Video – Opportunity knocks as Leeds Chiefs strive to make their mark in debut season

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WHEN the advert first went out back in April, Sam Zajac just knew he had to give it a shot.

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Having spent 10 or so years playing for teams in the top two tiers of the British game, the 30-year-old defenceman sensed that the opportunity to be coach of a brand new ice hockey franchise in a major city such as Leeds would not come around again.

A month or so later, Zajac knew he had impressed team owners Planet Ice enough to be given the responsibility of putting together the city’s first-ever semi-professional ice hockey roster.

It meant a summer of major challenges for Zajac, but one he has taken on gladly and, tomorrow, when he leads his team out for the very first time to face-off against Sheffield Steeldogs in the new NIHL National division, it will prove a special moment.

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Sam Zajac, with import forward Radek Meidl, right.

Sam Zajac, with import forward Radek Meidl, right.

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Not just for Zajac, but every player and staff member who has been involved in the process throughout a hectic summer.

As you would expect when launching an ambitious club in a market not previously associated with the sport, there have been plenty of hurdles along the way.

The biggest of those is that for the first 10 games of their debut season, the Chiefs will have to play on the road while work is completed on their new, purpose-built rink on Elland Road.

I really believe there is unlimited potential in Leeds. It is all about us putting the correct roots down, getting the right culture in place for the players and fans. I really believe the sky is the limit for us.

Leeds Chiefs’ player-coach, Sam Zajac

It had initially been hoped the venue would be ready some time in August but, unforeseen delays with the construction, mean the Chiefs won’t be able to take to the ice in front of their own fans for the first time until Sunday, November 3, when Yorkshire rivals the Steeldogs will again provide the opposition.

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Such a delay has meant there have been no pre-season exhibition games for the Chiefs – something all of their division rivals have had the luxury of over the past two weekends.

Sam Zajac runs through some drills with his Leeds Chiefs' players at their practice session in Bradford earlier this week.

Sam Zajac runs through some drills with his Leeds Chiefs' players at their practice session in Bradford earlier this week.

It also means pre-season training has been affected, with only a handful of on-ice sessions being possible for Zajac and his players, who have had to travel to both Bradford Ice Arena and Blackburn to work on getting their systems and line combinations in place ahead of what is the curtain-raising fixture for the whole NIHL National division.

But, despite such difficulties, Zajac is optimistic about his team’s chances in their inaugural campaign, as well as the long-term potential for the sport in Leeds.

“It’s a very exciting time,” said Zajac. “A lot of preparation has gone into it, a lot of hard work behind the scenes and all the players are raring to go now.

“To get them all together in the same room earlier this week was great to see and I feel that all the hard work done during the summer is starting to pay off now.

“It’s been stressful at times, I won’t lie, but it’s also very exciting at the same time because it’s a new venture. It’s been a fantastic chance to try and create something from scratch in your own image.

“At times, when you’re looking at sorting your roster and you’re speaking to 10 or more different guys to fill, say, just the one particular spot, it is pretty daunting but we’re really happy with the way it has turned out.

Sheffield Steeldogs and Hull Pirates 'will provide derby opposition for Leeds Chiefs during 2019-20. 'Picture: Cerys Molloy

Sheffield Steeldogs and Hull Pirates 'will provide derby opposition for Leeds Chiefs during 2019-20. 'Picture: Cerys Molloy

“We’ve got a really good group of guys – good character guys. We’ve got a good blend of everything, both in terms of our offence and in defence.”

Zajac himself will continue to be out on the ice, continuing a career which has seen him play more than 200 Elite League games for Newcastle and, mostly, Braehead Clan.

He has spent just as much time in the sport’s second tier, plying his trade at the likes of Basingstoke, Telford and, most recently, hometown club Whitley Bay.

But it is the opportunity to add coaching to his CV that was a driving factor in his determination to be the team’s first coach, being in at ground level on a project he sees as having unlimited potential.

“I know there are going to be a lot of challenges both on and off the ice,” he added. “With the group of players we’ve got, we will definitely learn as we go. We’ve got some very experienced players who will help the younger guys along to try and set that winning culture early on.

“I really believe there is unlimited potential in Leeds. It’s a huge city, it’s a growing city and so much is happening here already.

“It is already a sports-mad town and I think that with the venue that we’re having built, hockey is destined for great things in Leeds.

“It is all about us putting the correct roots down, getting the right culture in place for the players and fans, making sure we’re putting an entertaining product on the ice, making sure we’re engaging with the fans and that we’re making them feel part of it.

“I really believe the sky is the limit for us.”

And when he finally hits the Ice Sheffield ice tomorrow afternoon and faces off for the first time with the team he has put together, Zajac admits it will be a moment to savour, both on a personal level and for the team – making history,

“It is going to be special, there’s no doubt about it,” he acknowledged.

“It’s going to be special on a personal level, it’s going to be special for the fans that we’re hopefully going to see there.

“And I really think it’s going to be special for hockey in this country as a whole.

“Having ice hockey in a big city such as Leeds is something the sport has been crying out for.”