Leeds Knights: Dave Whistle’s great expectations realised in opening months

IT’S a little over five months since Leeds Knights head coach Dave Whistle arrived on these shores for his latest challenge in British hockey. What has happened since has not fallen short in meeting what were already high expectations.

By Phil Harrison
Friday, 31st December 2021, 6:35 am
Updated Friday, 31st December 2021, 12:11 pm

As his team prepares to face off today for their last game of 2021, making the short trip down the M1 to take on Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steeldogs, Whistle is satisfied with how things have gone so far.

He and team owner Steve Nell have every reason to be, too, the Knights sitting fifth in the NIHL standings, having finished runners-up in the Autumn Cup Final and already achieving their first sellout crowd at Elland Road.

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Leeds Knights coach Dave Whistle, pictured at the team's Planet Ice rink at Elland Road Picture Simon hulme.

It is no small achievement and introducing hockey to a generally new audience on such a scale has not been easy.

In the early months, Nell has taken on the majority of the off-ice workload, leaving Whistle to concentrate largely on the hockey side of the operation.

In that respect, his impact was instant, a generally young, energetic Knights team winning their opening six games in the Autumn Cup, enough to see them clinch second place, despite losing the last two games in the group phase.

CARING: Steve Nell, owner of Leeds Knights Picture: Steve Riding.

And when Leeds also won their first three league games, it seemed there really was no stopping Whistle’s young charges.

But, as is often the case, nothing lasts forever and reality eventually bites.

Forced to deal with a seemingly never-ending injury crisis, the Knights fell away, the continued shortage of manpower seeing them sink to second-bottom in the standings.

A return of key personnel from mid-November onwards, however, not surprisingly brought with it an upturn in results, part of which saw them push league leaders Swindon Wildcats all the way in a pulsating two-legged Autumn Cup final.

Leeds Knights can look back at the first few months of their debut season NIHL National with satisfaction, in particular their run to the Autumn Cup Final where they were edged out by Swindon Wildcats. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Despite being out of the British game for seven years, Whistle was always keen to return one day for another crack at a coaching role and in Leeds, he saw the potential screaming out from every pore – ownership, players, a new rink, even the city itself.

“Coming in at the beginning, you always have high expectations, or you should have,” said Whistle. “And I knew we had pretty good, solid players, so I was confident we’d be able to do well.

“And we started off the season very well and, really, the main reason we didn’t keep that going was injuries. I believe that if we could have stayed away from that amount of injuries for that length of time, we’d be up near the top.”

All of Whistle’s previous coaching positions in the UK came in the top-flight, leading both Bracknell Bees and Belfast Giants to the Superleague title, before later spells at Cardiff Devils and Sheffield Steelers.

GUIDING HAND: Leeds Knights' head coach Dave Whistle has been an ideal companion for the team's relatively young and inexperienced roster.

His knowledge of the UK second-tier was very much second-hand and he admits the NIHL National league has been an eye-opener in the first few months, but an experience he has thoroughly enjoyed.

“It’s a very good level of hockey,” he added. “There are a lot of good players here and I’ve really enjoyed the level of the play – it has been an eye-opener. There are no easy games, you have to pretty much be at your best every night to win in this league.

“There’s a lot of strong goaltending. I don’t see any import goalies so it’s a great opportunity for British goalies to play regularly and, in Sam Gospel, I believe we have the best goalie in the league.”

Whistle also believes the Knights can produce more sellout crowds this season as they continue to grow the fanbase in a city he already believed offered massive potential.

“I knew the size of Leeds, I knew the sport that was in Leeds already and I had a gut feeling that this could be a place where hockey could take off,” said Whistle.

“I think we can start getting those bigger crowds every game. It takes a while to grow, but Steve has been involved with the game a long time and knows what he is doing.

“He’s been running Swindon a long time and they do a great job there, so I knew Steve would be a good owner.

“He knows players, he runs a good ship, he really does and he does things the right way. I’ve really enjoyed working for him and I know that he’s got a passion for hockey. It’s not just about being an owner, I know he cares for the players, I know he cares for the league – he’s in it for the long haul.”