Ticket sales for home opener is timely boost for Leeds Chiefs' playoff ambitions

SAM ZAJAC says the high interest shown in Leeds Chiefs’ home opener against Sheffield Steeldogs at the end of this month has only confirmed his belief in the potential for the sport to grow in the city.

By Phil Harrison
Saturday, 4th January 2020, 10:11 am
Updated Saturday, 4th January 2020, 10:13 am
BAD NIGHT: Sam Zajac battling to stop Bracknell in last Sunday's 11-1 defeat to the Bees. Picture courtesy of Kevin Slyfield.
BAD NIGHT: Sam Zajac battling to stop Bracknell in last Sunday's 11-1 defeat to the Bees. Picture courtesy of Kevin Slyfield.

The 30-year-old was appointed as the team’s player-coach in May last year convinced the Leeds’s first-ever ice hockey franchise would attract interest from the off.

The building of the new Elland Road rink has been beset by delays, with the planned opening in August last year now being finally realised on January 31, albeit not at its full 2,000-plus capacity.

The last few months have seen the Chiefs call various places ‘home’ during their first season in NIHL National, with Blackburn, Widnes and Coventry all being utilised as host venues.

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ALMOST THERE: Work continues on the Elland Road ice rink ready for a January 31 opening. Picture courtesy of Planet Ice Leeds

This month sees Solihull added to that list with three fixtures scheduled in the coming weeks at the West Midlands venue due to the unavailability of the other,previously-used rinks owned by Planet Ice, the company behind the Leeds project.

It has meant a long-hard slog for player-coach Zajac and his team, who have essentially played their entire season on the road, while practice sessions have been limited to 90-minute weekly session at Blackburn.

It has made for a tough baptism of fire for the club, who find themselves bottom of the regular season standings but, with 25 games remaining, still entertaining hopes of making the playoffs.

On Monday, 500 tickets were released for the clash against Yorkshire rivals Sheffield at the end of this month, selling out within 24 hours with further tickets due to be released in the coming days also expected to be snapped up.

Sam Zajac and Leeds Chiefs will face-off against Sheffield Steeldogs in the first-ever game at the Elland Road rink on January 31. Picture courtesy of Chris Stratford.

News of the ticket sales has provided a much-needed boost for Zajac and his players, who are on a five-game losing streak, with their last two losses proving their lowest point of their campaign - an 11-1 defeat at Bracknell Bees last Sunday being followed 48 hours later by a 9-2 loss at Steeldogs.

Zajac, whose short-benched team have a chance to exact swift revenge when they host Bracknell at Blackburn today (5.30pm), said the fact the finishing line was in sight for the opening of the new rink was keeping his players going through some tough times.

“I wasn’t surprised that the tickets sold out as quickly as they did,” said Zajac, who goes into the weekend without teenage forward Ethan Hehir who is away on international duty with Great Britain Under-20s.

“There has been a really strong interest and a good response since it was first announced a team was coming to Leeds.

“It is such a big city and it has got such a rich sporting culture and heritage, for me it wasn’t that much of a surprise that they sold as quickly as they did.

“Having that finish line in site is very timely. With all the travelling we’ve had to do, it has worn the guys down, so it’s huge for us and keeps everyone on the right track and means we’re all working towards the same goal here.

“We just want to get in that building and be as competitive as we possibly can.”

As well as being denied the services of 18-year-old Hehir, Zajac will have to make a game-day decision on defenceman Steve Duncombe, who has been ruled out with a lower body injury for the last two weeks.

Temporary signings Richie Haggar and Dylan Hehir, who played in the defeat to Sheffield on Tuesday, are unavailable due to being required by their respective parent clubs Hull Jets and BIllingham Stars.