Leeds Knights’ Sam Zajac looking forward to making up for lost time in 2021-22
IT should come as no surprise to hear that, after Leeds Knights’ first pre-season game against Swindon Wildcats a couple of weeks ago, defenceman Sam Zajac was ‘feeling it’ the next day.
He won’t have been the only one either.
Having last played a competitive game in March 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic brought about an early end to the inaugural NIHL National season, Zajac knew the first outing for Dave Whistle’s team would be a tough one, and not only because if it being against a quality Swindon line-up.
But, with the 32-year-old and his Knights team-mates now having got four pre-season challenge games under their belts - the last two bringing one-goal wins against the highly-regarded Telford Tigers and Sheffield Steeldogs - they will feel as well-equipped as they can be ahead of Saturday’s opening game of the season proper against Bees IHC.
Doug Sheppard brings his team to West Yorkshire for the first game of the NIHL Cup, a series of eight games which lead up to the start of the regular league season on October 16, when the two sides meet again on the same Elland Road ice.
Having missed so much playing time over the last 20 months, Zajac is more than happy that the games are coming thick and fast again.
“The games we’ve had have been competitive and intense, perhaps more than some people expected,” said Zajac. “But, to be fair, that’s always been the case - as soon as that first puck drops, guys on both teams want to get right back at it
“It often tends to be that you think it might be a gentle way to break into a season but that very rarely happens - there are guys dropping the gloves, finishing their hits and crashing the net all over.
“But that is what you need to get you back into it when the real season starts - so it’s probably the best way to go about it. These four games have been invaluable, particularly for people like myself who haven’t played for so long.
“That first game down in Swindon, I knew I was going to be a bit rusty and a bit sore the next day but that was still probably a bit of an eye opener.
“You can do all the training in the world off the ice and I’ve been on the ice a few times in between the various lockdowns, but it is very tough to replicate that match fitness.
“It was a tough one to get through, but it’s what you need at this time of year and, on a personal level, I’ve felt better fitness wise and sharpness-wise with every game.”
Of course, Zajac returns to Leeds to play free of the responsibilities that came with him being player-coach of the Leeds Chiefs, the predecessor team to the Knights which endured a baptism of fire in what turned out to be their only season, one that was slightly shortened by the pandemic.
With the vastly experienced Dave Whistle now behind the bench, the former Braehead Clan, Swindon and Telford defenceman is free to concentrate on his game, as well as those around him.
His own wealth of experience - Zajac has played 220 games in the Elite League - will prove invaluable in helping marshall the younger defencemen playing around him.
“I knew that to bring success to the team, it needed someone full time down here and that shows already with what Dave has managed to achieve,” said Zajac.
“It’s a real, full-time gig and I just couldn’t give as much time as it needed to make it successful, so I was happy to step back and just concentrate on playing.
“It’s a lot less stress and you can just worry about yourself and helping your team-mates. It’s been really enjoyable so far and I feel it’s going to be a really good year from that aspect.
“And there have been a lot of positives to take from these four games, particularly down at Telford where we mixed the lines up a little bit, tried a few different combinations to see what worked and what didn’t.
“But that’s what pre-season is all about so I think Dave probably got quite a lot of knowledge out of that one in particular.
“Sheffield and Telford are probably going to be two of the teams who will be right up there come the end of the season, so to get positive results against them is exciting for us as a team.”