After securing a league and playoff double the previous year, the Leeds Knights came into only their third season of existence as the team to beat. As the youngest team in the league, they stepped up to the challenge and have defied the odds of back-to-back titles with another incredibly successful year in the NIHL National.

The departures of fundamental players Cole Shudra - who joined Elite League champions, Sheffield Steelers - and Archie Hazeldine, as well as defensive imports Zach Brooks and Grant Cooper, turned attention to head coach Ryan Aldridge - who would he sign as the Knights sought to defend their titles?

Canadian imports Noah McMullin and Matt Barron were recruited in the summer and have undoubtedly impressed during their first season in the second-tier of UK hockey. The pair have been described as ‘team-first’ players, having just as much impact off the ice as they have had on. In 60 league, cup and playoff games, Barron has scored 35 times whilst recording 41 assists with McMullin scoring on seven occasions, with 26 assists in 54 games.

Aldridge added Louis Colvin and Bow Neely to the defensive outfit as Jordan Griffin, Lewis Baldwin, Dylan Hehir and Bailey Perre all returned to The Castle. The Knights have comfortably conceded the least number of goals this season - 132 - with Sam Gospel and Harrison Walker also at the helm of this; five shutouts have been secured with Gospel finishing the season with the most wins (41), the lowest goals against average (2.24) and the joint highest save percentage (92.3%).

Ice time has been limited for Walker with Gospel his competition, but when called upon towards the end of the season to play a three-game weekend in between the pipes, the 21-year-old provided with back-to-back wins, conceding only seven goals.

Bolstering the offensive ranks, James Archer and Gregor Mills put pen to paper, before Jordan Buesa made the move to LS11 in October. Buesa had iced in 288 Elite League games before joining the Knights, bringing with him a wealth of experience that has not gone unnoticed this season as he recorded 25 goals and 27 assists before playoff fixtures began.

Aldridge resigned Matt Haywood and Mac Howlett after their stellar debut seasons in the National League. Elite League veteran Haywood finished with the most assists in the league whilst Howlett recorded 27 goals and 44 assists in just 37 games. They’ve captivated fans again this season with 89 points and 73 points, respectively.

Ethan Hehir returned for his third season as a Knight with young forwards Oli Endicott and Finn Bradon also resigning. Bradon, who turned 18 only in November, saw a dramatic increase in ice-time towards the back end of the season as he earned his spot on the first line alongside captain Kieran Brown and Matt Barron.

With the squad then ready to go, the 22/23 league champions took to the ice and won their first four league games, beating the Bristol Pitbulls twice before victories against the Peterborough Phantoms and Bees IHC. The first of only seven regulation losses throughout the whole league season came against MK Lightning who would become title challengers throughout the campaign, but Leeds bounced back in the reverse fixture the following day with a 9-1 victory over them on home ice.

A Yorkshire derby win at The Castle against the Sheffield Steeldogs on October 15th began a nine-game unbeaten streak that saw 44 goals scored and only 19 conceded by the Knights, but it was an away trip to Milton Keynes that once again put a halt to winning ways with the Lightning seemingly unstoppable on home ice. Aldridge was keen to use The Castle to his advantage the following day when Leeds played host to MK with his side coming out on top.

The Knights proved that their results didn’t just rely upon home ice advantage though when they travelled to Hull just two days before Christmas and recorded a 5-0 win over the Seahawks. The rivalry between the two teams would only grow as the season continued with four wins apiece during eight competitive meetings between the sides prior to playoffs.

With wins over Solway Sharks, Telford Tigers and a double over the Sheffield Steeldogs over the festive period, the Knights entered 2024 as league leaders and with a new addition to the roster; the promising young talent of Innes Gallacher joined from Kilmarnock Thunder where he had been scoring goals for fun in the SNL.
Mac Howlett scored the first hat-trick of the calendar year inside 23 minutes as the Knights went on to secure a four-point weekend over then third-placed Peterborough Phantoms.

A tough penalty shootout defeat on the road against Solway Sharks tested the character of the young champions as they were to play again just two days later, but the return of Jake Witkowski to The Castle brought some much-needed energy to the dressing room and the Knights secured the two points.
Last season, the 27-year-old played in 23 league games, scoring 16 goals and assisting 30 times, but the magic that is Jake Witkowski really came to light when it came to playoff hockey: three goals and 10 assists in four playoff games helped the Knights lift their second trophy of the season. The prospect of him doing so again upon his return, brought excitement to Leeds fans and he didn’t disappoint with an assist on his second home debut.

The attacking prowess and stoic defence of the Knights continued to shine until two difficult National Cup semi-finals against the Hull Seahawks that saw Matty Davies’ side defeat them twice. It was the first time in the season that the Knights had suffered back-to-back defeats, but they wasted no time dwelling on the result as they returned to league action: two wins over the Raiders was the perfect bounce back cure.

A win over Telford on February 11th then ignited a sensational 11-game unbeaten streak for the Knights as they closed in on defending their league title for a second successive season: this period saw Aldridge’s side secure three wins over the Seahawks, achieve back-to-back wins over the Wildcats, and saw captain Kieran Brown become the fastest player in the league to reach 50-goals.

The 16-goal thriller between Leeds and Swindon on March 3rd saw Brown reach 100-points with 54 goals scored and 46 assists - a tally he would only continue to add to as the final few games of the season were played. It has been another stand-out season for the young captain who was named Yorkshire Sports Performer 2023 with the numbers speaking for themselves: most points (122), most goals (61), most powerplay points (34), most shorthanded goals (7), most shorthanded points (8) and most game-winning goals (11).

One more win was needed to lift the trophy when the Knights travelled to Milton Keynes on March 16th, but the battle between first and second saw the hosts take the two points. They didn’t have to wait long to get their hands on the silverware though with a 6-3 win over the Bees the following day crowning them champions of the NIHL National Division for a second successive season.

The Knights saw out the final four games of the season finishing as the league’s second highest scorers with attention then turning to their defence of a second trophy in the playoffs. In Group A, Aldridge’s side faced Hull Seahawks, Peterborough Phantoms and Bees IHC as they battled to book their place in Coventry.

After a 3-week Playoff round robin format, it was the Knights who came out on top, leaving Group A and heading to the Final Four in Coventry! First up in Coventry came the Wildcats, in Saturday's Semi-Final, winner takes all showdown! A 4-goal flurry early in the first period was a mountain too tall to climb for the Wildcats and despite clawing two back before the end of the first period, a steady forward push by Leeds saw the game end 7-3 and a spot in the Final was confirmed!

On Sunday, we met the Peterborough Phantoms once again in the Playoffs, having faced them twice in the Group Stage, where they beat us in a penalty shootout on their home ice, with us beating them on the following night at The Castle. One of these results was a foreshadowing of what was to come in the Playoff Final... and after 65 minutes of some of the most intense hockey of the season, it was Luke Ferrara firing home the winning penalty shot to send the Playoff Trophy into the hands of the Phantoms. This meant that the three trophies in our league each found themselves a unique home, perfectly exemplifying the competitve nature of a spectacular 23/24 season!

The 23/24 season has been another memorable year in Leeds made so not only by silverware, but by the community of fans being established as the sport and the team continue to grow in the city. Here’s to another season of success at The Castle.

Words by Emily Laycock