Sheffield Steeldogs keen to make early statement against unknown quantity Leeds Chiefs

Sheffield Steeldogs player-coach Ben Morgan.''Picture: Peter Best.
Sheffield Steeldogs player-coach Ben Morgan.''Picture: Peter Best.
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SHEFFIELD STEELDOGS’ player-coach Ben Morgan admits facing Leeds Chiefs in the NIHL National curtain-raiser will be like taking a step into the unknown for his team.

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The Chiefs were put together in the summer by player-coach Sam Zajac and will play out of a brand new rink on Elland Road.

Work isn’t expected to be completed until late October with the Steeldogs scheduled to provide the opposition for the Chiefs’ first home game on Sunday, November 3.

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Leeds Chiefs' player-coach, Sam Zajac.

Leeds Chiefs' player-coach, Sam Zajac.

But the two teams get an early chance to size each other up at Ice Sheffield on Sunday (4.30pm) as they go head-to-head in the season-opening fixture for the new NIHL National division, with all other clubs not in action until next weekend.

And Morgan admits that while he is fully aware of the individual qualities of the players assembled by opposite number Zajac, he is in the dark as to what to expect once the first puck drops.

“I couldn’t tell you how they are going to play,” said Morgan. “It is literally stepping into the unknown and, for us, that is probably a good thing because we can just focus on ourselves.

“We can just use this first game to kind of say ‘this is our identity and this is how we want to play’ and see how we match up against what is essentially a dark horse in a new league.

We can just use this first game to kind of say ‘this is our identity and this is how we want to play’ and see how we match up against what is essentially a dark horse in a new league.

Sheffield Steeldogs’ player-coach Ben Morgan

“I think Sammy has had a really, really tough job in putting together a team. He’s not had a junior system on which to turn to and it is no surprise to me that the squad he has put together is an experienced one.”

Morgan has made a handful of changes to his roster during the summer, most notably adding experienced Czech Republic forwards Jan Danecek and Vladimir Luka, while the new pathway agreement struck up with neighbouring Sheffield Steelers gives him added depth in the shape of youngsters Jordan Griffin and Alex Graham, with Kieran Brown and Cole Shudra also likely to be called upon at some point.

“It will be good if we can keep the roster as familiar as possible throughout the season,” said Morgan, who this season will have assistance on the bench from former player-coach Greg Wood.

“We know that the Steelers players are their players first and foremost and for us it’s kind of a luxury as to when we can get them, but we are certainly here to offer them a pathway to development and genuine ice time.

“We’ve made significant changes but they are changes that we feel have strengthened the squad overall.”

Two pre-season wins against NIHL National rivals Milton Keynes Lightning are an encouraging sign for Morgan, who liked what he saw from his team, including the new imports.

“There were a few raised eyebrows from some people with the ages of both those guys,” he added. “But, if anything, they’ve brought an added bit of professionalism to the club.

“They have both played in good leagues and you could tell straight away that they are professional in everything that they do and they have slotted in really well.”

With Sunday’s clash against the Chiefs being the first-ever game in the newly-formed second tier, Morgan is confident both teams can produce a game worthy of the occasion.

“It’s a unique situation for us all really,” said Morgan. “It will effectively be a curtain-raiser for the new league and for us to be able to open the new league in a new season and have all eyes looking at us on the night will be great for both clubs.

“I think it is fantastic that we’ve got Leeds as a brand new team and they are obviously going to be on our doorstep, they are going to be our closest rivals in terms of proximity - whether it overtakes the rivalry we’ve managed to build up over the years with Hull only time will tell.”