Sam Zajac and Leeds Chiefs hopeful NIHL season can still get the go-ahead

SAM ZAJAC has completed his Leeds Chiefs’ roster for the 2020-21 NIHL National season, but doubts persist over whether he will get to see it in action.

Monday, 28th September 2020, 6:00 am
Leeds Chiefs player-coach Sam Zajac (Picture: Mark Ferriss)

The likelihood of any kind of hockey being played next season took a step back last week after tighter government restrictions were introduced to combat the rising number of coronavirus cases throughout the UK.

A few days’ earlier, pilot schemes scheduled to be introduced at the back end of September which were set to allow fans back in to watch live sport, most notably football and rugby league, were shelved because of the increasing worry over Covid-19 statistics.

That move has renewed the uncertainty facing many teams across various sports, who have already suffered greatly over the last few months through being unable to bring in matchday revenue.

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Kieran Brown (Picture: Cerys Molloy)

The UK’s top-flight Elite Ice Hockey League has already suspended its 2020-21 season indefinitely – essentially it has been cancelled – stating it is not possible for them to start playing again until fans are allowed back in sufficient numbers in order to make it financially viable.

NIHL National clubs, including Leeds, budget accordingly to survive on far fewer numbers than their EIHL cousins but they still need the green light from government in order for them to get sufficient bums on seats.

If that change in policy is not forthcoming, the likelihood is that they, too, will have to consider missing an entire season of competition.

“Right now it’s tough to see how we’re going to start in January,” admitted Zajac. “But three months is a long time in this world that we live in right now – who knows what the landscape will look like by then.

Ben O'Connor will play in the NIHL with Sheffield Steeldogs (Picture: Dean Woolley)

“It is very unfortunate that they pushed back the pilot schemes of letting fans into sporting events because that would have been interesting and would have come up with some data for what we’d be looking at and what level of crowds might be allowed when we are allowed back.

“But that has been put on hold for now so, if anything, it will push things back even further again.”

In the meantime, even though the hoped-for January start date seems less likely than when it was announced earlier this month by NIHL National bosses, Zajac has been putting the finishing touches to his line-up.

So far, nine names, including Zajac himself, have been revealed but until the picture on next season becomes clearer, Chiefs’ fans will have to guess who will be joining defencemen Lewis Baldwin, Ross Kennedy and Jordan Griffin as well as forwards Lewis Houston, Kieran Brown, Joe Coulter and Liam Charnock and goaltender Sam Gospel.

As a result of the EIHL’s season suspension, a number of top-end British players – some with next year’s hoped-for World Championships no doubt in mind – have made moves elsewhere.

Most of those have been to other leagues in Europe, although Great Britain defenceman Ben O’Connor, who left Sheffield Steelers in the summer, last week agreed to join the Chiefs’ Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steeldogs for 2020-21.

Other British players, both current EIHL internationals or otherwise, are expected to tread a similar path should the NIHL National get the go-ahead.

That is likely – should a season get underway – to see some teams move forward with just one import, if any at all, instead of the two allowed last season, opting instead to spend that part of their budget on higher-end British players.

It remains to be seen whether the Chiefs add a player who plied their trade in the EIHL last season, but Zajac will not be clearing the decks in order to overload on such talent.

“From our point of view, we’ve got a full team signed up now and we’re committed to those guys,” he said. “We’re not going to be making changes now and moving some guys on to sign up some of these other players who are now looking for jobs. There is a limit on what you can offer these players.

“You’d love to be able to help these guys out, maybe some of them are guys you’ve played with in the past, or you are familiar with and love to help them find a job to see them through but, again, you’ve got to put your team first.

“We definitely wouldn’t want to upset things and rip our team apart to accommodate a few of these guys.

“A lot of thought goes into the structure and make-up of a team and as tempting as it is to have these guys in, it’s not something that works long-term.”