Growing a new franchise in UK ice hockey is nothing new to the 55-year-old from Ontario, who was yesterday announced as the man to take the Elland Road-based club forward.
He will not only take over the running of the city’s NIHL National team – completing a roster for the 2021-22 season which Nell has already started for him – he will essentially be the face of the organisation.
Just over 20 years ago, Whistle was embarking on a similar journey in Northern Ireland after being appointed as the first head coach and GM at the newly-formed Belfast Giants.
By the end of his second season in charge, he had helped grow the fanbase considerably and delivered a Superleague title, repeating the feat he had achieved at Bracknell Bees two years earlier and which had first prompted the Giants to take him across the Irish Sea.
He added a playoff title the following year, which earned him a move up in the world to the German DEL with the Iserlohn Roosters. But it proved to be short-lived and he returned to the UK before the season’s end where he was appointed by Cardiff Devils’ owner Bob Phillips.
After less than two years in South Wales, he was moved to Phillips’s other EIHL club, Sheffield Steelers, as director of hockey, before taking over behind the bench and leading them to the 2005-06 Knockout Cup.
But, that summer, Whistle remained in Canada, briefly returning to the UK in 2014 to take the helm again at the Devils for three months, before again heading home.
For the last five years, he has been coaching youngsters at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, British Columbia – some of who have gone on to play in the NHL.
But, at the back of his mind, has been the knowledge that he would one day like to return to the UK. So when he became aware of Nell’s search for a head coach in Leeds, Whistle was understandably interested.
“We’d already decided we were probably going to go back to the UK,” explained Whistle. “So we’ve been waiting it out a little bit, seeing if the right scenario came along and then this kind of came out of the blue. I’m super happy that it did.
“Andy Oakes, who is the president of our operation here, sort of knew that I wanted to go back to the UK and then Steve phoned Andy to find out if that was still the case and then Steve phoned me himself.
“We spoke about what he wants to do in Leeds and I was sold.”
Wearing two hats is something Whistle welcomes, having fulfilled similar roles in both Bracknell and Belfast. His hockey knowledge, experience and coaching ability is without question, but he will also be happy to get out into the wider community to attract sponsors as well as help spread the word about ice hockey and the Elland Road rink.
“I have been the GM before like in Belfast and I was pretty much the GM of the hockey programme in Bracknell for those five years – I enjoy that side of things,” he added.
“I enjoy going to meet sponsors, meeting the public and working with the supporters’ club. I’m really looking forward to getting involved in that side of things again. I’m going to be able to pretty much put my stamp on the whole programme, hopefully including the junior development aspect of it, as well as the senior team.
“I’m looking forward to kind of starting from fresh again and, hopefully, we can get a really good fan base into that building and we can build that fanbase, fill that ice arena.
“And let’s face it, if we can do that, it probably means that we are winning
“It’s an opportunity that no other team in that league could have given me and I’m really excited and thankful to Steve for giving me the opportunity to, basically, be the face of this franchise.
“I don’t take that responsibility lightly and I’m going to come over there and do a really good job for them.”
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