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Page last updated at 19:01 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 20:01 UK

Giant success story

By John Haughey
BBC Northern Ireland

Steve Thornton watches his Giants in action last weekend
Player-coach Thornton is currently out of action because of injury

The naysayers informed us that ice hockey would never last in these parts but the Belfast Giants will start their 10th season at the Odyssey Arena in Saturday's Elite League game against the Sheffield Steelers.

Over the last decade, the Giants have been packing out the Belfast arena on a regular basis as the resident tenant.

Giants players and staff have heard all the jibes from ill-informed quarters about ice hockey being razzamatazz and "not being a real sport" and simply got on with their business.

When the media coverage has been lacking, they haven't moaned but summoned up some some good old North American optimism to try and make the right connections with the local scribes and broadcasters.

Current Giants coach Steve Thornton can't be more accommodating as you arrange a chat ahead of the new campaign.

You ring him at 10.45am two days before the season-opener and by 1.30 you're sipping a latte with him at the Esporta Health Club at Holywood Exchange, just outside Belfast.

After a couple of high-profile fall-outs with officialdom during his first season in charge of the Giants, you're anticipating a touch of the brash North American but the initial meeting reveals a mild-mannered and thoughtful individual.

The Ontario native lined out for the Giants' play-off winning squad in the 2002/3 and after stints in Sweden, Italy and Switzerland was lured back to Belfast to take up the coaching role 16 months ago.

"My wife and I loved our time in those countries but we felt that Belfast had been the place where we had enjoyed our lives more," says Thornton.

The standard of accommodation that we provide and the general quality of life is a great motivator for players as well

Belfast Giants player-coach Steve Thornton

"The transition to the UK from North America is also a lot easier here than say a small town in Northern Italy."

Thornton also insists that Belfast has emerged as one of the "best cities to play hockey in Europe" over the last decade.

"That's the thing that keeps players here and allows us to recruit players. The hockey world is a small world and word of mouth gets about.

"The standard of accommodation that we provide and the general quality of life is a great motivator for players as well."

Thornton's squad has also been helped over the past year by the development of a partnership with the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, which has allowed several Giants players to undertake one-year MBA programmes.

"You can attract a better player as a result of guys coming over and being able to finish their schooling.

"Our general manager Todd Kelman and I put it together with the university last season and we had three guys, Shane Johnson, Andrew Martins and Paul Deniset doing the MBAs in the first year of the scheme.

"The university have been unbelievable what they have done for us and we have four guys doing the MBAs again this year."

An early criticism directed at the Giants was that they were nothing more than a bunch of North Americans living in a parallel sporting universe in Belfast with few contacts in the local community.

Pierre-Luc Faubert
Belfast Giants summer signing Pierre-Luc Faubert

But recent years has seen the emergence of native players such as Mark Morrison and Graeme Walton while 18-year-old Belfast lad Robbie Brown is a new addition to the squad this season.

"He's come up through the ranks (with the junior giants) and he's had a full pre-season training schedule with us," says Thornton of Brown.

"We're going to teach him to become a pro, change his body shape and make him a great addition to the squad.

"If there are injuries this year, he might get chances to jump into the line this season.

"My assistant Rob Stewart runs our junior programme and I get updates from him and I have my eye on a couple of young guys.

"Mark 'Mo' Morrison also looked better in this pre-season than he looked all last year and the way the rules for the roster have changed for this season with more flexibility in terms of who I can pick, might mean a lot more ice time for him."

The Giants squad are also involved in coaching local youngsters as young as seven years of age at local rinks.

"Every Wednesday night during the season, we send two Giants to take the junior giants training sessions so the kids have met all the players.

"Stephen Ewing also runs the Junior Giants and in the next three or four years, you are going to get a lot of people wearing the Giants jersey out on the ice."

The Giants averaged close to the 4,000 mark for home attendances last season - which was 20 per cent up on the previous campaign as other Elite League teams largely struggled to match their previous attendance stats.

Sean McMorrow is not afraid to drop the gloves and the fans have been craving that kind of player since Paxton Schulte left

Steve Thornton

"With European teams that have depended on sponsorship, there have been a lot of bankruptcies but in Britain and especially in Belfast, the really important thing is getting bums on seats.

"We've been really fortunate in the past that we've had a great fan base and we can really count on fans turning up - especially if we have a winning team."

The loss of sponsors Coors after last season has been off-set by the support received from marketing company LBM and several other backers remain on board.

"Todd Kelman does an unbelievable job with our sponsorship and the whole organisation," adds Thornton.

"He's working 70 or 80 hour weeks and I think we're doing a great job to be where we are at."

The Giants endured a mixed opening weekend to the campaign last season with an initial 4-1 defeat in Nottingham followed by a 3-2 victory over Hull.

However, Thornton has high hopes for the campaign and picks out Irish-Canadian Sean McMorrow as the man who could finally fill the large boots left vacant by the combative Paxton Schulte five years ago.

"Sean's not afraid to drop the gloves and the fans have been craving that kind of player since Paxton left.

"Last season, I went for a team that was based on speed and skill and with a little bit of toughness but a lot of teams felt the way to beat us was to bully us.

Sean McMorrow
Thornton has high hopes for new Giants hard man Sean McMorrow

"At times that crossed the line and while it might have been entertaining for the fans, it almost felt unsafe on the ice at times.

"This season is going to be different because of Sean McMorrow. Everybody is going to have a little more space and he's going to be an injury-preventer."

The Giants had long unbeaten runs last season but were ultimately undone by an injury crisis which saw key players ruled out for sustained periods.

Thornton believes that the departure of last season's star forwards Bobby Robins, Deniset and Martins can be off-set by the arrival of McMorrow, Tom Walsh, Michael Jacobsen, Brandon Benedict, Pierre-Luc Faubert and highly-rated ex-Manchester goalie Stephen Murphy.

Influential quartet Colin Shields, Evan Cheverie, Shane Johnson and inspirational skipper George Awada are back for another year so Thornton is confident that he has the squad to challenge for honours.

The player-coach himself is currently out of action after recent hand surgery but he hopes to be available again for action - if required - within the next six weeks.

"We had a successful season last year with the two Cup trophies and the expectations are really high with both the fans and owners," acknowledges Thornton.

"It's a big year for us. We thought we had a team to win the league last season but we ran into injury problems.

"This season we're making no secret of the fact that we want to win every game and every trophy that we're involved in.

"You're going to have slip-ups along the way but if you get the goaltending right and you stay healthy, you've got a shot."

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see also
Winless Steelers face Giants test
10 Sep 09 |  Ice Hockey
Giants regroup to beat Stingrays
06 Sep 09 |  Ice Hockey
Coventry beat Steelers in opener
06 Sep 09 |  Ice Hockey
Giants sign up Cook and Benedict
19 Jun 09 |  Ice Hockey
Deniset and Robins off to Denmark
27 May 09 |  Ice Hockey
Johnson and Craze sign for Giants
21 May 09 |  Ice Hockey
Giants sign enforcer McMorrow
01 May 09 |  Ice Hockey

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