Leeds Knights: Matty Davies on why Sam Zajac and Sam Gospel will be so vital to realising NIHL National ambitions
VETERAN centre Matty Davies is clear in his belief that - in Leeds Knights - he is joining a team capable of challenging for NIHL National honours this season.
In just under seven weeks’, Dave Whistle’s team will drop the puck for the first time when they welcome Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steeldogs to Bobby Collins Way in a pre-season exhibition game.
On Monday evening, those players already signed will have their first-ever practice session under the watchful eye of head coach Whistle in Leeds as they begin preparations for a season full of great expectations.
In 31-year-old Davies, they have a player capable of handling those expectations, a player who - along with a couple of his Knights team-mates - knows what it takes to win at this level.
Davies is looking forward to hooking up again with goaltender Sam Gospel and defenceman Sam Zajac all three being part of the Telford Tigers team who won the last-ever English Premier Ice Hockey League (EPL) regular season title in 2017 before that league’s demise later that summer.
For Davies, it was not surprisingly one of the most enjoyable seasons in his 15-year-senior career.
Soon after, he took up the chance to return home to play for Hull Pirates, proving instrumental in helping Jason Hewitt’s team secure a treble during the North One era of second-tier hockey in the UK in a memorable 2018-19 campaign.
With the Pirates opting out of the coming season due to the financial implications brought about by a delayed refurbishment of the Hull Ice Arena by the city council, Davies was quickly snapped up by Yorkshire rivals Leeds.
Under different circumstances, nobody is under any illusions that Davies would no doubt have remained playing in Hull, but he will be making the regular 125-mile round-trip with the intent of being part of a winning organisation again.
And, even though it will be the Knights’ first-ever official season - replacing the Planet Ice-owned Chiefs who contested the inaugural 2019-20 NIHL National campaign - Davies is confident Whistle’s team can be up among the leading contenders come March-April next year.
“I’m pretty confident this team can be challenging for honours this year, it’s certainly not too early for that, even though it’s only our first season,” insisted Davies, who is impressed with the roster put together so far by Whistle, one he believes he can add a leadership quality to.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m in the twilight of my career but I’ve probably been a veteran for a quite a long time in some ways.
“I was a captain in Hull for the Stingrays when I was about 25, 26, so I’ve had that leadership mentality in me for a long time.
“I am quite demanding but only for the good of the team and when I see lads doing well and they are grafting hard that’s what I love most.
“I don’t settle for any less than 100 per cent, from myself and those around me - that is the minimum for me. I’ll do everything I can to help this team win and when I sign up for something I’m not signing up just to take part, I’ll be giving it everything. I want to bring success to this team.”
As well as another chance to play for an owner in Steve Nell he greatly admires and a coach in Whistle he has the utmost respect for, Davies was also attracted to Leeds by the opportunity to hook up with Zajac and Gospel again.
“I am so excited to play with both of them again,” added Davies. “With Gossy, what a goalie that kid is - he is the best goalie in this league by an absolute mile for me.
“He is an absolute difference maker and, for me, he’s the best player on the team. If you want to win anything, your goalie has to be the best player on the team and that is evident.
“Anyone who watches hockey, or keeps track of it, if you watch the NHL, everybody says the same thing - why did Montreal get to the Stanley Cup Final? Because of Carey Price. Why did Vegas get to the final in their first season? Because of Marc-Andre Fleury.
“It’s because they are the best players, the most important part of any team and it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how many goals you score, you need your goalie to be the best player on the ice and Gossy is, so I’m buzzing about playing with him once again.
And in experienced D-man Zajac, Davies feels he will be playing alongside a kindred spirit once again.
“Sammy and me have got that thing in common jn that we are both tiny - we’re really small in stature but we’ve got loads of height in our hearts and that’s the biggest thing for me,” explained Davies.
“I love playing with Sammy, he is class, he’s got everyone’s back on the team and he’s a leader in his own right.
“He led that Chiefs’ team through an extremely tough first season, so I’ll just follow his lead because, to be honest, he is the man there.”