Leeds Knights tale one that GB ice hockey head coach Pete Russell will follow closely
IF you want to know anything about Dave Whistle and Steve Nell - the two men spearheading Leeds Knights’ charge in NIHL National next season - just go straight to the top and speak to a man who knows them both very well.
That ‘top man’ happens to be Pete Russell head coach of the GB men’s team - one that has just enjoyed a second straight campaign in the top tier of the World Championships.
Along the way, both Whistle, the Knights’ head coach and GM, and team owner Nell have - at different times - played pivotal roles in Russell’s long journey to the top.
Now, years later, Russell has had a small hand in bringing the two men together in West Yorkshire and believes they are ideally suited to bring success to what is essentially - as we slowly emerge out of a global pandemic - a franchise enjoying a second chance.
Back in 2004, having led Belfast Giants to both a Superleague title and a playoff championship, Whistle was enticed away for a short spell in Germany before returning mid-season to take over the reins at Cardiff Devils.
Russell had not long arrived there himself, having come down that summer from his native Scotland where he had been coaching in Paisley at Under-19 level, to take over the Devils’ junior development.
But Whistle’s arrival gradually signalled a change to Russell’s responsibilities as he soon found himself helping Whistle on the bench in the EIHL at weekends.
Whistle would find himself heading to South Yorkshire midway through the 2005-06 season to take over at Sheffield Steelers while, later that summer, Russell was himself on the move, taking up his first head coach role in senior hockey at Swindon Wildcats, the team owned by Nell.
After almost two years in Wiltshire, Russell moved to Bracknell Bees and then Slough Jets before, in 2011-12 returning to Swindon as assistant coach to his brother-in-law Ryan Aldridge.
His next role saw him remain in Swindon when he headed up the first-ever UK-based Okanagan Hockey Academy, run by Nell who had joined forces with the Canada-based originators.
All the while, Russell remained as head coach of the GB Under-20s, but a desire to return to being a senior club coach saw Russell head to Milton Keynes Lightning in 2015, where he helped oversee a transition from the English Premier League up to the EIHL.
Just 12 months later, he headed back to Scotland to take over at Glasgow Clan, where a fourth-placed regular season finish combined with his success in steering GB back to the top tier of the World Championships, saw him enticed away by DEL 2 outfit EHC Freiburg.
Next season, after two successive top-three finishes with Freiburg, Russell will return to Germany to take over at Ravensburg Towerstars.
It has been some journey for Russell, who next year will lead GB on a third campaign in ‘Pool A’ in Finland. And while he will also be kept busy in Southern Germany ahead of his latest international mission, he will be keeping watch on how his two friends are faring in their venture together at Elland Road Arena, particularly as he was one of a handful of people Nell approached for their thoughts when he was in the process of recruiting his first head coach for the Knights.
“We spoke a couple of times while I was still over in Germany, including asking me what I thought of Dave,” said Russell.
“And I knew the kind of guy that Steve was after, somebody who was mature, experienced and who would help him grow the club - I think it’s a really good mix the two of them together.”
Russell bases his faith in the pair making a success of it in Leeds having seen close up how each man operates.
“I learnt a hell of a lot from Dave when I was in Cardiff,” added Russell. “I was running the junior programme down there at the time, I was about 27, 28 and then he had me on the bench with him assisting and he really gave me a big step up, had me helping out with practices and everything.
“He’s pretty relaxed and he’s smart. He’ll come in at Leeds, see what he’s got and then see what he needs and I’m sure he’ll find a couple of good imports because he was always good at recruiting, he always brought good players in when he was over here before.
“His personality is what stands him apart, guys like to come to practice when he’s in charge. He can be tough when he needs to be - he has that edge, he has plenty of emotion in him. But, first and foremost, he’s just a good person.
“I know he’s coming back to a different level of hockey in Leeds, but I know he was looking to get back over to the UK at some point. I’m sure he’ll be hungry to get going and he’ll be such a good appointment there.”
Russell and Nell have worked closely on a number of occasions since first coming together in Swindon back in 2006. The two have remained in regular contact to this day, meaning it was no surprise when Nell sought the GB head coach’s counsel when it came to making his most important appointment in Leeds.
“Working for Steve that first time in Swindon was my first job as a pro coach,” said Russell. “He knows what he wants and, for Leeds, he’s got a model to work from now, a blueprint of how he wants a hockey club to work. He’s usually pretty good at getting the right people around him to do different jobs.
“Steve isn’t going to take all of that on in Leeds without putting a lot into it - he’s not a millionaire, he’s going to work hard at it. He’s done a great job at Swindon as everybody knows but then Leeds is a great project, it’s in a great catchment area for players, there’s a lot of British talent in that area when you think about it with Bradford, Sheffield.
“So it is a great base to build from, in what is a new rink - it’s got such a lot going for it. They had it tough that first season as the Chiefs because the rink wasn’t ready and they played more than half the season on the road - some people forget that.
“I think Sammy Zajac did a great job in a very difficult situation, but now they’re going at it right from the start this time, so it will be interesting to see what happens there and with Steve and Dave they’ve got two of the best possible people to make it work.”