Sam Zajac steps away from Leeds Chiefs coaching role but still keen to play part in team’s future

SAM ZAJAC believes Leeds Chiefs and ice hockey in the city couldn’t be in better hands in the shape of new owner, Steve Nell.

By Phil Harrison
Sunday, 25th April 2021, 8:49 pm
Updated Sunday, 25th April 2021, 8:50 pm
CHANGE: Leeds Chiefs' player-coach Sam Zajac will not be in charge of the team next season. Picture: Dean Woolley.
CHANGE: Leeds Chiefs' player-coach Sam Zajac will not be in charge of the team next season. Picture: Dean Woolley.

And while work commitments outside of the sport mean the 31-year-old defenceman will no longer be player-coach of the team he made history with when he helped launch it for the 2019-20 NIHL National season, the 31-year-old defenceman still hopes he can still play some part in its future.

Nell was announced as the new owner of the team on Friday afternoon and has already started the recruitment process for a new head coach.

He has also announced his intention to help establish a junior hockey programme at the Elland Road rink, as well as develop a community programme involving local schools.

Nell, 54, intends to use a similar model to the one he has implemented successfully at Swindon Wildcats, the Chiefs’ NIHL National rivals which he has run since 2004 and where he has overseen a highly-regarded junior development programme.

He stepped back from his role as general manager at the Wildcats on Friday morning, paving the way for him to make Leeds his main focus as he looks to establish the sport on a firm footing in the city, at all levels.

And Zajac, who spent half a season playing for Nell and his player-coach son Aaron at Swindon in 2017-18, is excited to see what can be achieved under the new management.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, that ice hockey in Leeds is in the best possible hands now,” said Zajac.

HISTORY-MAKING: Leeds Chiefs face-off against Sheffield Steeldogs in the first-ever game at Leeds' Elland Road rink in January last year. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

“The kind of results that they have had down at Swindon speak for themselves. Great ownership, a great model and I’m happy to say the best ownership group that I’ve ever played for, albeit it was for such a short time.

“But it’s not just that, they are great people too – they’ve got good morals, they’ve got the good of the sport at the heart of what they are trying to do and I don’t think there is a better ownership group that could have possibly taken over.”

Zajac said the combination of new owner Nell, a virtually new rink ready to play in and the city itself, would make playing in Leeds an attractive proposition for many players – as well as the coach succeeding him ahead of the 2021-22 season.

“Even in the last couple of days since it was announced, I’ve already had a number of messages off guys asking what is going on and expressing an interest in playing there,” added Zajac.

“I certainly don’t think they will have a hard time putting a competitive team together, or attracting a quality coach. With the way that they approach things, it’s certainly not being viewed as a short -term thing.

“Having spoken to Steve in the last few days, it is clear they have a real long-term vision for the club and hockey – they really want to make a success of it.”

Zajac has had several conversations with Nell in recent days, when it became clear the player-coach’s other work commitments meant it wouldn’t be possible for him to continue in the role.

He will, however, still go down in history as the man who helped bring ice hockey to the city for the first time and although the team’s debut campaign was dogged by off-ice issues – not least not having their own rink to playor train in until two thirds of the season had passed – he still regards it as a special time in his career.

He hopes he can continue to play a part in the team’s development, although he knows that decision is not his to make.

“It’s a mutual thing,” explained Zajac. “My work commitments mean it just isn’t going to be possible to commit to running the team on a full-time basis like I did before.

“And, speaking with Steve, it’s going to be a real full-time role down there for whoever does take over the coaching reins and me not being based down there means it isn’t a good fit for either of us.

“They want somebody based more locally, so it’s kind of like a mutual decision and best for all parties.

“But I’d still love to come down and play because it’s going to be such an exciting time for the club and, from my experience of working for Steve before, such a well-run organisation moving forward.

“So, whoever they do end up getting for the coaching job, I’m happy to have that conversation and see if there is a way that I can fit into their plans and, if so, great but, if not, then I totally understand if they want to go in a different direction.”

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