Leeds Knights: Coach Dave Whistle in shock exit after just five months

LEEDS KNIGHTS and head coach Dave Whistle have parted company in a shock development for the NIHL National team.

By Phil Harrison
Wednesday, 12th January 2022, 5:45 pm
GONE: Dave Whistle - pictured on the Leeds Knights bench earlier this season Picture: James Hardisty.
GONE: Dave Whistle - pictured on the Leeds Knights bench earlier this season Picture: James Hardisty.

Whistle, appointed to the dual role of head coach and GM last May and who arrived to take over the reins at the end of July, will be replaced behind the bench on an interim basis by former Bracknell Bees and Swindon Wildcats coach Ryan Aldridge.

The news will come as a shock to many Knights’ fans who have been impressed with Whistle and his stewardship of a Knights team that quickly became regarded as one of the most exciting to watch in the league.

In a brief statement, the Knights said that the 55-year-old was leaving by ‘mutual agreement’. The timing of the announcement, however, just over halfway through the regular season schedule, is a considerable surprise, particularly given the Knights sit fifth in the standings and are only 13 points adrift of leaders Telford Tigers with 23 games remaining.

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Leeds Knights coach Dave Whistle - right - with owner Steve Nell Picture: Simon Hulme.

Team owner Steve Nell was in the process of conducting his planned six-month review with Whistle when he informed the former Belfast Giants boss of his intention to bring in another coach, leaving the Canadian to concentrate solely on the GM role as the club strives to grow its fanbase and appeal in and around the city.

Nell said Whistle felt the change was not one he could take up and so the pair agreed to go their separate ways. It’s understood Whistle was first informed of the intention to change his role following Sunday night’s 5-3 home loss to Milton keynes Lightning.

Aldridge, 43, will meet the Knights’ roster for the first time at training on Thursday, when he will begin preparing them for Sunday’s home game against Basingstoke Bison (face-off 5.15pm).

Aldridge was appointed as assistant coach for the GB Under-16s last May, but is well-known to Nell through his work as coach at Swindon from 2009-2015. He then took over as head coach of the Okanagan Hockey Academy, also owned by Nell and which was run out of the same rink as the Wildcats.

NEW COACH: Former Swindon and Bracknell coach Ryan Aldridge will take over coaching Leeds Knights on an interim basis. Picture supplied by Okanagan Hockey Academy UK

Prior to taking over at Swindon in the middle of the 2008-09 season, Aldridge - brother-in-law of GB men’s head coach Pete Russell - had coached Bracknell to the English Premier League regular season title and play-off double in 2006-07.

“The club was conducting our planned six-month review into how things were progressing and identified that the dual role of GM and head coach was a lot more involved than we first thought,” said Nell on Wednesday afternoon. “Particularly with a city the size of Leeds and what we are looking to do with the club in terms of growing it.

“I decided that to help that situation, we would bring in a new head coach and leave Dave to continue in just the GM role. Dave felt that change wasn’t one for him and we decided that it was best to go our separate ways.

“I’d like to place on record my thanks to Dave for his help in getting the team up and running in our first season and I sincerely wish him all the best for the future.”

STARTING OUT: Leeds Knights' defencemen listen to head coach Dave Whistle ahead of the team's first-ever game - pre-season challenge at Swindon in September.

Nell added that he thought Aldridge was ideally qualified to take over the coaching role on an interim basis, while he himself covered the role of GM, adding: “Ryan is somebody I have obviously known for a long time, through working together first at Swindon and then the Okanagan Hockey Academy based there.

“He is someone who I regard as an excellent coach, he knows this league, knows this level of hockey very well and he knows the players well. I am confident he’ll do a good job here.

“He will be meeting the players for the first time at training on Thursday and getting them ready for the home game on Sunday against Basingstoke.”

It’s not known at this stage whether Whistle will remain in the UK or head back home to Canada from where he flew in to take on his first job in senior hockey since a three-month stint in the Elite League at Cardiff in 2014.

When Whistle arrived in Leeds, he inherited one of the youngest teams average in NIHL National - with an average age of 23.77. It was a team essentially put together by Nell, a process that he had started soon after taking over the franchise at the end of April 2021.

The Knights got off to a flying start when winning their first six games in the season-opening Autumn Cup, eventually going on to reach the final where they were pipped by Nell’s other second tier outfit, Swindon Wildcats, the team he has owned since 2004.

The regular season started in similar fashion for the Knights when they won their opening three games. But long-term injuries to key players - notably forwards Cole Shudra and Matty Davies, netminder Sam Gospel and defenceman Jordan Griffin - then began to bite, the team sinking to second-bottom at one stage as they were often forced to play short-benched.

But bodies slowly returned and despite losing out to Swindon and Milton Keynes Lightning at the weekend, the Knights remained in fifth place still with an outside chance of the regular season title and - barring a calamitous loss of form - a place in the play-offs already virtually assured.

The decision to dispense with Whistle’s coaching services at this stage of the season is, essentially, a major surprise. It was expected he would have been given at least one full season at the helm. He exits with a .513 win percentage as the Knights coach.