Sam Zajac finds lure of Leeds Knights’ potential impossible to resist

SAM ZAJAC knew all along he would spend the next few years full of regrets had he passed up on the opportunity to stay involved with the Leeds Knights.

Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 3:31 pm
STICKING AROUND: Sam Zajac will remain part of Leeds Knights, this time strictly as a key defenceman for new head coach, Dave Whistle. Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.

The Chiefs’ name may have gone - well overdue according to some - but the building blocks of a team laid down by its first player-coach during the most testing of debut seasons remain firmly in place.

Beating off fierce competition to be appointed as the man to launch the Leeds ice hockey franchise was something Zajac was, and remains, rightly proud of.

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Why Leeds Knights coach Dave Whistle was so keen to keep Sam Zajac on board

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Work commitments meant he would not be in a position to devote the time required to continue in the role he began back in May 2019 - but there was just no way he could walk away completely from the project.

And so it is that he returns as a player on a team he believes is getting a deserved second chance, having been hampered by so many issues on and off the ice during that difficult 2019-20 NIHL National season.

Once Zajac knew Steve Nell was set to take over as owner he knew the team was in the right hands. Once he realised Dave Whistle would be Nell’s man on the ground as head coach and GM, he felt he had to make sure he was involved.

“The team means a lot to me, I’ve definitely got a real soft spot for it,” said Zajac. “I know it was only a short amount of time that we spent there but we went through a lot together and it is great to see a few of the other guys who were involved alongside me signing up too.

Sam Zajac, in action for Leeds Chiefs against Hull Pirates in February last year. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“I’m a big believer that we had a good core going at the Chiefs and it’s great to see that Dave and Steve have recognised that and appreciate what some of the players brought to the club.

“I’m just delighted to still be involved - if I’d not been it would have been a case of feeling like I missed out on some really good years which I really believe are coming at Leeds.

“Steve is a guy who I’ve got a lot of respect for. The way he runs a club, like in Swindon, he does everything the right way and then as soon as I heard it was going to be Dave involved it was really a no-brainer to try and get back on the roster and get involved in some way because it really is a match made in heaven at this level of hockey.”

Zajac isn’t the first to voice the opinion that, with Nell and Whistle at the helm, great things are possible for the Knights, although the role the Planet Ice-owned Chiefs played in helping the sport establish a foothold in the city cannot be underestimated.

Dave Whistle, new head coach and GM at Leeds Knights. Picture courtesy of Richard Murray.

Zajac had a major role in that, seeing first hand the potential for growing a fanbase that was already at around the 700-mark in the few short weeks that second-tier hockey was able to be played at Elland Road before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Leeds Knights' team owner, Steve Nell. Picture: Steve Riding.

“In an ideal world, this would have been the kind of scenario we had from day one but we don’t live in an ideal world and everyone knows the kind of complications that there were around that first season for the Chiefs,” added Zajac.

“It’s great that those building blocks are in place and there are still those links to that first season. But this is a fresh start for everyone and the sky really is the limit for the team, both the guys announced so far and a few more that I know are set to be announced.

“And with Dave and Steve you just know the rest of the roster is going to be rounded out really well too.

“I think there will be even more exciting additions to the roster, probably some that, a bit like like Dave’s own appointment, come out of leftfield and maybe surprise a few people.

“With the players we’ve already got in and with that building completed there is so much more potential to build and now the right people are in place to realise that potential, there is no limit to where it could end up.”

Knights owner Nell has been grateful for the help provided by Zajac since taking over the franchise in April and, like head coach Whistle, was always keen to try and find a way for the former player-coach to remain on the roster.

“I like Sammy a lot,” said Nell. “Over the past few weeks, he has been very helpful. I know what he’s all about and he’s one of the best defenceman in the league so I’m delighted to keep him involved as a player.

“He will help the situation and be the glue that brings the team together, with the boys that were there in that first season and are coming back.

“He will be a positive influence in the dressing room, not just on the ice.”

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