Why Leeds Knights know netminder Sam Gospel is ready to stand tall for them in NIHL National
IT hasn’t taken head coach Dave Whistle long to work out just how valuable netminder Sam Gospel will be to the Leeds Knights this season.
Four pre-season games in and it is clear the 27-year-old goalie has picked up where he left off from the truncated 2019-20 NIHL National campaign, one which saw him regularly - to coin a hockey phrase - stand on his head to keep Leeds Chiefs in games.
It may be a new name, a new owner, a new head coach, there are even new-look changing rooms. But, thankfully, as far as everyone connected with the Knights’ organisation is concerned, it is the same old Gospel.
Speak to any of his current team-mates and they will all say how important he is going to be to their chances of success this time around.
Sam Zajac, for example, has long known about Gospel’s qualities, having signed him up for the 2019-20 NIHl National season when player-coach of Leeds Chiefs. The 32-year-old defenceman finds it hard to believe that he has not been signed as a starting goalie at a higher level.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gossy have a bad game,” said Zajac. “It’s phenomenal and it surprises me that nobody has taken a chance on him at a higher level. I know it is quite rare to see British goalies in the Elite League and it’s tough to get a gig abroad.
“But if any British goalie is ready to do it and if anyone’s going to take a chance on any British goalie then Gossy is the guy because he shows week-in, week-out what he can do. He’s calm and composed and, although he’s not the biggest guy, he covers so much of the net and he’s so agile, so athletic.
“I said it all through that season with the Chiefs - he was our most important player and he was the most important re-signing for the Knights, too - he’s a player you can build a team around because he guarantees that you’re in with a chance every single game.”
And although pre-season has clearly shown that the Knights will be about more than just one man on their roster – their potent attacking threat has been obvious in all four games – there will be times when Gospel, now no longer part of hometown team the Nottingham Panthers, will be called upon to steal games for his side.
While Whistle and his players will be reassured by Gospel’s presence as the last line of defence, the Knights’ coach has voiced his frustration in recent days that the team in front of him have allowed too many shots on him.
During the opening weekend double-header against Swindon Wildcats, the Knights actually outshot their opponents both times, Gospel letting in five goals on a total of 59 shots on his net across the two nights.
Last Friday, however, it was a case of role reversal as Gospel was called upon time and time again, eventually making 48 saves from the 50 shots on his goal and guiding his team to a 3-2 win over Sheffield Steelddogs.
The following night, he was at it again, returning to former club Telford Tigers and going head-to-head with Brad Day.
Turning away 36 of 38 shots, Gospel again came up big as the visitors returned from Shropshire on the back of another 3-2 win.
“He’s really our man of the match every night so far that I’ve been here,” said Whistle after Friday’s win over Sheffield.
“He just comes and he does his job and he plays excellent every night, every practice - it’s just awesome to have him here.”
As for Gospel himself, he has returned to West Yorkshire with a sense of unfinished business, given the off-ice issues that plagued the Chiefs during their one and only season.
At 27, he still has his best years ahead of him as a goaltender but, given the average of the Knights’ roster put together by Whistle and owner Steve Nell is 23.47, he has welcomed the extra responsibility that comes with the status of being one of the ‘older’ members of the side.
“We are a young team overall, and I must admit it does feel kind of weird that I’m one of the older guys in there,” said Gospel.
“It is unusual to be one of the more experienced heads in the room.
“I suppose it’s been quite a quick turnaround from always being one of the youngest guys in the room.
“But given we have such a young team, I guess it doesn’t take much to be one of the older guys in that locker room!
“It’s a responsibility that I’m enjoying, though.
“It’s nice to see younger guys coming through and for me to be able to maybe give them the guidance that I got when I was their age.”