Leeds Knights owner Steve Nell confident hockey will realise its potential after positive start

SO FAR, so good.

Saturday, 18th September 2021, 9:12 am
Updated Saturday, 18th September 2021, 10:37 am
Leeds Knights owner Steve Nell believes there is potential to have a seelout crowd at Elland Road Ice Arena by Christmas. Picture: Steve Riding.

That’s how Leeds Knights’ team owner Steve Nell happily describes his first few months in charge of the NIHL National club, since first taking over the franchise at the back end of April.

Having successfully owned and run Swindon Wildcats since 2004, the 54-year-old was not exactly coming in blind to the operation, already in possession of the knowledge and experience required to make it work.

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But what Nell saw in Leeds - something he thought about almost every time he drove past signs for the city on the motorway when travelling to and from his native Sunderland - was the huge potential.

And, while there have only been two pre-season home games upon which to base his early conclusions about those first few months, he feels his decision to step in and take over the hockey operation at Elland Road was the right one.

“I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made, there’s a lot that has gone into getting us from nothing, which is where we started, to putting a team out there on the ice,” said Nell, ahead of tonight’s opening game of the season proper when the Knights welcome Bees IHC to Elland Road in the NIHL Autumn Cup.

“The top priority was to make sure that we had a team, then to make sure that that team was competitive. I think we’ve done that.

TEAMWORK: Leeds Knights' owner Steve Nell, left, with head coach and GM Dave Whistle Picture: simon Hulme.

“Obviously, there is a long way to go, and there have been lots of other things that have happened in between that and around that - the name change, a new website, logos, getting in sponsors etc etc - but the key aim of getting a competitive team on the ice has been achieved I believe.”

Building that team was no simple task. Leeds Chiefs, the team which played out of Elland Road during the 2019-20 NIHL National campaign had effectively been mothballed for the 2020-21 season by rink owners Planet Ice.

ENCOURAGING: Leeds Knights have impressed during pre-season, including a 3-2 win over Sheffield Steeldogs at Elland Road. Picture: Andy Bourke.

But, once in place, Nell moved quickly, holding conversations initially with Chiefs’ player-coach Sam Zajac and a number of players the 32-year-old defenceman had signed in readiness for a second season that, because of the pandemic, never took place.

Once it became clear Zajac was not in a position to continue in the role - Nell’s next priority was to bring in a head coach, someone who could oversee the entire hockey operation he had in mind for the club.

It’s fair to say when he revealed that coach to be Canadian Dave Whistle - the man who delivered top-flight Superleague titles to Bracknell Bees and Belfast Giants over 20 years ago - it took many people by surprise.

Leeds Knights team owner Steve Nell believes he and head coach Dave Whistle have put together a competitive team. Picture courtesy of Kat Medcroft/Wildcats Media.

But Nell wanted to appoint somebody who he could trust to run the hockey side of things on a full-time basis, as well as help attract sponsorship and grow the brand throughout the city and into West Yorkshire.

Whistle’s role sees him double up as the club’s GM, something he carried off to great effect in Belfast which, much like in Leeds, started out from nothing.

It proved a popular appointment, with Whistle’s cv speaking for itself. It has also allowed Nell and his staff to concentrate on other areas of the business which go into making ‘a night at the hockey’ an enjoyable experience, the kind of experience that has fans coming back for more.

Ice hockey has always been keen to promote itself as a sport for the whole family, with the Knights already introducing a ‘kids go free’ offer for games, an idea which has proved popular and will be followed by other initiatives.

It meant that Nell, forever seen pacing around the rink on match nights, ensuring everything is in order, was able to enjoy seeing over 800 fans in the building for the pre-season clash against Sheffield Steeldogs. His ambition is to fill the building by Christmas.

“In terms of the fans, everything has been positive,” he added. “There are a lot of good volunteers in and around the club and we wouldn’t get as far as we have without those people.

“Now the matches are here, it goes up another level as we’re getting into the rhythm of week-to-week hockey

“The two home games we’ve had have been very good games, particularly for pre-season - very competitive - and for the Steeldogs game, we had just over 800 fans in the building. For only our second game that’s really good.

“The ‘Kids-Go-Free’ offer has proved positive - it’s about getting people into the building first and then they’ll see how good the match-night experience is and they will hopefully come back.

“The way the fans were reacting was great and very encouraging. There were a lot of first timers there, people who have never been to watch a hockey match before.

“So we’re already getting new people in and now we just need to double-up on all that work.

“We’re doing a lot of work in terms of advertising and brand awareness and getting the sport out there. I think the potential is there to fill that building by Christmas.”

To buy tickets to Saturday’s NIHL Autumn Cup clash against Bees IHC go HERE