New Leeds Chiefs owner Steve Nell reveals his ice hockey ambitions for city at all levels

LEEDS CHIEFS’ new owner Steve Nell says he is looking forward to helping ice hockey realise its full potential in the city - from top to bottom.

Saturday, 24th April 2021, 9:10 am
Leeds Chiefs celebrate a win over Hull Pirates at Elland Road in an inaugural season cut short by the pandemic. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Nell has bought the franchise from previous owners Planet Ice, who oversaw the birth of the team under player-coach Sam Zajac in time for the 2019-20 NIHL National season.

That season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, while the 2020-21 campaign never got off the ground as government social distancing measures were maintained throughout the UK.

Nell is also owner of league rivals Swindon Wildcats but this morning the Wiltshire club announced he would be stepping back from his position a the team’s General Manager - his son Aaron adding the responsibilities to his existing player-coach role.

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Leeds Chiefs player-coach Sam Zajac is un likely to return at the helm next season as he looks to pursue a career outside the sport. Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss

Nell Sr will continue to oversee all non-hockey aspects of the business, but his main focus now becomes Leeds, as he aims to build a sustainable operation, once which will encompass the senior hockey right down to juniors, the latter boosted by a long-term community programme.

It seems unlikely, however, that Zajac will return to oversee a team he built from scratch two years ago when he was first appointed by Planet Ice.

The 31-year-old defenceman is exploring another career outside the sport which will make it difficult for him to resume his full-time role at Elland Road, although there is a chance he could return in a playing capacity.

Nell said his priority in terms of the senior team would be to appoint a new head coach, although he remains open-minded as to what kind of role that will ultimately be.

Leeds hockey fans showed up in promising numbers beore the pandemic cut the 2019-20 season short. Picture: Mark Ferriss.

“We’re looking for a head coach,” said Nell. “I’ve spoken to Sammy and he’s told me about another career opportunity he has in the pipeline and we would need somebody in the ground in Leeds. Sammy’s in Whitley Bay, so it makes that tough.

“But it doesn’t have to be a head coach, it really depends on who applies - it could be a player-head coach, a GM/head coach. Until we see who applies for the job, it’s hard to say we want one particular thing.

“I’m pretty open about it and we’ll see who applies and it will be whoever we feel fits the role best.”

Nell has been in charge at Swindon since 2004 but, in Leeds, sees an opportunity to develop a club from the bottom up. He is in it for the long haul.

“We’ve built a good team here in Swindon, but it’s not just a team, it’s a club,” added Nell. “We’ve built a junior system, an academy, a community programme - everything and the opportunity now to build it from scratch in a city like Leeds, was one I couldn’t pass up on.

“Obviously we’ve made loads of mistakes over the years, but we’ll not make those mistakes again - in this sport, you’re learning all the time.

“It really appeals to me to build a club that’s not just about a team, it’s about trying to build a club and something that means something to people.

“One of my major motivating factors is getting kids off the streets and if we can do something in the community to help get kids off the street and into sport, then that for me that is really when you get down to the nitty gritty of what it is about from the community angle and that’s what we’ll be pushing.”

Planet Ice’s Chief Operating Officer, Heath Rhodes, the arrival of Nell provided a great opportunity to develop a strong identity and prominence in the north for British ice hockey.

“Steve has excellent credentials and we feel his experience and knowledge of the game will ensure that the Leeds ice hockey supporters have a team they can continue to be proud of into the future,” said Rhodes.

“This new arrangement will ensure longevity for quality ice hockey in Leeds and the rest of the north. Steve and his family have a great passion for the sport, and we know he will develop an excellent community programme to establish strong grassroots, a successful academy, and a strong NIHL National team that Leeds fans can be proud of.”

Nell expects lots of interest in the head coach position for the Leeds senior team. Anyone wishing to apply should email: [email protected]

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