’s a huge commitment for all of these players. Probably 95 per cent of them work full-time and they still manage to make all their training sessions and the games. That is a very big commitment, especially for an older guy who has children.
“I can just see it in some of the guys who are tired on certain days, coming back on the bus from a long road trip.
“The quality of play in this league from all teams has really impressed me. The coaching has impressed me, the structure of the teams, the structure of the league.
“The refereeing has been good, too, right from top to bottom, I’m really excited about being here and everything has really opened my eyes.”
Whistle started his coaching career when moving off the ice and behind the bench at Bracknell Bees back in 1998-99 Superleague season, going on to win the regular season title the following year.
He then helped build the Belfast Giants franchise up from scratch and went on to win the Superleague title for a second time in 2002.
But he remains guarded over his team’s chances of delivering a third regular season title win for him in the UK, simply because of the quality of their second-tier rivals.
“You have to be properly prepared, you have to be at your best every night in order to stand a chance of winning,” he added. “The league itself is very close from the top to the bottom. I know some other teams maybe can’t score as much as other teams, but their structure and their defence means those teams are in every single game still.
“It’s been great and I’m really glad to be over here and involved. There really are no easy nights here and I know it is going to be extremely difficult to win this regular season league title.”
Whistle will be without defenceman Jordan Griffin once again, the 19-year-old out for a second weekend with an unspecified injury.
Two-way forward Cole Shudra is also missing as he continues to recover from an upper-body injury sustained in Sunday’s 5-3 win in Peterborough Phantoms.
Another key loss will be captain Sam Zajac, who has work commitments.
With all three back-up goaltending options tied up with their own clubs, Whistle has moved to bring in Niks Trapans to support No 1 Sam Gospel against the Wildcats.
The 24-year-old Latvian-born netminder has come through the British junior system, playing the majority of his senior hockey with Blackburn Hawks.