Leeds Knights leading man Sam Zajac confident younger team-mates won't get carried away with perfect start to season
Initially it was as player-coach of the Leeds Chiefs, the 33-year-old leading his team into the inaugural first season of NIHL National, one that saw them without a rink until the end of January and with players heading in and out the door of whichever rink they happened to be playing or training in at the time on a regular basis.
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Covid produced a lengthy interruption that benefitted nobody, although when Steve Nell took over the franchise at Elland Road Ice Arena in April 2021, there was immediately a more positive mood among both fans and those players who had been on that initial Chiefs’ roster and who signed up to return for the team that was to shortly become Leeds Knights.
Appointed as captain by then head coach Dave Whistle for the 2021-22 season, Zajac again carried a heavy load as the most experienced player on the team, although it was a campaign which saw him sidelined for more games than he was used to either through illness, injury or work commitments.
Regardless, Ryan Aldridge had him inked in at an early stage as a player he would be retaining for the 2022-23 campaign and although there will be no letter on his jersey this time around, Zajac still has a crucial leadership role to play, both on and off the ice. It’s one he is happy to take on.
Given the average age of the D-core around him is just 19.28 years - his addition makes it 21 - Zajac is happy being that crucial veteran presence, something which is working given the Knights sit joint-top of the NIHL National standings with Milton Keynes Lightning, both teams having won their first seven games.
But while Zajac is the calm, reassuring authority figure on the Knights’ blue line, he has seen plenty of positive signs among those youngsters playing around him in front of netminder Sam Gospel, giving him the belief that there is little chance the more youthful elements of Aldridge’s roster will get too far ahead of themselves over their perfect start to the campaign.
“I’ve got the benefit of being in this kind of situation before whereas some of the younger guys haven’t,” said Zajac. “So it’s important that guys like me, Matty, Coops and Cole, some of those more experienced players, share that experience and keep things on the rails.
“But I know that as a group we’re not getting too high, we’re staying grounded, including the younger guys.”
After Zajac, the next most experienced D-man at this level is 20-year-old Jordan Griffin. Zajac believes the former Sheffield Steelers apprentice has started the new season in excellent form, fully aware of the extra responsibilities that are falling on his young shoulders.
“Griff’s had a really strong start to the year,” added Zajac. “He had a tough year last year with injuries and he’s really showing what he can do now and has been playing great for us.
“He’s got his head screwed on, he’s not a daft guy and he knew he needed a big year coming into this season and he’s got himself in really good shape.
“He’s hungry, confident and he is a guy who can definitely go on to play at a higher level. He’s got the size, he keeps things simple and he’s got a great first pass.”
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