Proud Sam Zajac reflects on how he helped Leeds Chiefs create ice hockey history

WHEN Leeds’ NIHL National ice hockey team faces off at the start of the 2021-22 season, it will be the dawn of a new era under owner Steve Nell, bringing down the curtain on an initial, all-too-brief chapter in the sport’s history in the city.

Saturday, 1st May 2021, 7:15 am
Updated Saturday, 1st May 2021, 9:40 am
Leeds Chiefs player-coach Sam Zajac. Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.

Nell has already revealed that the team that emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic in September - barring a reversal of the ongoing emergence from lockdown - will be known under another name. The Leeds Chiefs will be no more.

Gone, too, will be player-coach Sam Zajac, work commitments outside the sport back home in the North East meaning he will not be able to give the time and energy required to oversee the team.

It will not have been an easy decision for the 31-year-old, who retains a deep affection for the team and who took great pride in being partly responsible for bringing the sport to the city on a professional level for the first-ever time back in the autumn of 2019.

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DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME? Sam Zajac puts pre-season troubles behind him as he lines up for the Chiefs' first-ever game at Sheffield Steeldogs on September 15, 2019. Picture courtesy of Chris Stratford.

Zajac may still have a part to play in the team’s future, he has made it clear he is keen to make himself available as a player for whoever succeeds him on the bench.

It may be that whoever Nell brings in as coach may wish to make a complete break with the past and not offer Zajac a roster spot, only time will tell.

For somebody embarking on his first spell as a player-coach, it was certainly a baptism of fire for Zajac.

Appointed in May 2019, Zajac was already behind his NIHL National coaching rivals when it came to putting together a roster for that debut season, although he was still able to put together what he believed was a competitive team.

BODY ON THE LINE: Sam Zajac led from the front for the Leeds Chiefs, seen here dropping the gloves at Telford Tigers. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie.

Later that summer, came the announcement that the Planet Ice-owned Elland Road rink, would not be ready in time for the start of the season

After initially being told they would play their first 10 games away, the Chiefs effectively stayed on the road until January 31, their homeless status eventually ending when they welcomed Sheffield Steeldogs into the building.

Prior to that night, other Planet Ice-owned rinks were utilised as ‘home’ venues for Leeds, including Blackburn, Widnes and Coventry.

Some players exited before a month of the season had passed, others made it until early December before deciding they had had enough.

HOMECOMING: Leeds Chiefs finally got to play in their rink on January 31, 2020 - Patrik Valcak seen facing off against Sheffield Steeldogs. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Add in that Zajac and his players had to travel to Blackburn every week for practice and the further blow that came when most of their equipment was stolen from the team van, it was no surprise there were often tough nights to endure on the ice too. In many ways it should have come as little surprise when they finished the season bottom.

Even once they did get into their own rink, they were only there for six weeks before lockdown ensured they couldn’t remain, their inaugural campaign ending earlier than planned.

But excuses are never a luxury that Zajac affords himself when talking about his time in charge and when he looks back on a tumultuous time at the helm, it is with great fondness and pride at the job he and his team carried out under what were often the most trying of circumstances.

“The one sticking point for the whole season, really, when you look back, were the delays to the rink,” said Zajac. “It made it really tough to compete the way we wanted to.

MAGIC MOMENT: Andres Kopstals celebrates Lewis Houston's overtime winner for Leeds Chiefs against Telford Tigers at Elland Road in February 2020. Picture: Mark Ferriss.

“I’m not using it as an excuse, but even things like trying to recruit players when you’ve got such uncertainty, when you don’t know where you’re going to be playing or where you’re going to be practising. It made it really tough to recruit and, in some cases, keep players.

“But it was great to create a little bit of history that nobody can take away from you - for everyone who was involved.

“For me, it was a massive learning curve, personally and professionally. I’m immensely proud of what we achieved, I know the results were not what we hoped for on the ice, but if you look at the way all of the guys kind of bought in and built that culture, that core group, it was some going.

“A lot of guys hadn’t played at that level before, but really cemented themselves as players of that standard.

“That is the biggest thing that I will take away. I met a lot of great people down there, made a lot of good friends and, hopefully, got the ball rolling for someone else to pick up the mantle and run with it.”

For all the tough times he and his players had to endure, Zajac can counter them with plenty of high points.

STEPPING UP: Sam Zajac brought in several players to play at NIHL National level for the first time, including Lewis Houston, left, and top points scorer Adam Barnes. Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.

Playing that first shift in that first-ever game as the Chiefs against Sheffield Steeldogs on September 15, that first win - having lost their first five games - at Raiders IHC, that first game on home ice at Elland Road against the Steeldogs, followed by raucous overtime wins against league champions Telford Tigers and Yorkshire rivals Hull Pirates inside a throbbing Elland Road building.

But, for Zajac, his proudest moment came on a cold weekend away down in Basingstoke.

Down to just 12 skaters after experienced duo James Archer and import forward Radek Meidl decided to move on, the Chiefs somehow produced back-to-back wins.

“With everything else that went on that season, that weekend often gets overlooked,” said Zajac.

“Just to see how much everybody dug deep, Lewis Houston came in and scored the overtime winner on his first weekend with us in that first game, guys like Liam Charnock and Ethan Hehir who were coming out of nowhere and scoring and playing out of their skins - it was a real buy-in from everybody, a real backs-to-the-wall job

“And that was the way that we knew we would have to play that year, almost like an ‘everyone is against us’ mentality and that weekend was the best personification of what we were trying to play like as a team.”

For the Chiefs’ second season - one that never was because of the pandemic - Zajac felt he had addressed the weaknesses in his team with some key additions, forward Kieran Brown and defencemen Jordan Griffin and Ross Kennedy were just three new faces that were announced before it became obvious there would be no chance that team would ever get the chance to play together.

“I think the big difference between us and the more successful teams that first season, was just that lack of star quality,” he added.

“There’s not one guy on that roster who I wouldn’t take back in a heartbeat - everyone did exactly what we asked of them and more - but I think with the way that the recruitment was a little bit delayed, we just lacked that one player who could maybe grab the game by the scruff of the neck, change things.

“And I feel that was something we had addressed with some of the signings we made for the season that never was. I know I’m no longer the player-coach, but I think it’s going to be a really special club, particularly with Steve Nell taking over.

“I’d love to be a part of that going forward in terms of playing, if possible, but it’s going to come down to availability and also what the new coach and the ownership want moving forward.”

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