Leeds chief excited by National service

Sam Zajac is exciting for the new season as player-coach of new NIHL National side Leeds Chiefs (PHOTO: Whitley Warriors)

Sam Zajac says it’s about time Leeds had their own ice hockey team as he continues his preparations for their inaugural NIHL National campaign.

The Leeds Chiefs player-coach is gearing up for his first season in charge after being given the job after leaving Whitley Warriors, where he’s been for the last year and a half as well as a brief cameo spell at Manchester Storm.

But he’s counting the days until he can take charge of his team in their new rink, situated at Elland Road, near the football stadium of Leeds United.

“I’ve met a lot of the fans and while I’m not really on social media, I’m getting a good feel of how excited the fans are getting as the new season approaches,” he said.

“There’s a great hockey following in Yorkshire, with Hull and Sheffield having teams so the people of Leeds are positive.  Having a team here has been overdue for a big city like Leeds.”

Zajac looked ahead to the fixtures coming up and while no pre-season games have been arranged at the time of writing, attention is focussed on a first day trip to Sheffield to take on Steeldogs.

And the Chiefs boss reckons his team can mix it up with their Yorkshire rivals, Steeldogs and Hull Pirates, saying their opening game against Ben Morgan’s side is the best one they could have had.

Leeds are looking forward to mixing it up with Sheffield Steeldogs and Hull Pirates (PHOTO: Yorkshire Post)

He added: “The first game was the best one we could have possibly got.  Geographically, they’re going to be our biggest rivals and Steeldogs are putting together a strong roster.  

“I’ve spoken to ‘Morgs’ quite often through the summer and we respect the team they have and I think they respect what we’re trying to do as well.

“There’s definitely going to be a healthy level of respect, but I think there’s going to be a healthy rivalry as well.  It’s promising to be a great season and it’s important for to go in there and make our mark on what will be a very competitive league.

“We can definitely mix it up with the Pirates and Steeldogs, who have had a good rivalry in the last couple of seasons.  But we see Sheffield as the main rival.”

Zajac also reflected on how his first ever recruitment drive has gone as his team comes together, admitting it’s had its challenges.

He says enticing players to come to a brand new team was much easier than expected, but he started by explaining how, at 30 years of age, he felt the time was right to step into coaching.

“I was interested in playing at a higher level again and when the opportunity came up, I thought it would be something that suited me,” Zajac said.

“Coaching is a side of the game I’ve been really interested in so it was a case of the right place at the right time.

Planet Ice Leeds is expected to open its doors in October, with Chiefs playing at home from November (PHOTO: Planet Ice)

“The recruitment process has had its ups and downs and as a first time coach, I’ve certainly learned a lot from it.  

“Predominantly, it’s been good and with most of the guys being British in this league, they’re guys I’m familiar with or know so it ca be awkward when it comes to money and people’s livelihood.

“You’re given a budget at the start of the season and you have to stick to that.  Sure, it would be great to sign all the top players, but you have to make the numbers add up.  In that respect, it’s been a challenge.

“Some of the numbers you hear are eye-watering, but we’re more than pleased with the team we’ve put together here.

“Actually persuading players to come a brand new team has been much easier than I think a lot of people will have expected.  

“They want to be part of something from day one and speaking to a former team-mate, Matt Haywood about when he first joined Braehead Clan, he said there was a level of uncertainty at the time, but there was excitement and optimism that you can make your mark at a new club.

“Some guys maybe aren’t too keen and would rather go to somewhere more established, but in my experience so far, the majority of people I’ve spoken to saw it as a positive.  The rink in Leeds is going to be a draw too when it’s ready for our first game in November and we can’t wait for that.”

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